history observations pragmatic historian

Let’s Not Wait for History to Make Judgements

Throughout the four years of the Trump regime, as report after report came out about corrupt, unethical, possibly illegal, democratic-norm-breaking behavior, joined by an incessant number of lies, conspiracy theories, threats, and nasty comments, there has been a common refrain on Twitter.

“History will not judge these individuals well.”

As though merely pointing out how future people will look back on this time, shake their finger, and say, “Tsk, tsk,” and individuals currently engaging in awful behavior will stop because they don’t want to be “tsk, tsked” or have a finger shaken at them.

Law professor David Friedman (@profdaf) summed up the general effect of using history as a threat with the following tweet:

"If history tells us anything, the “History will not treat you kindly” concern has failed to regulate a lot of behavior." Tweet by David Friedman (@profdaf), November 22, 2020, https://twitter.com/profdaf/status/1330421740443373568.
“If history tells us anything, the “History will not treat you kindly” concern has failed to regulate a lot of behavior.” Tweet by David Friedman (@profdaf), November 22, 2020, https://twitter.com/profdaf/status/1330421740443373568.


For one thing, those who are inclined to anti-social behaviors tend to be so concerned about getting their way and profiting in the here-and-now that they don’t consider long-term consequences, particularly fuzzy consequences, like how they will be judged from a historical perspective. (See The Dark Core of Personality from Scientific American about a number of personality traits that fall within the “D-factor,” or dark core traits. The article doesn’t look at whether those who score high on D-factor traits consider long-term consequences, though I think this would be an interesting follow-up to the research.)

For another, there will always be someone who thinks the most abhorrent behavior of our forebears is worth exalting. I’m currently doing research to discover who had enslaved a particular person. A possible candidate for the enslaver is a person who fought in the Indian wars and became an early settler on land that was likely claimed by the United States as part of these wars. Plus, he enslaved dozens of people. This guy’s history is readily available and his military service is honored, while the stories of the people he enslaved are incredibly difficult to suss out of the historical record.

Besides, history isn’t actually the judge in these or any other past situations. History is the impartial record of all that has happened. The real judge of past and present human behavior is other human beings. By saying that history will judge a past person’s actions, we’re abdicating our responsibility to make judgments and hold people accountable for egregious behavior right now.

One reason we want to wait and let “history” make the judgment is because sometimes we need hindsight and the long view of a person’s deeds in order to determine whether the sum total of what they’ve done over the course of a lifetime is worth our disdain. Maybe they were involved in dastardly activities at one point in life and later atoned for them.

Another reason we’re willing to hand our responsibility over to history is because there are often powerful forces in society that approve of or uphold a person’s inhumane, corrupt, cruel, or treacherous behavior. Look at all the people who are willing to believe Trump’s denial about the seriousness of the pandemic, some of whom are so caught up in the lie that they go to their deathbeds denying they have COVID-19. They are fiercely upholding Trump’s negligence in regards to the pandemic. When faced with a mass of opposition such as this, it might seem easier to let history make the judgment than get caught up in the fray.

Unfortunately, by the time we have the benefit of history’s take on the matter, most of the people involved in destructive activities are dead, no longer available to be held to account for unamended or unpunished misdeeds.

It behooves us to make the tough but necessary judgments to hold people appropriately accountable for their egregious behavior rather than foist this off on history.