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(DAY 224) Are we engaged in Presentism?

· 4 min read
Gaurav Parashar

In the fast-paced, ever-evolving world we live in, it's natural for us to focus on the present. After all, our day-to-day lives demand our attention, and the future beckons with its promise of progress. But have you ever stopped to consider how your view of the past, and the phenomenon known as presentism, might be affecting your understanding of history and its impact on the world today? This article takes its inspiration from one of Bill Maher's thought-provoking segments, New Rule: A Unified Theory of Wokeness. In this insightful piece, Maher eloquently addresses the issue of presentism that the United States is currently grappling with. Maher's commentary sheds light on the challenges posed by presentism in contemporary society, particularly in the context of discussions surrounding political correctness, cultural sensitivity, and historical perspectives. Building upon the ideas presented in Maher's segment, this blog delves deeper into the concept of presentism, examining its implications on our perception of history and its relevance to critical issues like racism, women's rights, and societal reforms.

What is Presentism?

Presentism is a cognitive bias that involves interpreting historical events and people through the lens of contemporary attitudes, values, and beliefs. In essence, it's the tendency to judge the past by today's standards. While it's only natural to view history from our own perspective, presentism can distort our understanding of the past and hinder our ability to appreciate the challenges and progress made by previous generations.

Scientific Studies on Presentism

Numerous scientific studies have explored the impact of presentism on our perception of history. These studies reveal intriguing insights into how our contemporary viewpoints can shape our understanding of the past:

  1. Temporal Lensing Effect: Research has shown that people tend to perceive historical events as more predictable than they actually were at the time. This hindsight bias can lead to oversimplifications of complex historical situations.

  2. Changing Morality Standards: Studies have demonstrated that our moral standards and values evolve over time. What may have been acceptable in the past may be considered morally reprehensible today, such as historical attitudes towards racism, sexism, and discrimination.

  3. Selective Attention: People often focus on specific events or figures from history while neglecting others. This selective attention can skew our understanding of the past and perpetuate historical myths and misconceptions.

Presentism and Its Impact on Our Perception of Past Generations

Now, let's explore how presentism affects our perception of past generations, particularly in relation to critical issues like racism, women's rights, and societal reforms:

  1. Racism: When we view historical figures through a presentist lens, we may oversimplify their actions and motivations. It's essential to recognize that societal norms regarding race and ethnicity have evolved significantly over time. While some historical figures may have held racist views, it's crucial to consider the broader context of their era and the progress made by subsequent generations in combating racism.

  2. Women's Rights: The struggle for women's rights has evolved over centuries. Presentism can lead us to underestimate the challenges faced by early advocates for women's suffrage and gender equality. By understanding the historical context, we can appreciate the courage and determination of those who fought for women's rights.

  3. Societal Reforms: Presentism can also cloud our perception of societal reforms, such as civil rights movements and labor rights struggles. It's important to acknowledge the incremental progress made by previous generations, even if their methods or beliefs differ from our own.

While it's natural to view history through the lens of our own time, presentism can limit our understanding of the past and hinder our appreciation of the progress made by previous generations.

By being aware of this cognitive bias and engaging in historical context, we can develop a more nuanced and empathetic perspective on history. This, in turn, can lead to greater insight into contemporary challenges and a deeper appreciation for the resilience and progress of humanity over time.