Should We Judge the Past Differently?

Should We Judge the Past Differently?

Should we judge the past differently?

When Meryl Streep presented Emma Thompson with an award at the National Board of Review Awards for Emma Thompson’s role in Saving Mr. Banks, Streep proceeded to slam Walt Disney for his tendency to be very sexist and very racist (spoiler alert: he was, if you weren’t already aware of that). I thought that was an interesting thing to do when presenting a fellow actor with an award for her work portraying a character who worked closely with Walt Disney for many years, but whatever.

It brought up a broader point for me, though. Specifically, I feel that most people judge the past through a different lens. The more distant the past, the more different the lens.

This is reflected in the film industry in many, many ways. For example, in the film The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s character didn’t rape his slave women — even though the real character he was based on totally, totally did. The filmmakers chose to leave that out, and we chose to ignore that they left it out, because the IMPORTANT part of his legacy is that he fought for freedom against the British — at least according to the lens through which we view history.

Is this the right way or the wrong way to go about this?

If you’ve ever read Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and the subsequent books, there’s a religion in there called the “Speakers for the Dead.” These guys talk about people at their funerals, and they give you the straight dope. They don’t pretty up the person’s life, and they don’t needlessly slam them either. They tell you exactly what the person was like and exactly what they did, and they try to find some sort of deeper meaning in that.

Wouldn’t that be an interesting way to view history? Of course, we might be headed in that direction already.

It seems like we can look at more recent history more objectively, but sometimes not even then. For example, people tend to get offended when you talk about the fact that Gandhi had many, many of his students leave his teaching because of the ways he was sexually inappropriate toward women.

And people tend to get offended when you bring up the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. only had one documented exchange on the subject of homosexuality, and in that exchange he called it a “problem” that could be “solved” — something that would be political suicide today.

What’s the best way to go about this? What’s the “right” thing to do here, if there is one right way?

Should we represent the past as it actually was, or do we have license to modify it to make a broader point in the story we’re trying to tell? But if we do that, are we whitewashing history?

Is it right to take the novel Huckleberry Finn and replace every instance of the n-word with the word “slave” instead (which some people have done)? Are we whitewashing the book and sweeping transgressions under the rug, or are we making it more assimilable and removing a possible trigger word that could really upset people?

I know why the majority of Walt Disney’s misogyny and racism was taken out of Saving Mr. Banks. It’s a serious subject — far too serious for a lighthearted film about the creation of the Mary Poppins movie. It was a very deliberate, conscious decision by the filmmakers.

If you’re dealing with similarly sensitive subject matter, go into it with both eyes open. If you’re going to represent the past, do so faithfully, or be fully, fully aware of WHY you’re modifying it, and be willing to defend your decision to modify it that way. You’ll almost certainly get into a battle about it with someone, big or small, so have your arguments worked out ahead of time.

Garrett Robinson

Over 100,000 readers have read and loved Garrett's books, like the fantasy hits Nightblade and Midrealm. He's also a film festival favorite with movies like Unsaid, and a tech guru who posts lots of helpful how-tos for writers and filmmakers over at


My first question, in my view, is: do we actually believe in the concept of an absolute morality? 

I soundly reject it; for my part, I only judge people's actions against their stated beliefs.  I cannot see the logic in judging through the lens of history, or the lenses of culture or religion. 

What I can say, however, is that if someone claims a set of beliefs as their own and then violates them (publicly or privately), it destroys them in my mind as utter hypocrites.  Even still, it can sometimes be a question of interpretation.

What is "evil"?  Does "evil" exist?  What of good?  Are most people's actions in either domain, from an outside point of view, truly either?  The very concept of morality defies the absolute. 




I think your Mark Twain comparison sticks out a bit. His use of the N-word wasn't a transgression, even by modern standards. Twain was an abolitionist who was representing the treatment of Jim in a way that was supposed to make you feel uncomfortable with the way blacks were treated.

Also, I read this recently: (And I dreamed last night that the president held a contest for renaming the holiday, and one entry from each public school was put to an online vote, and we decided on Discovery Day, which launched a whole new movement towards space exploration. I watched a very sad Vsauce the other day that said a group of astrophysicists had determined that it was unlikely that humans would explore outside our solar system before we went extinct.)

I think you hit on something key. Which is: what's the important impact of a person's actions? But let's not lie to ourselves about that. Columbus's impact was not what he's credited for, the discovery of North America, but rather the expansion of slavery and the genocide of the Native Americans. Disney: I'm not sure. I mean, really, his impact was in making a mega-billion dollar business out of children's entertainment. I'm not sure that the profit motive should be teaching our children life lessons, but that's the communist in me. MLK, Jr.? Definitely an important civil rights impact. Something ABOUT MLK, should probably note his failings, but a cameo (like in 42), he represents what his greatest impact was, and that's fine.

Anyways. My several hundred cents.

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