Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On not respecting the past

On the occasion of the Jewish holidays, brooding over whether I would fast on Yom Kippur (I have for most of my adult life but not longer see any reason for doing so, other than dislike of abandoning any discipline voluntarily undertaken), it occurred to me that a passage from a novel, or rather a didactic fiction, has been recurring in my mind on such occasions for more than fifteen years.

It's from Herland, the early 20th century feminist Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Utopia of an isolated all-female society that breeds by parthenogenesis.  The women and girls of Herland are uniformly wise, free, maternal, devoted to education and the common welfare.

In extended dialogue with the narrator, one of three male explorers who stumble upon the women, one of the wisewomen is apprised of the doctrine of predetermination -- that some infants are preordained at birth by an omnibenevolent God to burn for eternity. When the concept sinks in, the woman "fell into a sudden shuddering and left me, running into the nearest temple," where she finds comfort, composes herself and returns to her cultural exchange with the narrator.

The narrator, recognizing that these women are "peaceful and sweet in expression" because "they had no horrible ideas," says, "surely you had some when you began" (two thousand years prior). Thence the passage that often comes to mind:
"Oh yes, no doubt. But as soon as our religion grew to any height at all we left them out -- of course."

Have you no respect for the past? For what was thought and believed by your foremothers?"

"Why no," she said. "Why should we? They are all gone. They knew less than we do. If we are not beyond them, we are unworthy of them -- and unworthy of the children who must go beyond us" (p. 124 in Google text linked to above).
I think that is a liberatingly simple truth. We should not invest authority in any "scripture" beyond what current consensus tells us is right or useful in it. That goes for our Constitution too -- the great weakness of which is its difficulty of amendment. Not only do the conditions of our lives change constantly -- but humanity, for all its grotesque lapses, makes continual moral progress in response to those changing conditions.  Gay rights is an advance. Feminism is an advance. Equal rights for all ethnicities is an advance. Childcare leave is an advance. Universal healthcare is an advance.  A tax on carbon is an advance.  The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions, perhaps even the U.N. Millennium Development Goals are more directly relevant moral guides to the conduct of human life than any one-, two- or three-thousand year-old scripture.

I admit that there is a devil in this concept, and it lies in the details of "consensus." I do see a countervailing need for a pragmatic conservatism, the second self-evident truth of the Declaration of Independence: "Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed."  

Law, with its authority vested in precedent, provides an all-important brake on what would otherwise be a too-volatile and swift-changing consensus, a potential tyranny of the majority.  In this regard I think that the British Constitution, unwritten, built on a millennium's common law, is superior to our own -- which, more rigid, demands more creative interpretation.

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