(Since the original articles came out and I began writing my response to them, I have read much more about things that Deen said/did in recent times that crossed the line of acceptable behavior. She cannot use the excuse that it was “ok when I did it.” It extended into current times and to actions that are far beyond the use of language we now consider unacceptable. While she is now a less than perfect example for illustrating the point, the point that we need to use caution when judging historical behavior based on today’s standards stands.)
The recent scandal involving Paula Deen and her use of racist language has been challenging for me. The reports that she had used the “N” word came as a major “duh!” for me. She is a generation ahead of me from the south - of course she used the “N” word in her lifetime. It was a regular part of southern culture through the eighties (at least). It did not stop with the Civil Rights Act in the sixties: racist language did not cease because the laws changed. Unfortunately, it was a normal part of southern culture.
That it was a normal part of southern culture does not make racism ok; it simply recognizes that it was a real, regular part of life in that region at that time – and it was acceptable to the bulk of people living in that region at that time. We look back upon it with disdain, but history records its prevalence in that region at that time.
I do not excuse anything Deen said or did, but as a proponent of social justice, I believe we must be cautious about casting judgment, not just when someone is accused of racism, but of violating any contemporary social standard. I am a product of my generation and can guarantee that something I have said or done will be considered offensive by future generations. While I believe, somewhat, in psychic phenomenon, I do not profess to possess the ability to predict how society will change by the end of my lifetime or how things considered acceptable in my earlier life will be the object of scorn by the end of it. I do not expect past generations to possess any greater power. As a result, I feel an obligation to give due consideration to the generations that preceded me. Just as I do not want to be judged by the standards of future generations for living according to acceptable standards in my time, I must be cautious about judging previous generations for living according to the standard of their time by the standards of today.
The dynamic nature of society comes from our ever increasing understanding based on new knowledge. I have a hard time condemning any past group of people for operating based on their knowledge at the time. I have a problem, though, if we do not learn from their mistakes based on the knowledge we have now. Failure to recognize how changes have taken place over time stem directly from a lack of historical perspective (just ask a social studies teacher!). We live so much in the now, it is easy to jump on the bandwagon of outrage anytime we become aware of something that does not match contemporary sensibilities. We rarely contextualize the situation and nuance is often lost without the experience of proximity to the event.
In the age of Twitter, CNN, TMZ, and other round-the-clock media, would even Jesus have appeared perfect? By contemporary standards his encounter with the Syrophoenician woman (Matthew 15:21-28 & Mark 7:24-30), for example, would have required a good PR specialist. Even though he did what she requested, the racist and misogynistic language he used in the passage would have been the headline despite it being used as an opportunity to educate. The whole story is never as memorable as the sound-bite. Even when the complete story, miracle and all, has been told, the sound-bite has stuck.
The current political climate has all sides responding in increasingly hostile ways to situations that historically would have merited little to no notice. The raw emotion created by the rapid change within society has put even people who should know better on edge and changed the norms under which most of our leadership learned to function. The rules and core beliefs of generations are being rejected. We know those rules and core beliefs were based on incorrect information, but that does not make the change any easier for the people involved. If anything, it makes it even harder for them to accept because the “facts” that shaped their world were not really facts. What then can they believe? When their entire mindset has to be altered, it is simply easier to reject the change outright.
We are all products of our generation. As much as we would like to believe we have worked it out and operate under enlightened rules, history tends to judge differently. As easy as it is to judge others for their shortcomings, let it be said about us that we extended some of the grace we hope to be shown when the foolishness of our ways is exposed.