Thomas Jefferson wrote these words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” The fact that he also owned hundreds of slaves and did not include women might look like a glaringly obvious hypocrisy, compounded by shortsightedness. While this criticism might be legitimate, to be fair, we must view the things people say and do in the cultural context in which they live.
The words Jefferson wrote were centered on refuting the cultural idea of “The divine right of kings” which held that a monarch was not subject to any authority on earth, but received their right to rule directly from God. He saw the theory of divine right as a recipe for governmental tyranny with no accountability to the very people whose lives were affected by the whim of monarchs. (Particularly King George III) The fact that he ignored slavery and women may seem like a gross hypocrisy oversight from our current day cultural lens, but Jefferson lived in quite a different cultural context.
Even great thinkers like Jefferson can appear shortsighted in a different cultural context. We are all influenced by the ideas we are exposed to within our culture. This influence is particularly powerful when the ideas are well established when we are children. As we develop in a womb of ideas that seem natural to us and this makes it very difficult to see beyond their possible limitations. It might never occur to us to question some ideas because of the frothy justifications that bubble out of the cultural voice box.
We can learn some very useful things about ourselves if we honestly consider the impact of our culture on our perception. Here are just a few:
Learning to question is by no means a passive activity. It is extremely hard work, but it is also worthwhile. The view is worth the climb because real progress, both personal and cultural, is born of this kind of strenuous effort.
Every generation, taken as a whole, has a tendency to think they have arrived, rather than that they are a leg of a continuing journey. If we understand accurately where we are, we are better equipped to bring something of nourishing value the table that can help in our development toward a better world.
Most cultures tend to conflate what is familiar with is what is right. There is a powerful influence of culture on what we learn to be both attracted to and repulsed by. Morals in a cultural context are some of the hardest of things to question.
We typically confuse the progression of time with the progression of culture. We could be tolerating things of much greater injustice today but still sincerely believe we’ve advanced beyond our ancestors. History clearly teaches us that this is not necessarily so. Cultures throughout history have been blinded by misconceptions. Some have plunged us backwards and this backwards momentum is only apparent in hindsight and even then; in the context of a potentially distorted current view.
There’s no guarantee that the values we hold as individuals and as a culture are in our own best-interest, even though we see them through that lens. Even scientific advance in the form of greater technology as a cultural value is not automatically better. For instance; if we honestly evaluate our capacity to get along with each other we might question whether we should dabble too much in things that can be leveraged to harm each other before we’ve developed the vision and disciplines related to understanding we all swim in the same global fish bowl. Advances in technology that outpace our wisdom and temperance is at best, a very dangerous game of leapfrog.
We don’t always know what are cultural values are because they are buried in din of habits that go unnoticed. The same way we might overlook the fine print on a watch we wear every day, or the smudge of dirt on a light switch, what we see all the time tends to fade into the background. Cruelty and other injustices are no exception to this tendency. That is the same affliction that Jefferson may have suffered, and possibly why slavery and women’s rights went unnoticed.
Cultures have only so much tolerance for change. Even if Jefferson had recognized the inherent rights of all people to liberty, he may have also known this would have been too heavy a swing of culture for the people of his time to tolerate. Had he decided to fight all those battles, he would have recognized that he would probably have accomplished none. We have to understand and take people and cultures where they are, not simply impose our current point of view. The same way materials have only so much tolerance before they shatter, the ideological materials that compose a culture are no different. We have to have a certain tolerance no matter how deeply we see into the future, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the only way we will ever see real and substantive progress.