No more ‘product of its time,’ please

One of the most persistent and pernicious arguments I encounter when talking about historic texts in the West, particularly the US, since that’s the nation I know best, that contain extremely troubling, oppressive, or otherwise dubious content is that they were ‘products of their time.’ The rationale here is that everyone at the time thought and communicated like this, so we should cut the author some slack — they didn’t know any better. We should focus on the positive or notable elements of the work and underplay the problems with it, because if we don’t, we obviously want to ‘censor’ books we don’t like and we’re effectively sanitising literary history by making it impossible to talk about them.

I’ve encountered this attitude in casual conversations, at conferences, on panels I’ve been on, in a huge range of settings. And it doesn’t get any less irksome to me, so I’m doing myself a favour and setting out some thoughts on the matter so I can point people in this direction when they’re pulling out this canard.

Because it is a canard. It’s a bad argument. I’m going to set aside the larger debate over whether we can and should criticise works for their handling of social issues (the answers are yes and yes respectively), because I want to focus on the depiction of authors as hapless victims of their era who surely wouldn’t have been like that if they’d just been born at a different time.

Take all those pro-slavery writers in the 1700s and 1800s who were all about justifications for keeping slaves, and wrote all kinds of racist things about Black people. It’s okay, because that’s just how people thought at the time, so they wouldn’t have been exposed to anything else.

Right?

What about the work of Frederick Douglass, Soujourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and numerous other Black abolitionists who fought for their freedom and were considered leading thinkers and social movers at the time? What about the white anti-slavery activists who worked in solidarity with them and the lively abolition movement in the United States, but also in Europe? Do you really want to say that no one at the time was confronting racism? No one at all? 

Or what about all those misogynistic racists in midcentury American science fiction, like Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card? I mean that’s just how people thought at the time, right? So why are we pretending that they could have done better?

Because we know they could have done better, because we saw work by people who are parts of the scifi canon and somehow managed not to be terrible people, like Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many others. In fact, that era hosted a huge social movement that aimed to overturn racist and sexist structures and you may have heard of it — it was called the Civil Rights Movement.

Throughout history, there have been amazing forward thinkers pushing back on power and oppression and the cultural forces that perpetuate injustice. Many of those people were writers, both fiction and nonfiction, and they also lectured, did direct movement work, and engaged in tons of other activities. They were known entities. The very point of their work was that it wasn’t supposed to be hidden. People engaged with them. It’s ludicrous to say that a writer active at the time ‘didn’t know’ about their work and their movement for social change. It is better to say that in the faces of those confronting injustice, a writer chose to perpetuate it. Chose not to care.

If anything, the cutting edge texts from those era are the ones that we should be calling products of their time. These are the works produced by people who moved with the winds of change, who were visionaries that believed in a better world, who used their work to present ideas that were radical and challenging and complicated and beautiful. As products of their time, they were steeped in social change and they wove it into their own work, which is absolutely outstanding and is something we should be commemorating. We should also be talking about radical authors who were marginalised because of their work, because they were so far ahead of social norms.

I don’t think that we should hide texts with troubling elements. They are part of the literary canon and they have influenced us, for both good and ill. We should definitely be reading them, and we should also be talking about them. A lot. We should be exploring the worldviews and ideas they supported, and challenging the notion that they are okay — that they were ever okay. If you delve into the periods when these works were produced, you can find ample evidence that there were plenty of people at the time who worked against such views and most definitely did not view them as okay. That in fact some of these texts were reactionary backlashes from people who didn’t like the fact that these views were being slowly obliterated through force of advocacy and protest and time.

I commented once that I thought care should be taken with the context in which these texts are read, which someone interpreted as a call for censorship. Aside from the fact that I don’t have — nor do I want — the power to censor texts, the nuance of my point apparently didn’t register. It’s not that I think we shouldn’t read these texts, but that we should handle them carefully. I wouldn’t give a child Hugh Lofting — but I would wait until that child was a little older and read Hugh Lofting with them, talking about the ideas in the books and where Doctor Dolittle got it right, and where he got it horrendously wrong.

Given that many of my friends have children who are at reading age, this is something I’m thinking about more and more as I reach for books — with so many to choose from, and young minds so impressionable, I have a duty of care that I intend to take seriously.

Image: O’Clock, Alex the Shutter, Flickr