(reposted and revised from August 6, 2009)
In "Anachronistic Arrogance" in Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman is critical of a tendency to dismiss the positive ideas, accomplishments, or art of historical figures because their social politics are not up to our progressive standards. I think of John Fowles in The French Lieutentant's Woman, speaking to his ages' sense of superiority over the Victorians:
"So much the better for us? Perhaps. But we are not the ones who will finally judge."
Happily, Laarman explicitly addressed the thought I had while reading his article (and often have when considering this problem of "anachronistic arrogance," as Laarman puts it):
"A little generosity and humility are called for here. I predict that the rap on this generation, and on even the most progressive among us, will end up being homo sapiens “species-ism.” And how will we feel when our good works and thoughts are dismissed because we disdained the sensibilities of whales and dolphins and horses and frogs and (yes) even that little piglet who contributed to yesterday’s breakfast?"
A further point is that those who have the greater knowledge, who should know better, have greater moral responsibility. Jonathan Safran Foer writes in Eating Animals:
"We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and the opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?"