Continuity and Change Over Time

December 15, 2011

Learning, Political action


In my English class this year, my professor shared the following quote with me: “History never repeats itself but sometimes it rhymes.” It immediately struck me that not only is this statement applicable to the literature we were covering in the English class, but it is equally if not more applicable to what we have studied in this class.

In addition to watching this video, we were assigned to read Plato’s “Apology.” In the “Apology,” Socrates talks about two different ways to think about justice: substantively and procedurally. A substantial approach to justice says that something is just if it promotes truth, happiness, glory of the nation, etc.; a procedural approach says that an outcome is just as long as it comes out of legitimate processes.

Throughout history there have been situations that are universally acknowledged as being unjust. They are a sort of absurdity of their era, and there is a sense of disbelief that people ever lived under those conditions.

Example 1: the American Revolution. The way the British government was being run (the original issue was religious persecution) was met with such disapproval by the Pilgrims that they left the country altogether and settled new lands. They were still considered colonies of the British government, and were still extremely dissatisfied with the way they were being treated. The dissatisfied colonists chose to take action against their government and created their own country by martial means. Once the Revolutionary War had ended, the Americans created their own set of laws based on their grievances of the preceding government. Two of the most important parts of the legal code of the new country: religious freedom and representation. It was, and has since, been viewed as such as an absurdity that religious freedom and representation weren’t a part of the legal code until then.

Example 2: the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to the Civil War, slavery was commonplace in the United States. After it was outlawed, a new set of laws was implemented that maintained the whites person’s superiority. Segregation was legally upheld in 1896 with the Plessy vs. Ferguson ruling. Less than 60 years later the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were passed. less than 60 years after that, a black president was elected. We now look back on slavery and segregation with such disbelief that it ever even happened, wondering how it could have been justified.

There are countless other examples, but my point is that at the time, decisions such as that of Plessy vs. Ferguson were considered just because they were approached procedurally; religious persecution, taxation without representation, slavery, and segregation were all justified by the law. It was not until a decent amout of uprising occurred that the situations were approached substantially, allowing for an outcome that benefits humanity. The Pilgrims left England in pursuit of the equality they believed they deserved; however, the same issue of equality had to be confronted centuries later with the Civil Rights Movement. The ideas reflected in the writings of those who came to the Americas in the 17th century are the same ideas reflected in Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from A Birmingham Jail.”

One of our first assignments this semester was to view the Kathryn Schulz’s TED talk “On Being Wrong.” In this talk, Schulz states that “most of us do everything we can to avoid thinking about being wrong.” This idea is reflected in the way the above situations, along with countless others, were handled. Excuses such as “different time” or “different country” are used to avoid confronting the real issue, that we as a human race allowed such things to happen. The fact of the matter is that we were wrong then, and will be wrong again.

There seems to be recurring human rights issues dealing with religious freedom, racial equality, etc. My question is, what’s next? What will be the next issue that we look back on as a country, or as a race, with disbelief that it even happened? What do you guys think?

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2 Comments on “Continuity and Change Over Time”

  1. ryanjcarney Says:

    The obvious answer would be, as you show in your picture, the increase of rights of homosexual couples in the world and the United States especially. In terms of the liberation of groups of people in the country, I can’t say for sure, but I would guess that the next changes to come (if they ever do) will be in the economic and political arena. Perhaps the greater unions between nations (ten years ago I would have pointed to the EU as a possible example of this but today that may not be a good idea with all of their problems nowadays…). Perhaps even the lessening of all of the blatant corruption within governments through some means but that may just be wishful thinking on my part…

    Also as a totally unrelated sidenote – the Pilgrims were hardly relevant in the founding of the colonies outside of Massachusetts. I never understood why they get so much press.

  2. Karsten Smolinski Says:

    I think that gay marriage is definitely one of those things that we will look back at and think, why the hell did we think it was a good idea to deny this group of people a basic right? I definitely never heard a single good argument against it. I just feel like the reason most people oppose it is because their religion tells them its wrong, and they forget that religious laws should hold no bearing (at least in theory) over the laws of the government.
    I do think its an interesting point that this blog brings up about how the laws we overturn are often technically legitimized by the procedural approach. I think this shows that we place more importance on the substantive approach to laws than the procedural approach. I definitely agree that substantive justification is more important than procedural justification and if war is necessary to change procedural laws, like in the cases of the American Revolution and the American Civil War, then it is justified. However, I would like to point out that there are many cases, like the Civil Rights movement, in which change was obtained through more peaceful, procedural means.

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