Getting Irritated about Assumptions about History

Twain is right--every historical event is unique to itself.
Human nature being what it is: patterns do develop..
One of my biggest irritations when it comes to the discussion of history is the assumption that "things were bad; now they are good" or (more commonly argued these days) "things were good; now they are bad."

There is a certain degree of truth to the former, simply because we live in a world where people have better medicine, more rights, and far more freedoms. I've written about this in detail elsewhere.

However, even the former argument bothers me a tad because it is predicated on the assumption that societal assumptions and expectations work on some kind of continuum or arrow--everything moves in one direction.

And it doesn't.

A good example of this is the concept of modesty. Every culture includes this concept--what constitutes socially, non-offensive clothing--but what constitutes modesty changes radically between cultures.

One is a hippie; one is a lord. For one, the hair style 
was indicative of rebellion; for the other, it was
just one style among many.
NOT because the concept of modesty works on a less-to-more (or more-to-less) pattern. It changes radically because culture changes and with culture, the assumptions and attitudes embedded within that culture.

There is little to no point comparing ancient Egyptians with Medieval aristocrats or high society Victorians with modern day working men and women. Each society has within it an idea of what constitutes modesty--how people should dress at work, in public, at school--and each society punishes those who violate those standards. However, what those standards are is unique to each society.

Medieval aristocrats, for example, would have made little to no connection between privacy and modesty--a connection vital to modern Westerners. Even within the last 70 years in the West, privacy as a measure of modesty has increased ("I dress alone," "I bathe alone," "I breastfeed my baby alone," etc.) The Medieval era wouldn't even have placed privacy on the table. It truly is a modern concept.

So Medieval peasants and aristocrats dressed and bathed (when they did bathe) in public while aristocratic men thought nothing of pissing against the castle wall, behavior now reserved for perverts in subways. 
But Medieval men would not have been considered perverts.

Believe it or not, this dress is incredibly
provocative, even erotic--
at least it was to people at the time.
Not that they wouldn't have been considered louts--some Medieval writers do complain about the sheer plethora of public urination. And it isn't like nobody noticed the smell (they did). It is that the act didn't automatically violate "proper" standards.

But other things did.

And that's the point--it isn't that the Medieval era DIDN'T have standards for modesty; it's that their standards simply don't correspond to ours.

Here are a few examples of how standards can change radically between cultures and time periods:
However, the low bodice on this
Colonial-era dress would not have
been considered inappropriate.
  • Nude bathing (men together; women together) was common in the United States through the 20th century. No more!
  • In some societies, a woman going out in long, even loose trousers would immediately violate that society's code of modesty--something that is clearly not true in most Westernized societies, where a woman wearing long trousers can actually be perceived as MORE modest.
  • The ancient Egyptians did not consider an exposed breast immodest. 
  • Aristocratic ancient Egyptians, however, would never have gone out without their wigs.
It is easy to see changes as always on a trajectory, to complain--for example--that kids these days are SO immodest what with their low-riding jeans (which I actually find rather adorable) and their tube tops, etc. But this type of selective response ignores changes/differences that many Westernized Americans/Europeans would find rather disruptive--like having to always wear a hat or kerchief or veil outside--and changes/differences that other cultures don't see as particularly salacious, such as family members bathing together.

History changes, often for the better, and societies can improve, but understanding history is best accomplished by ignoring comparative statements. Or at least comparative statements that insist that everything works along the same continuum. "Teens are more disrespectful these days" ignores centuries of disrespectful, high energy, and occasionally destructive apprentices in England and America (and probably other places as well).

Without context, differences become interesting, not informative.

1 comment:

FreeLiveFree said...

I'm pretty sure that complaining about kids being disrespectful or in some case lazy has been a pretty constant complaint though out history. I think this is because politeness and hard work are learned behavior. So, of course, young people are not the best on these things.

Length of hair has varied through out history. Wild Bill Hickok had long hair. Among the Comanches men wore long BRAIDED hair and women short hair. Only slaves in Viking society had short hair. (And they did not wear horned helmets.) What's weird about the hippies is that they were (at least nominally) pacifistic. For much of human history long hair was a sign of coming from a violent period or culture.