We Forget That Our Ancestors Were Monsters

Actions and behaviours our society now detest were the norm only a few hundred years ago

The “baptism by fire” of Old Believer leader Avvakum in Russia, 1682

These days it can easy to be a pessimist. Unfortunately, the saying “if it bleeds it leads” is true. The balance between positive and negative coverage in the media is skewed in favour of the negative, ensuring that we’re forever plugged into unfortunate events that occur outside of our reach.

Yet it is important to recognise that this awareness — the awareness of negative events that take place beyond the lived experience of our day-to-day existence — is purely an outcome of modernity. If we were plucked from our timeline and placed in the shoes of someone just a few hundred years ago, the amount of hardship and suffering present in the world would be overwhelming.

For example, the headlines of a CNN broadcast in the 1600s might read something a bit like this:

Confronting I know, but the above demonstrates how we’ve come to view the past through rose-coloured glasses. It also exposes our inherent availability bias, a well-documented psychological phenomena.

In 1972 psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman published a seminal paper proving that individuals will estimate the frequency or likelihood of an occurrence “by the ease with which relevant instances come to mind”. This availability heuristic to which we’re all susceptible leads to biases surrounding the judged frequency of repeated events.

Building upon the work of Tversky and Kahneman, researchers have since uncovered how levels of violence depicted in the media inform individuals perception of social reality. It’s been shown that repeat exposure to vivid violence leads to an increase in people’s estimates about the prevalence of crime and violence in the real world.

For example, deaths that occur from shark attacks generate more media coverage than deaths that occur from falling coconuts, which leads people to assume that the former case happens more frequently (despite the opposite being true).

In other words, people think the world is a more violent place than it really is primarily because of what they see on their television screens. As we’ll soon discover, there was a lot more messed up shit happening in the world a couple of hundred years ago — humans just weren’t as hyper-aware of external negative events as they are today.

Time Detaches Events from Emotion

My grandparents both fought in World War Two. The horrors of this war had an affect on my grandparents, which had on affect on my parents, which has subsequently impacted me. Living memory has fundamentally shaped how I’ve come to conceive of the events that transpired during this period. The space in time between myself and this war is not yet so great that I cannot still empathise with its victims.

However, none of my relatives fought against the Mongols.

During the lifetime of Genghis Khan, Mongol armies killed an estimated forty-million people, or ten percent of the global population at the time— enough to reduce the carbon in Earth’s atmosphere by some 700 million tonnes.

The figures are right there. An utterly devastating loss of life. And yet it’s hard to envisage the terror that must have been felt by the people who lost their lives or the heartbreak that was felt by the survivors.

Further, where time has rendered the past impersonal to us, pop-culture has filled the void with romantic and stylised interpretations of events and characters.

Think of your stereotypical Knight in shining armor.

The knight, as he’s been presented to us in movies and other pop culture mediums, is depicted as the very image of loyalty, virtue and sacrifice. He rushes into danger, shields the weak, kills the dragon. It’s no wonder why kids will swing around sticks like swords and pretend they know what the word ‘chivalry’ means. By all accounts the Knight is an individual worth emulating.

Yet the character described above is pure fiction. Knights were in reality a marauding bunch of murderers for hire. During times of war they killed and tortured peasants to terrify target populations. Invading a foreign territory they would subjugate ordinary people, demand food and kill those that refused. They systematically raped, burned, and plundered, leaving destruction and terror in their wake. In fact, many knights were convicted criminals. As much as 12% of the army of Edward the 3rd was comprised of criminals, many of them murderers seeking pardons (by murdering more of course — talk about irony). Further, the savagery of the Knight did not stop with his persecution of the weak. Lancelot was regarded as a ‘gentleman’ simply because he never killed a knight who begged for mercy.

Let’s turn to another example.

The Ancient Greeks are a people that we consider to have birthed some of humanity’s greatest thinkers. Indeed, without the contributions of minds such as Homer, Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras, it’s hard to envisage what the state of our collective knowledge would today amount to.

Yet again, the striking truth is that these people held beliefs and values that fundamentally contradict our own. Concepts vital to the development of Western political thought — equality, democracy and justice —as expressed in Greek society were inherently exclusionary.

For all its promotion of philanthrôpia — or love of humankind — the popular philosophy of Stoicism conveniently overlooked the welfare of thousands of slaves that labored under the whip of Greek masters. Women in turn, were entirely excluded from the democratic process in the Greek city-states — they weren’t even considered citizens.

Pederasty — what we would now consider to be pedophilia — was a vital component of the Greek educational structure

Consider also, the practice of pederasty in Greek society.

A pederastic relationship was one in which an older Greek male in his mid-to-late 20s would court a male teenager. Many descriptions of the practice insist that pederasty served an important function within Greek educational systems. These considerations aside, it is undeniable that today we would appraise such a practice as pedophilia. Although the ideal pederastic relationship framed the older man as being more of a teacher than a lover, sexual relations between the pair were still a vital component of the arrangement.

“The Past is a Foreign Country”

I want you to now picture yourself at Christmas dinner.

The one old relative you see once in a blue-moon has said something outrageous (racist, homophobic or sexist, take your pick) around the dinner table.

Que raised eyebrows and awkward shuffling.

We bite our tongues and refrain from objecting because — well let’s face it — it’s highly likely that said relative won’t be around for many more Christmas dinners. If not consciously, on some subconscious level we’re expecting that this blatant intolerance will be buried in the grave alongside them.

Now take this relative of yours and think about their parents. Now think of the parents that came before them.What kind of beliefs, perspectives and attitudes would our ancestors have held?

Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker in his best-selling 800-page book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ argues that if appraised by today’s standards, our ancestors could very well be considered to have been “morally retarded”. The examples provided above might very well confirm this hypothesis.

The first line of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between expresses this sentiment best:

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

By contemporary standards, the past was a brutal and strange place filled with human beings that conceived of the world in radically different ways to those of us living today.

It’s not so long ago that slavery was the norm.

It’s not so long ago that people thought it was acceptable to kill someone over an insult.

It’s not so long ago that disabled babies would be strangled or abandoned. Aristotle, considered one of the greatest philosophers and scientists in Western culture once exclaimed: “let there be a law that no deformed child shall live.”

It’s not so long ago that torture was commonplace and people had inconceivable horrors inflicted on them.

Sure, Alexander the Great was great — a great big asshole. The guy murdered and raped his way to the pages of our history books.

What would you or I — what would anyone living today have in common with these people? Perhaps more than you may think. It is after-all, upon the backs of these very people that we now stand.

So then how are we to reconcile the despicable things that our ancestors believed and perpetrated?

This is the crux of the matter.

We have to recognise that society’s values and morals are in a state of perpetual flux. Philosopher Peter Singer in his book ‘The Expanding Circle’ argues that humanity’s circle of empathy is gradually expanding to become more universal. He contends that:

“The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and the tribe to the nation and race — we are now finally beginning to recognise that our obligations extend to all human beings”

This is a poweful realisation and perhaps one of history’s most important lessons. It strips bare the misconception that our current circumstances are somehow eternal and preordained and thus not subject to change or improvement. The study of history is therefore a lesson in empowerment. By examining what came before, we take in our hands the reigns for deciding the shape of the future.

With this perspective at the forefront of our mind, we therefore ought to be thinking critically about how aspects of our society can be improved. We can start by considering how we as a collective can better treat one another and the planet on which we reside. This something that I examine in-depth in the next article in this series.

Progressing the state of human morality and ethics is something that we should all be striving for. After-all, come another hundred years and it’s highly likely that our descendants will look back upon our generation and wonder to themselves in bewilderment:

“Who were these people?”

Alex Goik is a Media Analyst. He commonly writes for Mogul News and at Foreign Affairs Navigator where he strives to offer fresh perspectives on foreign affairs, tech and China (coupled with the odd analysis of human nature.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this text belong solely to the author and not those of their employer.