Presentism— the idea that we should apply the modern world’s moral sensibilities to judge people and practices of the past—is a concept worth exploring. In this post, we discuss presentism and explain how blockchain can help combat it.
In essence, presentism refers to the way we judge past actions by today’s standards. The tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.
Let’s face it—we all have fallen victims to presentism when writing about general history. We tend to color past events with the lens of our current prejudices. We forget that attitudes and cultural values do change with time. Modernity has become the standard for which we find historical characters wanting.
For example, in Georgetown University, presentist protestors wiped out the names of two former college presidents from buildings because they once sold slaves in order to pay off campus debt. Similar outbreaks were also reported in Princeton University where the Black Justice League called for the removal of Woodrow Wilson’s name from buildings. Princeton denied their request. Wilson is remembered as a progressive president but he also supported segregation – systematically removing blacks from the civil service.
While present-day concerns have helped revivify topics, such as slavery, these incidences also illustrate that presentism threatens to put historians out of business. Since events and people participate in history during different times and with a different set of values, so much is lost if we insist on this approach to history. Not only does this approach emphasize the relevance of history to the present, but it pays little attention to things that do not seem relevant, which results in a misleading portrayal of the past.
History is about offering the truth itself— exactly the way it happened, not what might or could have happened. In fact, modern historians seek to avoid presentism in their work because they consider it a form of cultural bias. Historians believe presentism creates a distorted understanding of history.
At its worst, presentism, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation. When we interpret through the lens of present usually leads us to find ourselves morally superior. For instance, in the study of women’s rights, a lot has changed over the past 100 years. Women in the nineteenth century were not allowed to vote and by today’s standards were considered second-class citizens. Over time, women gradually received more respect—they could vote and own property. However, the intentions of the founding fathers have been debated for decades. If we apply our current values and beliefs to explain these historical issues, we risk committing the error of presentism.
We at Historia reject this approach to history. To avoid this, we have built a blockchain platform that empowers historians to document current and future events as accurately as possible without passing any judgment. This is not to say that moral judgment is irrelevant and that we endorse relativism point of view. But it is important to maintain a fruitful tension between present concerns and respect for the past. Both are essential ingredients in good history.
While it is impossible to avoid fallacy completely, Historia aims to avoid aware biases—empowering everyone to document history in such a way that it does not create a distorted depiction of the past. With blockchain technology, it is now possible to record and validate accurate accounts of historical events in an immutable database to deter alteration and deletion. In addition, Historia employs a consensus-based voting system to ensure only accurate and unbiased records are added to the blockchain.
History itself is full of failures and successes. But we can document all that without falling into the habits of presentism. Join Historia today to get started documenting our history.
Historia is a community project. The influence of any one superpower does not endure in Historia. The project is for the greater good of the global community with allegiance to no one except the everlasting truth of how it actually happened. If you would like to be a part Historia discussion, join us on Discord and let us know your thoughts. All spectrum of opinions and facts wanted, come all.
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