Standards. Are they permanent or variable? Are some the former and others the latter? How should people be held accountable to them? These are not idle philosophical questions. They get to the root of how we view the past and interact in the present.
Recently I finished reading several Charlie Chan novels. One of the most famous characters in detective fiction, when I saw the book on sale for $1 I realized I had never read any of the stories or seen the movies. While reading them I kept swinging back and forth between thinking the author, Earl Derr Biggers, was quite enlightened in his attitude toward the Chinese or a racist.
Researching his life, I found that Mr. Biggers was disgusted by the bigotry toward the Chinese in California during the early decades of the 20th century. While vacationing in Hawaii, he decided to write about a Chinese professional, loosely based on a police officer he met there. In the novels, Charlie Chan takes umbrage at overtly racist attitudes by other characters. He bristles at the less obvious ones. Yet at times Mr. Biggers accords to Detective Chan what today can only be characterized as grossly stereotypical behavior.
How do we judge Mr. Biggers and his work? By the standard of his day, Mr. Biggers’s portrayal of a Chinese man was enlightened. It countered the common image of the evil, conniving Chinaman. Yet by our standards, Charlie Chan appears one-dimensional, clichéd. Is it just to hold Mr. Biggers and his writing to a standard that he knew nothing about? Should his laurels be revoked because in today’s world he would not merit such praise? Or can we justify applauding him for his enlightened views on race, perhaps not even footnoting the change in societal standards?
I maintain people should be judged in the context of their own time. Stipulations based on a change of standards should the exception.
In contemporary times the issue is more complex. First, I distinguish between a settled societal standard and a popularly espoused view. Few people would assert that randomly shooting someone to death is acceptable. But what constitutes murder is open to any number of opinions. Next, I decide which viewpoints, though I disagree, fall within an acceptable range. This is tricky since the tendency is to conclude that those who disagree with me fall outside my range. I am challenged to stretch in the interest of civility while not abandoning standards.
Question – How do you decide the standard to which you will hold someone?
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