Presentism — How it Affects our Attitudes

What happens when  the dictionary and your spellchecker disagree? The dictionary wins, of course. Last week I learned a new word that my spellchecker has never seen. It is “presentism.”

Do you know  what it means? I had never heard it until I read a address by Michael Otterson. Here is the dictionary definition: “Uncritical adherence to present-day attitudes, especially the tendency to interpret past events in terms of modern values and concepts.”

It is easy for us to look at how people treated animals one hundred years ago, or how they neglected to incorporate basic cleanliness practices or how intolerant they were of the Irish, the African American, the Jews, the Mormons (whoever) and judge them harshly by present day attitudes rather than considering the values and concepts of the times in which they lived.

I’m not here to excuse behavior that, at least by my standard, is unconscionable, but we are all influenced by the values of the society and times in which we live. Sometimes this is a good thing and sometimes this is a bad thing, but the influences are there, nevertheless, and affect our attitudes and our thinking.

My mother loved books by Gene Stratton Porter, a naturalist from Indiana, who set her fictional stories in the outdoors, in the man versus nature type of story. I grew up with Freckles and Girl of the Limberlost. Years after I was grown, my mother stumbled onto another book by Porter and immediately read it. She was appalled at the racism that was rampant in the novel.

Gene Stratton Porter was born in 1863 and viewed the world very differently than my mother did in 1985, Still, I’m not sure my mother ever quite forgave her. 🙂

I wonder if I am guilty of presentism in some of my judgments? Since I consider myself an average person living in 2015, I suppose I am. But presentism is something to consider when we look into the past.


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About Lorraine Jeffery

Lorraine Jeffery earned her bachelor’s degree in English and her MLIS in library science, and managed public libraries in Texas, Ohio and Utah for over twenty years. She has won poetry prizes in state and national contests and has published over thirty poems in various publications, including Clockhouse, Kindred, Calliope, Ibbetson Street,and Rockhurst Review. She has published short stories in War Cry, The Standard and Segullah. Her articles have appeared in Focus on the Family, Mature Years, and Utah’s Senior Review, as well as other publications.. She is the mother of ten children (eight adopted) and currently lives with her husband in Orem, Utah.

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