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Changing attitudes, changing platitudes – again and again
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Brian GiesbrechtThe federal government recently announced it will compensate people who lost their jobs or were otherwise persecuted a generation ago simply because their sexual orientation didn’t fit the accepted norm of the day.

This perfectly reflects modern thinking, and the government should be applauded for the decision to compensate members of the military and other federal agencies. The vast majority of Canadians now accept the idea that consenting adults are entitled to live the sexual lives they choose.

But this thinking was not accepted a mere generation or two ago. Even a man like Tommy Douglas, the former New Democrat Party leader who was considered very progressive for his time, regarded homosexuality as a mental illness to be tolerated – but just barely.

Very few of us would have done much better than that in 1962. We’re fooling ourselves if we think that we would have stood above the fray and opposed the thinking of the day. University of Toronto psychology Prof. Jordan Peterson takes us some way out of our comfort zone when he speculates that if you or I had lived in Nazi Germany, we would almost certainly have thought the same way as a German citizen of that era. And I’m sure he’s right. We’re all creatures of our time.

We look back at the attitudes of the last generation and find them quaint – at best – and backward or even repugnant. We’re rather smug in our belief that our modern take on things reflects a perfect and compassionate view for all time.

But again, we’re fooling ourselves if we take that smug view.

Douglas’s generation also looked back on the accepted thinking of the previous generation with much the same amusement and revulsion. That was the time when the civil rights movement was in full swing. Giants like Martin Luther King denounced the racism of the day. Douglas, and all thinking people of his generation, could ask: How could the giants of the preceding generation, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, actually believe that black and Asian people were inferior?

The Douglas generation smugly considered their world view the final word, as did the  generation that preceded theirs, just as we tend to consider today’s accepted wisdom the final word.

And so it goes backwards through the generations.

But are we not deluding ourselves when we believe that today’s accepted wisdom is the enlightened word?

The next generation will likely look back at what we’ve been thinking and regard it with the same smug disdain – perhaps a mixture of amusement and astonishment.

Which of our cherished beliefs will they consider odd, backwards or even disgusting?

Of course, I have no idea. I’m a creature of my time, shackled by the thinking of the day. To paraphrase the saying made famous by the infamous former U.S. secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld: We only know what we know; we don’t know what we don’t know.

But that won’t stop me from making some guesses:

The next generation might look with bemusement at how we glue ourselves to our smartphones and spend mindless hours interacting digitally with cyber people instead of spending our time with real people, or perhaps reading a good book.

They might look back with revulsion at how so many of us are willing to tolerate the horrible treatment of animals simply for the sake of eating cheap meat.

They might look with astonishment at the way we waste vast human and material resources in the futile pursuit of criminalizing people who feel they need to take drugs instead of adopting a medical model.

Maybe they’ll be horrified at how we treat unfortunate people born with sexual preferences that don’t fit the norm – such as those sexually attracted to children – as monsters to be demonized, instead of humans to be helped.

Or they might be simply amazed at how many of us routinely accept magical beliefs as part of our world view.

What about the way we think nothing of driving at 100 km/hour toward a complete stranger, while he or she drives toward us at 100-km/hour – separated only by a white strip of paint. And yet we tolerate spending an hour going through security at an airport, on the minuscule chance that another stranger will do us harm?

Or how we think nothing of getting on a fuel-guzzling airplane just to spend a week in the sun and then boast about how we’re saving the planet with our hybrid cars.

And where did we get the idea that flushing toilets with drinking water makes any sense?

It could be that they will scoff at how our institutions of higher learning became obsessed with pursuing ‘social justice’ and forgot about their primary purpose: the pursuit of academic excellence.

Or how so many of us seem to regard freedom of speech as dispensable if it gets in the way of their own views.

Maybe they’ll be amazed at how so many of us find our own ideological bubble or intellectual ghetto, and never stray outside its confines, while exchanging yells over the cyber walls at people in the opposing camp.

And what about the mania to rename buildings and tear down statues, simply because yesterday’s heroes held yesterday’s ideas Even the father of our country, John A. Macdonald (perhaps the greatest Canadian to ever live) is under attack. How will history judge the people determined to erase our history? Will our grandchildren be putting the statues back up?

The truth is, we don’t know what the next generation will think. History doesn’t help us much. (My favourite saying about history is: You can’t tell anything from history, except that you can’t tell anything from history.)

The people who did try to predict the future never did too well. Remember how Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock was taken so seriously a generation ago? He got most of it wrong.

Or what about the predictions about all of us freezing in the dark because we would run out of oil? I don’t remember anyone predicting that we would have so much of the stuff that they’re having trouble selling it.

I guess we’re not as smart as we think. So my conclusion is: who knows?

But let’s not be so smug about what we think we know.

Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with Frontier Center for Public Policy.

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