"He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."-Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence
I really feel bad because I'm about to be "that guy". When given any quote from The Declaration of Independence, I cherry-pick the one that characterizes Thomas Jefferson as a racist when his thesis from this document is arguing for an egalitarian society.
Well, the document's idea of egalitarianism isn't as egalitarian as modern society would like it to be.
Last night, I watched an episode of South Park in which the kids of South Park got a new principal named PC Principal, where "PC" stands for politically correct. He ran around reprimanding and eventually beating up students that used language with hurtful connotations. He hospitalized Cartman for saying "spokesman" instead of "spokesperson". That's the guy I don't mean to be, but here we are. (Don't worry, the links aren't explicit.)
In the cultural, political, and religious context of the time, nothing in that quote would be considered offensive. The author was appealing to his audience's fear of the Native Americans, with whom the colonies had been in dispute with. This quote was seen as one of the many reasons why the colonies needed to free themselves from the British. Characterizing Native Americans as warmongering savages would have been agreed upon by most, if not all of the people reading the document, at the time. The same goes for the rest of the document. No one would have seen sexism in declaring, "all men are created equal." But it's good that today we can be critical of these documents and their authors while also appreciating the arguments of their authors. This one quote shouldn't nullify the credibility of the author. Today, this quote would be seen as racist, and the bad thing is, a lot of people would get completely caught up on it, rather than the argument of the author, like I am right now.
In today's society, the phrasing the author used would not have been okay to say at all. While it was considered the norm at the time, nowadays, the quote would've been seen offensive and undermined the author's egalitarian thesis. Today, incendiary language like this from people in the public eye has caused their character to get torn to shreds. To meet today's standards, the author should have said "Native Americans" instead of "Indians", and should have humanized the Native Americans he was referring to and not made his statement so generalizing. However, at the time, these concepts weren't really something that the author, or most people at the time, would have considered, and is understood, but not excused, for his word choice.
Some might view that we should revise the Declaration alongside other foundational texts to fit under today's morals, and some view that should leave the texts as they are. I feel conflicted about this because it is important that the documents we base our government on should not have problematic language in them, but I also don't think that we should censor the past. To censor our past wrongs is to pretend they didn't happen, and that does nothing to help those who are impacted by the wrongs of the past. I guess when it comes down to it, we should leave the texts as they are, because you cannot undo the past, but we should make our language now be fit for the the eyes of those who will be coming after us.
In the end, all I'm saying is that the language used in the past is problematic and we must always be willing to criticize it when it's in documents that are paramount to our government. We need to learn from the mistakes of doing this, as any language in a government document that marginalizes or excludes minority groups has always been attacked for the hypocrisy that is brought about by them. We should make sure that the language in our government policy and documents, as well as our daily lives, should hold up to scrutiny from the next generation and should be inclusive of all groups. If not, our children and our children's children will be having to apologize for the lack of foresight of their grandparents. We live in a nation that finally strives to be inclusive, and our language should reflect that.
I totally was "that guy", wasn't I?