Viewers who elect to watch certain innocuous classic films on Disney’s streaming service, Disney Plus, will find themselves confronted by the following statement:
This program includes negative depictions and/or mistreatment of people or cultures. These stereotypes were wrong then and are wrong now. Rather than remove this content, we want to acknowledge its harmful impact, learn from it and spark conversation to create a more inclusive future together.
It’s a relief to know that the Disney corporation has such a powerful sense of moral responsibility. Absent this forewarning, defenseless children might find themselves exposed to subtle messages of oppression and hatred in films like Dumbo or Aladdin or Peter Pan. Or, at least, they might if Disney had not taken the additional precaution of removing these titles from children’s accounts altogether. Apparently, it is fine for minors to be exposed to quite frightening recent films like Raya the Last Dragon (2021), but a film like the original Aladdin (1992) is an altogether riskier proposition.
What makes these classic films so dangerous is sometimes difficult for even the alert and socially conscious adult to discern. Aladdin, online commentators have explained, features a villain whose nose is larger than that of the protagonist. In The Jungle Book (1967), the orangutan King Louie sings jazz and risks being perceived as a racist caricature (even though he was voiced by the Italian American musician, Louis Prima). Other films do include more obvious transgressions: the Native Americans in Peter Pan (1953) are a stock collection of prominent stereotypes, and the friendly crows in Dumbo (1941), one of whom is called Jim Crow, feature in scenes reminiscent of minstrel shows.
It seems vanishingly unlikely that an unprompted child would be aware of these obsolete prejudices, let alone unduly influenced by them. Still, Disney’s disclaimer is itself fairly innocuous and moderately phrased, and it is true that these stereotypes are quaintly outdated and an affront to modern sensitivities. But if we can agree that they are “wrong now,” should we also agree that they were “wrong then”? Can we casually condemn the actions and beliefs of the past as morally wrong when we are dealing not with the grand injustices of history—hatred and slavery and extermination—but with relatively petty things like comical stereotypes and caricatures and nuances of language?
The supposedly “harmful impact” of these stereotypes is presumably due to their capacity to cause offence, assuming that offence is something that is taken rather than given. This conception of offence eschews context and intention and resides entirely in the eye of the beholder. Everything becomes potentially offensive and nothing, by definition, can be excused. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin warned that, when offence is understood in this way, it becomes “almost impossible to distinguish a real from a fancied injury. One can very quickly cease to attempt this distinction and, what is worse, usually cease to attempt it without realising that one has done so.”
This is especially the case when we are offended by things that happened in the past. Even in contemporary speech, there are many shades between legitimate generalisation and crude stereotype, since no statement will ever fully capture the complexity of the world. But when we add the complexity of shifting contexts and social or linguistic expectations, the line becomes even blurrier. Language or behaviour considered unacceptable today was quite possibly acceptable, or even expected, in its own context. Cultural standards change and the shades between what is appropriate or inappropriate, legitimate and illegitimate, vary across time and place.
There are indeed moral principles which transcend the moment, otherwise there could be no consistent moral judgement at all. But moral judgement should be treated as a terrible duty. Nobody, no matter who they are or when they lived, should be condemned before they are understood. There is, after all, an element of moral luck in human affairs. To forget this is to enter what the poet Wendell Berry calls the “Territory of historical self-righteousness”:
The probability is overwhelming that if we had belonged to the generations we deplore, we too would have behaved deplorably. The probability is overwhelming that we belong to a generation that will be found by its successors to have behaved deplorably.
As John Ruskin warned, “The proudest and foolishest” assumption is “that you have been so much the darling of the Heavens, and favourite of the Fates, as to be born in the very nick of time, and in the punctual place, when and where ... everything you were taught would be true.” This is precisely what Disney’s disclaimer appears to assume. The corporation’s attempt to create “a more inclusive future” is a denial of the validity of any differences whatsoever.
Disney’s approach to its own films is an uncharitable one, cherry-picking and deconstructing them in search of material that does not conform to contemporary prejudices, while ignoring their more holistic moral import. This chauvinism is not primarily manifested in the casual moral condemnation of past peoples; it is found in the disclaimer’s very conception, which obscures the pleasures these films and texts were intended to provide behind a veil of perversity. Modern viewers are warned to adopt a “hermeneutics of suspicion” that primes them for offence. These disclaimers reflect a dogmatic moral certainty: that we know what is good and true, and that the past is a realm of error and moral fault. They imply, in Nietzsche’s words, that “our time, the last of all possible, has been authorised to consider itself the universal judge of everything in the past.”
None of this would matter very much if the problem were confined to Disney, which is known, after all, for its childlike view of the world. But the arrogant and immature idea that history is a monochromatic story of good and evil, of oppressors and oppressed, is becoming the dominant narrative of social respectability in elite institutions, the media, education, and everyday life.
This false understanding of history and human affairs, like many other false understandings, emerged in the universities. It informs prevailing contemporary approaches to the humanities found in fields as diverse as history, literature, sociology, gender, culture, and race studies. And it derives, through many intermediate steps, from Marxist assumptions that history is determined by social conflict and by the hidden, underlying power structures of society, rather than by the desires and intentions of individuals. These underlying power structures take many forms and, influenced by the waves of postmodernism of earlier decades, are now often conceived as linguistic and cultural in nature.
But they are all ultimately reducible—as is all human complexity, behaviours, and beliefs—to surface phenomena, or “superstructures,” that rest on the deeper base of material power relations. In history departments, these relations are sometimes half-jokingly referred to as the “holy trinity” of race, class, and gender. In the various standpoint theories of knowledge, a person’s position within these structures determines their very access to truth. Even if they are not quite so totalising, these structures always need to be critically “interrogated” and deconstructed in order to usher in a new era of freedom and equality.
All such approaches derive from a cynical view that society is only intelligible in terms of zero-sum power dynamics, which is never the case. Power is always relative and contextual and necessarily mixed with the rich variety of human life and experience. Ironically, many scholars in these fields believe themselves to be “anti-essentialists” or nominalists who reject generalisations as crude simplifications. In practice, however, they tend to operate with the crudest trans-historical categories of identity. Even the apparent complexity of intersectionality theory merely allows a person to be a member of multiple crude categories at once.
These are no longer just academic ideas. Amid the cultural tumult of the Trump era, they have been mainstreamed by #MeToo and anti-racist discourse. Most notoriously, the New York Times’ misbegotten “1619 Project” so flagrantly privileged political activism over historical accuracy that many historians were moved to criticise it despite agreement with its underlying philosophy. Similar distortions of history and culture can be detected in notions of cultural appropriation, in moral panics, and in the urge to tear down statues and denounce an ever-increasing number of historical figures and works of art.
One of the most bizarre, if relatively minor, manifestations of this trend is how the past is being self-consciously remade into an image of the present. This is most obviously evident in shows like Bridgerton (2020), films like Mary Queen of Scots (2018), and even medieval fantasies like The Wheel of Time (2021) or The Rings of Power (2022), in which relatively conservative and homogenous historical eras are transformed into cosmopolitan melting pots which boast the most progressive contemporary social and sexual mores. Race-blind casting is an unobjectionable avenue for maximising diversity when the stories are set in the present or future, but it becomes a form of temporal chauvinism when imposed upon the past at the expense of accuracy, artistic integrity, and the humanity of other peoples, as if only our own beliefs and social mores are fully human and valid. By denying the reality of the past, they undermine our ability to understand and explore the very issues of sexuality, gender, and race, about which they are ostensibly concerned.
Such approaches to the world and to history are part of a creeping intolerance in the name of tolerance—they close off all ways of thinking that are not in conformity with current fashions of language and thought. They create an unfalsifiable frame which can make anything and everything offensive or problematic, no matter how innocuous. And they present a narrowly cynical view of society as oppressive and self-interested all the way down, with all social interaction between groups necessarily defined by conflict and hatred. They are the flip-side of an extreme naivety about how the world should work, which holds that all social hierarchies are illegitimate and need to be abolished in favour of a world of pure love. Revolutionary sentiments like these encourage violent utopian fantasies which cannot possibly achieve the justice they crave, for they derive from a contempt for humanity as it lives and breathes.
We can do better than this. The poet Czesław Miłosz, who saw more than his fair share of suffering, reminds us that we cannot “look at things of this earth other than as colorful, variegated, and exciting, and so, ... cannot reduce life, with all its pain, horror, suffering, and ecstasy, to a unified tonality of boredom or complaint.” There is injustice, death, and suffering in every era and in every life, no matter how privileged or oppressed, but there is also beauty and goodness and love. This view can be obscured in the eyes of later generations, who have difficulty seeing past the tragedy of grand events to the petty joys and discouragements of the everyday. Perceiving our shared humanity in alien ways of life is the purpose and the difficulty of history. It is not justice to rush to condemn; it is intolerance. It is justice to understand—not to condone or to forgive, but to understand humanity in all its forms and failings.
The past is not radically discontinuous from the present. The past has given us everything that we have, including the ideas we use to criticise it. We must, then, give past people their due. We should approach them and their works in a spirit of charity. We should overlook relatively minor trespasses and engage with them on their own terms. Every writer’s work, according to John Gardner, ‘‘would fain say ‘This is the best of me; for the rest, I ate, and drank and slept, loved, and hated, like another; my life was as the vapour, and is not; but this I saw and knew; this, if anything of mine, is worth your memory.’” Past works are valuable precisely because they differ from our assumptions and allow us to converse with those who differ on what is important, beautiful, and true. They might even be right in some of these differences. If you have never been exposed to other ways of thought, you are mired in the narrowness of yourself and the prejudices of your time and you do not even know it.
This doesn’t require uncritical acceptance of the past, just genuine dialogue with it—questioning, testing, and understanding; an acceptance of what can be accepted and a rejection of what should be rejected. For, as the composer Gustav Mahler said, “Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire.” In the middle of the Second World War, Simone Weil lamented that the “loss of the past, whether it be collectively or individually, is the supreme human tragedy, and we have thrown ours away just like a child picking off the petals of a rose.” Today, the people idly plucking those petals are destroying humanity’s flowers of beauty and truth in favour of a bland complacency that does not even know enough history to realise what it has lost.