Judging the (mis)deeds of yesterday through the lens of the mores and morality of today is a dangerous game. Gadamer talks of a Fusion of Horizons, in the science of interpretation, where the ontological parameters of the subject encounter that of the object, leading to understanding. However when significant temporal chasms separate the two, the task becomes more problematic and is likely to result in confusion and condemnation.
The recent report on the Magdalene Laundries operating in Ireland from the 1920’s until the 1970’s has been met with almost universal outrage and self-flagellation by the Irish media.
Accusations of abuse, slavery, unlawful imprisonment and human rights violations are being tossed around like end of term eggs.
But most of these accusations are relatively modern constructs. And certainly didn’t exist in the frame of reference of the early twentieth century,
For many of these women, the alternative was social ostracism, homelessness or imprisonment.
They endured long and arduous working days. They were unpaid. But they were provided with basic shelter, board and lodgings. This was acceptable in DeValera’s Catholic Utopia.
It is not acceptable by today’s standards. But neither is the Victorian dictum that Children should be seen and not heard or the paragon of the silent and dutiful wife, or the belief that a good smack never hurt anyone.
Today, our prisoners are given the option of halal or vegetarian meals, satellite TV and education. None of which were available to the Magdalene inmates of the past,
But perhaps our future interlocutors will judge us and find us wanting.