Christopher Columbus and Cultural Relativism

Today’s Columbus Day and it seems emblematic of everything that is wrong with the way history is taught and understood in the United States.

There are those that would say, we can’t condemn or judge the awful, horrible things Christopher Columbus was noted for doing because it was the 1400s. What do you expect? That’s the thinking and it’s wrong. It’s exercising cultural relativism, which, if you unpack such logic, it works like this: Slavery is wrong today, but for people back then, it was right for their culture and their society. It was the time.

The time is not to blame. There are some things that are universally wrong irrespective of culture, time or governing laws. Slavery is wrong today and it’s also wrong in 1850, 1100, 550 B.C., and so on. So is raping and killing people, as Christopher Columbus did to the natives. And besides, he was condemned by people of his time. From the New York Times:

“Historical relativists would urge us to keep these offenses in perspective. It was another era, they remind us, when men were governed by different moral and ethical codes. That’s a bit too facile. In 1493, Ferdinand and Isabella had directed Columbus to “endeavor to win over the inhabitants” and to “treat the Indians very well and lovingly and abstain from doing them any injury.” His conduct would make a mockery of those instructions. Columbus was roundly condemned by his own contemporaries, most damningly by Bartolomé de Las Casas, a priest who arrived in the Antilles in 1502 and later wrote a hard-hitting jeremiad entitled “A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies.” Las Casas denounced the false promises and unbridled greed of Columbus and his colonialist followers, and recounted the near-total annihilation of the native population of Hispaniola within 50 years of the Europeans’ arrival.”

Similarly, there were absolutely courageous abolitionists from the founding of this country arguing against the institution of slavery. To give slave-owners a cop-out that they’re just a product of their time is bullshit and morally problematic.

Don’t get me wrong. Columbus ought to be studied as an important historical figure, but don’t hide him behind this cultural relativism (or as the Times says, historical relativism).

I’m all for Indigenous People’s Day.

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