I read quite a bit of news and came across the recent controversy involving Michael Phelps. I'm not in much of a position to judge him (or really anyone for that matter), but as he struggles through this situation that may lead to sponsors dropping him, problems with competing in the 2012 London Games and more, I think about how someone who was once a saint but a few months ago can easily become a sinner in a matter of hours.
Americans too often want their celebrities and their politicians to be saints and not what I call "real people." We expect them to be perfect at all times with no lapses of judgment, no blemishes. Perhaps this stems from our Puritan ancestors and their ability to cast people out based on their behavior. Perhaps it is just people who have nothing better to do than think they can point the finger of judgment. Either way I think Phelps still has a right to privacy and the right to be judged on his accomplishments and not only on his mishaps.
As I work through my genealogy research, I've come across the same situation: people who I thought were absolute saints suddenly become sinners due to the discovery of a family secret or a mishap or lapse of judgment. But should they? Perhaps it is only my judgment of them and their actions that makes this so. As a researcher do I have the right to do this?
Last week during Scanfest we discussed via instant messenger what to do when you stumble upon some family secret when transcribing letters. Many of us perhaps have had this situation with letters that are 50, 75 or even 100 years old. After weeks or months of finding out information about a person did you ever suddently get that "Oh my" or "Oh no" moment? Have you built that ancestor a very high pedestal, so much so that after discovering something such as an arrest, a case of abandonment, or even instances of theft or rape, that you immediately discount that ancestor's entire life based on one action?
I'm not advocating leniency for what are certainly heinous crimes such as rape or incest, but when it comes to crimes or unseemly behavior, do I have all the facts to be able to pass judgment? Do I necessarily have to agree with the newspaper accounts of what took place, or even the account found in an ancestor's letter? Did they in fact know everything about the issues involved or were they merely passing along gossip?
As a researcher and historian I realize I must rely upon the accounts of that time period as to what happened. And I may not be lucky enough to discover evidence to counter what was at that time the prevailing opinion of the occurrence. My role should be to present the evidence without expunging or purging any of the sordid details, and without adding my perspective or opinion. Let others form their own opinions based on the facts as I have gathered and presented them.
But being human, I often take these facts and form an opinion of that person despite my best attempts not to. It is only natural to try and put the information about an incident in historical perspective. What may have been shocking behavior 100 years ago might barely raise an eyebrow today. And vice versa. Newspaper accounts are often in a writing style markedly more judgmental than what might be seen in the media today. For my ancestors, life in a small town must not have been easy with everyone knowing your comings and goings. As well, the weekly newspapers often had a column for each town where some reporter (others would call him or her a "busybody") would write who had visited who, who was sick, who was unemployed etc.
I imagine that being larger than life, like Michael Phelps, must feel be like living in a fish bowl and not unlike living in those small towns of my ancestors. Have we as a society really progressed that far in terms of "getting up in someone's business" since then? It is one thing to have all the facts (if you truly can ever convince yourself that you have all of them) and then form an opinion. It is another thing to not weigh one incident against a person's entire life experience.