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In Canada recently, I ran across one of the most anguished mea culpas I’ve encountered in a long time, in a piece prominently displayed in the Toronto Star. Its author, JP Larocque, confessed that in 2008, he foolishly dressed up for Halloween as someone from south of the American border, thus being guilty, all at once, unusually for his considerate homeland, of racial insensitivity, cultural appropriation and a joke in inexcusable taste. That a photo of himself wearing a sign that said, “MEXI-CAN’T” might surface at any moment meant, even more profoundly, that he had “lived with regret ever since.”

I read the piece with care and sympathy, not least because Canada is such a model of global awareness and forward thinking. And it was hard not to feel for this gay man of biracial origin who remained haunted by his tone-deaf cruelty. But a lesser part of me couldn’t help wondering if he hadn’t committed even more egregious sins over the past 11 years (or even 11 days). I certainly have. And whether he didn’t feel that cultural mores and assumptions are always shifting, rendering what was not so exceptional in one era abhorrent in the next. Aren’t all of us at least a little more mature and discerning now than we were a decade ago, partly because we’ve been schooled by our mistakes? Before long, I was beginning to wonder whether Larocque, a writer for the TV series Slasher, wasn’t simply replacing ethnocentricity, noxious and unacceptable as it is, with chronocentrism — a term coined in 1974 to suggest among other things, prejudice against other times, rather than against other races.

One definition of an adolescent is a person who thinks that what is new is better, precisely because he has so little sense of what is old.

- Pico Iyer, author

In certain respects — the treatment of women, say, and the LGBTQ community, as well as of what Canadians call “visible minorities” — we have. Growing up dark-skinned in England and the influential demagogue Enoch Powell predicting rivers “foaming with much blood” if people who looked like me continued to be born in his grey-skied land, I’m delighted to return to a newly-open and creative London where the average person was born in another country. My four grandparents, all born in India, came of age in a richly multicultured society, but one in which they had little chance of encountering neighbours from Cambodia or Haiti or Ethiopia, as so many New Yorkers or Angelenos can today. Even 20 years ago, I could never have imagined that in 2008 the United States would elect a president who is a living refutation of black-and-white distinctions.

I’m less thrilled, though, when people fault Shakespeare, say, for daring, in his job as writer (and actor), to try to enter the souls of a woman, a Moor and a devil from Italy (which he does in Othello alone). I’m wary of assuming that, just because T.S. Eliot held some positions that we now find offensive, we are more “moral” or attuned to the complexities of human nature than he was. I’m glad that I live in a more diverse world than my grandparents could have imagined, but I’m not sure that means I’m wiser than they were.

Eagerness to right injustices

For a grateful immigrant like myself, the blessing of America is its freedom from the habits and constraints of the past, its eagerness to right injustices, its belief that we can do better than we did. That is part of what draws people like me here from older and more disenchanted cultures. But those who dismiss the past just because it’s past run the risk of not appreciating the fact that the past, like most of us in earlier times, was imperfectly doing its best. As more and more of us imprison ourselves in the moment — thank you, addictive screens! — we devolve into a “presentism” that shares some of the cruelty of racism. Technology may advance along a relatively straight line, but human nature does not.

One definition of an adolescent is a person who thinks that what is new is better, precisely because he has so little sense of what is old. One definition of a grown-up is someone who appreciates how little she can be sure of or dismiss. The surest way to be in the wrong is to assume with blind conviction you’re in the right.

As I came to the climax of Larocque’s article — “I can’t expect forgiveness, now or ever” — I said a silent prayer that the writer would not be committing a sequel to his article in 2030, or even next year, berating himself for having values in 2019 that will seem woefully outdated by then. When Oscar Wilde has a character say, “Nothing is so dangerous as being too modern. One is apt to grow old-fashioned quite suddenly,” he’s writing of not just hemlines and suits, but of judgements and assumptions. That we think differently than we did does not mean that we’re better than we were.

— Pico Iyer is the author, most recently, of Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan.