In recent criticism of my intellect (in comments here), however, B & W's proprietor,"Jerry S", recalls something I had said earlier:"When something is ubiquitous, the interesting question isn't ‘how could it have been tolerated?' because it was commonly and widely accepted.""Jerry S" finds me unable to understand why my observation is"just plain silly." But it is of interest to historical practice to think about my claim.
I made the claim in the context of a discussion of slavery and its ubiquity in the early modern world. Explaining the presence of pro-slavery arguments in a world in which slavery was ubiquitous is less interesting, I think, than explaining how an anti-slavery argument emerged in the face of slavery's ubiquity. It is important to understand received frameworks and institutions and, beyond that, to understand how even a ubiquitous institution like slavery varied from place to place. But history's drama is not found in received frameworks and institutions. Rather, it is found in the emergence of subversive challenges to and contentions with them. So, the interesting question is how anti-slavery emerged in the face of slavery's ubiquity or, as certainly, how feminisms emerged to challenge the ubiquity of patriarchal"known worlds."
"The known world" is an intriguing concept in itself, as Edward P. Jones's brilliant novel of that title recently suggested. In some real sense, the plantation, itself, was"the known world" to those who were enslaved there, even in strange ways to those who"mastered" there. So, one has some compassion for the free child of color when he inherits his white father's plantation and knows that he must preserve its"peculiar institution." To have acted otherwise would have undone the precious advantage that his freedom and his inheritance bequeathed to him. We have that sense of compassion, knowing all the while that his choice was a tragic one, because he was born into a tragic world.
Unless you think that we have somehow grasped final knowledge of good and evil, one has to believe that the limits of our vision are a matter for some compassion. Otherwise, as a historian, I may berate all women everywhere in patriarchal pasts and elsewheres who were not in continual rebellion against the patriarchy. How dare I imagine that they must know that things might be otherwise? If I believe that some ultimate knowledge of good and evil is ubiquitously available, I will sit in judgment of slaves who did not rebel against their inherited plight. If I believe such things, I must hold child laborers in Pakistan accountable for not rising up against their oppression. But, surely, their"known world" knows that in a limited but, for all practical purposes real, sense that child labor is ubiquitous.
I think we must reach this sort of attitude toward the data from which a historian creates a narrative. Otherwise, we have no compassion for the victims of received frameworks and institutions. Otherwise, we must surrender ourselves to the harsh judgment of some distant future for not having created a better world, for not having overthrown some intolerable evil whose ubiquity blinds our recognition of it as such; for not having created a world whose conception is possible only to those whose distant wisdom finds our known world so enslaving.
Update:"Jerry S" replies here. I don't see how quibbling about an article helps matters, except as it encourages me to meet a philosopher's measure of precision of language. More importantly,"Jerry S"'s reply says nothing about ubiquity, social change, and what one can expect of people in distant pasts and elsewheres.