Presentism: “The application of current ideals and moral standards to interpret historical figures and their actions.” (Source: Wordsmith.org.) Accent is on the first syllable.
This definition, used in literary and historical contexts, first appeared in print in 1916, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary provides a citation from the American Journal of Sociology: “Equal respect . . . for conservatism, presentism, and futurism.”
A new edition of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn from NewSouth Books, in which “nigger”—used 219 times in the original—is replaced with “slave” and “injun” with “Indian” has prompted a lot of discussion about presentism. Here’s the Chronicle of Higher Education in an article titled “Censoring Twain”:
So, is this political correctness run amok? Another example of how easily we destroy our cultural heritage and fictionalize our collective history in service to presentist hyper-sensitivities?
In an essay about the new Huckleberry Finn in The New Republic, Hillary Kelly argues that “to reach into the past with a contemporary mindset can be a dangerous game to play. Presentism can only lead to a severely distorted perception of history, as differences are erased and anachronisms abound.”
For a more sardonic take, I refer you to this Tom the Dancing Bug comic strip, “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Corrected to Reflect Modern Sensibilities!” Be sure to read the “study questions” at the bottom. (Via Maud Newton.)
“Presentism” is used primarily by critics of the revisionist approach, who sometimes slam it as “abandonment of history.” Advocates are more likely to call it “sensitivity” or “reaching a wider audience.”
Presentism also crops up in discussions of how history should be taught. The Boston 1775 blog, which looks at New England before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, reviewed a children’s history of the 1787 constitutional convention under the title “A Presentist Picture Book.” And in Perspectives, the journal of the American Historical Association, UCLA history professor Lynn Hunt argued in 2002 that “[p]resentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self-congratulation.”
There’s a completely different definition of presentism in ethics and philosophy, where the term refers to “an attitude that since the present is the only thing that really exists . . . ethical judgments need to weigh actual present good on a different scale than hypothetical past good or future good.” (Source: Wikipedia.)
Note: Presentism is not to be confused with another recent coinage, presenteeism, which is defined as the opposite of absenteeism: “when employees come to work despite illness or injury that should have kept them home.” (Source: Nolo’s Plain-English Law Dictionary.)