In your shoes

· life ·

I’ve been enjoying a TV programme called the Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England with Dr Ian Mortimer. It’s a history programme about Elizabethan England, obviously, but the conceit is that it is framed as a kind of manual for a time traveller thinking of visiting the period. You can imagine the pitch for the programme (“We want to give people a feel for what it was really like to live in the period…”), and there are some CGI graphics to make it look as if Dr Mortimer is wandering around in some futuristic computer interface. Despite that, it’s actually not annoying. Each of the three programmes deals with life in a different stratum of Elizabethan society: the poor people, the rich people and those who were up and coming.

The main message that I have got from the programmes so far is that — if at all possible — you should never voluntarily travel to a time before the widespread use of effective anaesthetics or the flushing toilet. Added to which, the baseline penalty or any crime in the period appeared to be hanging, but if you did something seriously wrong (like treason), the punishment was much worse. And don’t even think about not bothering with Church on Sundays and telling everyone you’re an atheist.

What the show did particularly well was to evoke the kind of world that people would have experienced. For example, poor people lived in cramped, dark and smoky houses, and could not generally afford even tallow candles. Through the long winter nights, they would have been in almost pitch blackness, and the sounds of logs crackling and popping on the fire, rain dripping from the thatch and the breathing of those in the house would have been distinct and vivid in the darkness.

It was also obvious how difficult it would be to fit in to Elizabethan Society. I don’t mean emulating the dress or hair styles, or even the language, which could be studied and copied. I mean the difficulty of fitting a person whose brain has been shaped by 20th or 21st Century culture into 16th Century culture. For example, how would you fit in a culture where it is expected that you will beat your children in the normal course of raising them properly? How could you live in a world where people have no scientific understanding of the origin of infectious diseases? We come from another world, and we can’t imagine what it would be like to experience that world. Some experiences would be the same of course. Humans have always loved their children, laughed, gossiped, got intoxicated to celebrate or obliterate sadness, and had feuds with one another. But other experiences would be impossible to imagine for people grown in the earth of our own time.

Somehow that chimed with something else that I’ve been thinking about recently: the general impossibility of imagining what it is like to be someone else. We can certainly empathise or sympathise, and through talking to someone guess at what it’s like being in their shoes, but we can’t actually know, any more than we can know what it is like to be a bat. Even when you have experienced something personally — say, a relationship breaking up — several years later when you are in a new and happy relationship, it is hard to reconstruct what that felt like. You are now in a different frame of mind, older, and have had all sorts of other experiences which have changed you.

We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not.


The flip side of this is that it makes no sense to claim unique authority on a particular experience or viewpoint just because you belong to a broad category of people. This crops up quite commonly as someone prefacing their viewpoint on a topic by saying, “As a X…”, where X is a category. For example, I often notice people who say, “As a parent…”. Does the experience of being a parent give you a unique ability, authority or status to comment on such matters? I don’t know because I am not a parent, but equally parents don’t know what it’s like to be middle-aged and a non-parent. For example, might I care less about the problem of the availability of unsuitable material on the internet to young children because I don’t have children myself? Certainly, it’s not a pressing, everyday practical problem for me, but I do care about it. I will live in a society containing those children grown into adults, and indeed will be teaching some of them in less than 18 years time. I care because it is a moral and ethical issue that affects the society generally, and because I’m human and care about other people being damaged, hurt or distressed. “We both step and do not step in the same rivers.