We’ve probably all heard of “Eurocentrism” or “ethnocentrism,” the affliction of those who believe that the way things are in their own neighborhood must be the way things are everywhere. We talk to our neighbors and colleagues, our workmates, our social circle, and then imagine that “everyone” thinks and lives and faces the same sorts of problems that we do; that “everyone” shares our political philosophy, our religious beliefs, and our attitudes—and that anyone who thinks differently must be either stupid or evil and are but a tiny fringe of the population: certainly not like “everyone.”
Tom Standage in The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers described chronocentrism as "the egotism that one's own generation is poised on the very cusp of history." Chronocentrism exists in those who imagine that their own time, their own era, is the norm against which all else must be judged—or worse, that the way things are now is how they have always been.
It afflicts those who don’t know history in the sense of actually paying attention to what was going on: those who know nothing more than the names of rulers and generals and the dates of battles. Chronocentrism is, like ethnocentrism, usually an unconscious approach to life: it is taking everything for granted without even realizing that’s what you’re doing.
Our children can no more imagine a time without color television, five hundred channels, and microwaves than we can imagine a time without antibiotics and fast food. And they don’t even think about it. We don’t comprehend a world where most people were peasants, without rights or freedom, who spent most of their time worrying about whether they would eat today. We don’t think about our lives at all. Our lives, our reality, is unexamined for the most part.
Obesity in the middle ages wasn’t a problem for anyone. Starvation was.
For thousands of years, if a person anytime in human history before the middle of the twentieth century got a cut on their finger, there was a very real probability that they would die from infection. Conjunctivitis blinded millions—something that a few eye drops cures easily today. If you were nearsighted, had astigmatism, or were farsighted, well you just had to live with it: there were no eyeglasses, contacts or surgery to correct it. You were unlikely to have any teeth in your head by the time you were forty—if you were lucky enough to live so long.
You probably barely noticed the lice, fleas, and other multi-legged creatures that shared your dwelling, clothes, and body. No one wore deodorant. Washing of clothes was difficult and infrequent.
Cholera, tuberculosis and any number of other easily curable or preventable illnesses slaughtered thousands, if not millions, every year. Only one out of four children lived beyond the age of five. Women regularly died in childbirth and spent most of their brief lives pregnant. And they did what their fathers or husbands or brothers told them to do, or else.
You worshiped what the king told you to worship. You were lucky if you even knew how to read, let alone actually had ever been to school in your life. You didn’t even know what the word “vote” meant. The only news you heard was neighborhood gossip.
Civility was when it wasn’t really all that out of the ordinary that the Vice President of the United States shot and killed the Secretary of the Treasurer in a duel. After Pearl Harbor, concern for civil rights meant you felt bad that you’d beaten up a Chinese gentleman you’d mistaken for being Japanese.
Those who long for the good old days, who believe that today is worse than yesterday, suffer from chronocentrism. They believe that the problems they face must be worse than the problems anyone else has ever faced before. Today’s crisis must of necessity be the most horrible thing that has ever happened: because it is the most horrible thing that has ever happened to me.
A five year old who stubs his toe knows that his pain is the worst pain that the world has ever known. He is starving to death, because the potato chips are gone and there is nothing else in the house to eat—despite a pantry and refrigerator stuffed to overflowing with other edibles.
Those who suffer chronocentrism have the understanding of children when it comes to the world as it was, is, and could be.