Why History Tell Us Lessons but Does It Speak Truth?
Narrative and Perspective
When we record the histories of our respective cultural development, in both chronological events and socioeconomic progress, we are tasked with a fundamental issue that must be understood to fully appreciate the complexity of history fully. How do we interpret history, live in it and ultimately take responsibility for it? We have to start with our understanding of history as it’s been presented to us, through incomplete and bias narratives told through insufficient mediums.
In most cases, narratives are just that; narrations of opinion, either reinforced with information or perspective. They are not always reinforced with objective proof, which would allow for a full appreciation of context. Instead, we are left with the bias gap of narrative and objective reality. This chasm, is the space in which discourse thrives. This gap from the objective truth is then socialized over time, creating a gap in its comprehension, in its subsequent impact on affected populations and the ability to measure its spoils of subversion. The gap in truth coupled with the fact that a victor’s narrative is often the one institutionalized, creates the perpetuation of the issues we face now. The farther we go back, the more complicated the issue, as the space between objective truth has been encapsulated by a false narrative to the same extent it would an objective one. Therefore, the only marker is the disparity felt in the current moment; as neglect compounded has real time objective realities that are inescapable to their current victims.
In many cases, we have accepted the record of historical events in which it is presented, regardless of its alignment of reality and the degree of rigour used in the recording methodology; these are the factor that make the information verifiably true and cannot be captured by a single narrative trying to construct an objective state of reality.
The credibility of narrative perspective is flawed.
Tell me about your third birthday, or your ninth or your twelfth, tell me in great detail what you did last week? what colour shirt did your partner wear last Tuesday or what you were wearing then?
Hard to remember? More like hard to believe. Human memory is faulty at best and targeted to details key to the configuration of the scenario. Personal narratives provide a linear portrayal with the bias of observation vs contextual reality.
Now, if you are describing an expedition that you are leading, knowing full well that your exploits will be published for your society at large, are you going to record information that would incriminate your actions? In most cases, you would not. You may do things that in later more progressive times, may be frowned upon. Actions in the climate of your recording are more or less conformant to the ideological mindset of the time. No one “rocks the boat” in a manner contrary to the overarching social narrative of the society’s overridding ideology, unless the nonconforming nature of the reporting is used to strike a contrast the perceived notion of normality in the society in question, otherwise it then suits the dominate social narrative.
In most cases, the most obtuse entries of recorded history come from private journals, not meant for public reading but as either placemaking or private reporting to officials from those that sent for the exploration (the age of exploration had many examples of this sort of journaling, which often dehumanized the native population due to language barriers) and come in to the dialogue long after the time of recording. Even then, it may contrast the public narrative of the same account or reinforce the normality of the then contemporary ideology, now in the present. This is the bias of historical recording and how it favours the narrator and the series of events that it created as result.
Before we expand on the bias of communication medium and the perspective of those who have historically formed the opinion of history that we currently have, it is important to further develop an understanding around individual perspective. Within the context of a developed binary expression of individual and experience, the limit of information makes almost any means of recording history an inconsistent practice; which conforms to the identity of the observer. It does so as everything they perceive and record, reinforces their understanding of themselves and their place in reality, given the factors that developed their identity. This is applying the cosmological argument on the merit of historical narrations: observation must be consistent with the observer in the configuration of reality.
However, this discounts the experiences from outside perspectives other than the recording observer, making the practice of a singular medium of recording an insufficient means of communicating the narrative of historical developments. As we will discuss further in the effectiveness of the written language, there is a bias through the experience and the observer that is unique to the viewer, regardless of simultaneous viewers and contradictory perspectives. To fully express the context of historical development, we must employ a multifaceted understanding, almost reminiscent of our human sensory apparatus to fully express the complexity of events to justify any validity to the context of recording events. This employs its own struggles when attached to human freewill and the development of consciousness. This meaning, that history is the overlapping understanding of events, creating a composite reality of observation and removing the bias of experience by any one person/perspective. By exploring how our mediums of historical understanding have shaped our contemporary understanding of historical narratives, it is apparent that the bias of observation can be extrapolated to develop an inaccurate representation of history.
Privilege and the Medium of Knowledge Transfer
The way in which we exchange information has changed throughout our progression as a species. In the context of history and the modern interpretations of history, we can see a stark emphasis on certain forms of communication and information transfer over others. Sources like written language are more commonly accepted over oral traditions, which in doing so neglects a lot of different cultural narratives to the same events, simply because of the way they are recorded and passed down. This is very impactful to the reflection of history with an informational siloing effect reminescent to the siloing inefficient of global economics and internal to organizations, as if devaluing connectivity and a spectrum of inputs is a common short coming in human activity, even though a sensory spectrum is what makes us, we have yet to exemplify it in our use of information transfer to make it equally effective.
In some cases, when oral traditions are incorporated into the contemporary narrative, new insights can be found. A simple and abstract example of this is the discovery of one of Sir John Franklin’s ships from his ill fated Arctic expedition, which was discovered when the local Inuit oral tradition was accessed to patch the gaps in recorded history (CBC News, 2014). the locals had been telling the story of the shipwreck for a generation before researchers came looking for the historically significant wrekage which previous expeditions had failed to reclaim. In the larger scale, this can impact the validity in opinions of history, and potentially sway the scope of the conversation and meaning derived from these select sources of information.
As we previously touched on, the problem with narratives, they are one-sided which creates a false idea of the conditions in which events occurred, because they only highlight one fraction of the event. Let’s say that we are playing catch, and you throw only perfect throws that are easy for me to catch and I throw catches that are uneven. I may say that this was an okay game of catch where as you would say that it was a difficult game. This is a trivial example but it highlights how the same events are perceived through different perspectives. This bias has been rampant in our contemporary study of history and has be perpetuated by those that record history. Unfortunately, the “recording civilizations” in our human history have been those that have orchestrated the oppression of many other civilizations in a lot of cases. this means the narrative of the oppressed, is often left unheard in history and not discussed in contemporary studies. It wasn’t until scholars from those previously oppressed cultures had the ability to re-examine their own history, and record it in the medium of information transfer which we derive our opinion around and counter the existing narratives.
The focus on written language has benefited certain societies as this has been their predominant means of information recording. Meaning their cultural perspective and ideology are ingrained in our contemporary dialogue simply because our emphasis on this format of information, has allowed for a dominance in perspective. The correlation between the use of writing as a communication medium and the colonization/ oppression of other types of communication based societies (oral tradition based societies etc.), many times result in a cultural sterilization and one-sided narrative this is because of the conformity to social ideology that we previously discussed.
Writing, faces a struggle as even as it standardizes thoughts; it silos the interpretation to the identity and experiential bias of the reader, regardless of the nuances employed by the writer, this is why we have common debates about meaning in classical works. The difference that our identities bring to the interpretation of the symbolic value of writing and the practical information based meaning of it, shows this imperfect medium of communication but also its social drivers that has made it accessible to everyone that comprehends it.
The inflexiblity of prespective interpretation has been highlighted in many circles of historical ideology but should be consciously acknowledged when interpreting history. This is a twofold a result of privilege: first for those within those written societies, education and the means of recording perspective was limited to those with social status or wealth historically, which meant a siloed conscience of narration. The second aspect is that increased advancement societies had an increased rate of innovation because of their ability to standardize and transfer knowledge, making conquering other civilizations of oral traditions easier. This is the self-perpetuating cycle that has occurred through human history that has follow European imperialism starting in the age of exploration up until recent history.
This problem will always occur as long as we have a divide in education and access to the methods of developing new cultural histories while re-examining the past, except this colonization transforms into economic practice, social ideology or cultural identity. Language and historical narrative construction shouldn’t be a siloed endeavor by specific groups, but on open dialogue that acknowledges both sided of experience while considering the ripple effects from events as they culminate to the present modern society and the social rammifaction of the one-sided conversation that created it. This is an opportunity to develop a stronger sense of humanity and not neglect the past which has divided us while it expects the oppressed to get over the historical handicaps they have faced for the development of culture, identity and historical merit in the contemporary global community.
- This article was orginally posted on Medium on Jan 10th, 2017th by James Rhule