Can history ever tell us the truth?

History or Her-story, which do you prefer? History is said to be told by the winners, so who tells her-story? Some might think that changing words is nothing more than semantics or perhaps political correctness. However, words have the power to shape and create. The pen has often been mightier than the sword. Words shape our reality by influencing our perceptions and our concepts of reality. What we hear and how we define meaning will prejudice what we see and what we believe. History is the story of “mankind.” But is history really the story of humankind? Who is left out of a history told (at least in school books) from a rather slanted perspective? Do we hear history from minorities, from women, from the losers?

As an example of how perspective shapes our meaning of history, in America, we have the Revolutionary War or the War for Independence. In America, the colonists were revolutionaries and freedom fighters. The British saw our war as a revolt. To them, the colonists were lawbreakers and terrorists. Another example: during the sixties, the civil rights protestors in the South were fire hosed, beaten and arrested. They were regarded by lawmakers and others as trouble makers and radicals who wanted to destroy the country. This view would hardly be shared by the protestors who wanted the right to vote, go to the bathroom and have the same schools as the white majority. Not to mention eat in the same restaurants and sleep in the same hotels.

History is ideally a recording of the events that happened in past times. Washington chopped down the cherry tree. Lincoln returned the penny. But did they really? What if we cannot ever know the “historic” truth? What if history is so full of prejudice and distortion that we can never see the underlying reality? What if there is no underlying reality? Perhaps, the only reality is the reality told by the historian. Those who write history create it. There is no answer to this dilemma since it is the dilemma of life.

We are always subjected to multiple views of reality and it is up to us to piece together the best view we can. The truth may be that there is no truth, only your truth. My truth and yours may indeed by different. Truth and history are processes that will constantly undergo transformation and change. The history you hear today may change tomorrow. The stories that are told today will change over time. The interpretations that we provide will be distorted and altered by other story tellers and other her-storians.

Do not be so sure of your reality! Do not be so sure of what you read and hear! Will you ever read this blog again? Do you think your ideas and interpretations of what you are reading now will change if you do read it again? What if you wait ten years and then read it again? How do you think your ideas will change? If you are reading it again ten years from now, what has changed in your feelings about this blog and its meanings?

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. bgalbreath
    Nov 22, 2011 @ 18:38:43

    Each organism (including each person) is a filter of information. I believe there is a reality out there, but I do not believe that I (or anyone else) can adequately apprehend it. Maybe there is a universal consciousness that can take it all in and integrate it, but I can't. To proceed with life, we have to leave most of the potentially available information unnoticed, unrecorded. There is simply not enough time or energy to attend to anything but the smallest fraction. What we call “history” is an attempt to record events that the writer thinks are significant and to try to show their connections, their patterns. Just as every organism attends to a different set of information in the present, every historian picks out and emphasizes different bits of what purportedly happened in the past. Both fiction and non-fiction writers create narratives, and the “good” writers are those with the power the sell their narratives, to get you to adopt them as your own. History is most often a projection of current political concerns onto the past, but sometimes it is an authors attempt to fit everything into a quasi-scientific pattern (as Toynbee did in his A Study of History). Like scientific theories, this second sort of history lives or dies in terms of its predictive power. If it correctly predicts new facts about the past that we had not noticed or, even better, tells us what will happen next, it captures not the whole truth, but something of it.



  2. John Persico
    Nov 23, 2011 @ 13:26:38

    Bruce, you provide a good perspective. I was thinking of Marx and his view and De Toqueville and many others who had their perspective. I like your idea that many of them weave theory into the perspective. I had not thought of that.



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