Human beings are genetically predisposed to find patterns and to assume that events are linked in time by cause and effect, and it’s quite easy to see why. If you assume that a rustling in the bushes means that a tiger is about to pounce, then being wrong nine times out of ten is probably better than failing to make that connection once. This contributes to a natural human inclination to simplify memory by constructing a single linear narrative.
History is taught to schoolchildren as if events were the consequence of a series of decisions and actions by leaders and heroes.
Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo. When this cannot be done causes may be located in physical or emotional pressures.
The Pilgrims set sail for the New World to escape religious persecution in their homeland.
This view is not only simplistic, it’s actually dangerous. First of all it contains and reinforces the assumption that there is an objectively true sequence of events which make a story of the human journey. Here is George Orwell:
When Sir Walter Raleigh was imprisoned in the Tower of London, he occupied himself with writing a history of the world. He had finished the first volume and was at work on the second when there was a scuffle between some workmen beneath the window of his cell, and one of the men was killed. In spite of diligent enquiries, and in spite of the fact that he had actually seen the thing happen, Sir Walter was never able to discover what the quarrel was about; whereupon, so it is said — and if the story is not true it certainly ought to be — he burned what he had written and abandoned his project.
We force the universe to make sense, and when we cannot understand we construct a reality which matches our beliefs and our prejudices. Nations do the same thing, formally or informally choosing what events to record and how to record them. This is one of the reasons the traditional history was the history of kings and nobles – they were the ones who could write and they did not consider the lives of the poor worth writing about. Chinese Emperors needed to assert the legitimacy of their rule in historical terms, and this made them consumate rewriters of the truth. Each dynasty would hire historians to show that the previous rulers had been degenerate and evil men whom heaven punished by casting down from power. The nobility and virtue of the current regime was attested by good harvests, peace, and harmony in the kingdom. From our perspective this looks clumsy, but it provides the model today for both history and news. Here is Orwell again
During the Spanish civil war I found myself feeling very strongly that a true history of this war never would or could be written. Accurate figures, objective accounts of what was happening, simply did not exist. And if I felt that even in 1937, when the Spanish Government was still in being, and the lies which the various Republican factions were telling about each other and about the enemy were relatively small ones, how does the case stand now? Even if Franco is overthrown, what kind of records will the future historian have to go upon? And if Franco or anyone at all resembling him remains in power, the history of the war will consist quite largely of “facts” which millions of people now living know to be lies. One of these “facts,” for instance, is that there was a considerable Russian army in Spain. There exists the most abundant evidence that there was no such army. Yet if Franco remains in power, and if Fascism in general survives, that Russian army will go into the history books and future school children will believe in it. So for practical purposes the lie will have become truth.
Using or inventing history as propaganda is the least difficulty with finding historical truth, however. The greater problem is that humans act for many reasons simultaneously, or for no reason at all. Some of the levers of events can be understood from the outcomes, after discarding the accepted narrative. This is the “follow the money” approach. But people are complex and their motivations can be hard to untangle even when their worldview is understood and their environment known. What’s more it’s a stochastic method so it works better with groups than individuals.
Was the French Revolution a result of the nobility squeezing the poor to breaking point? Was it a cathartic response to the overturning of medieval certainties by the reformation, the enlightenment, and science? Was it a power struggle by certain elements of the newly wealthy bourgeoisie which got out of control as the mob became enraged? There’s no definitive answer and to ask for one is to invite problems.
There are no whole truths; all truths are half-truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.
ÃƒÂ¢Ã¢â€šÂ¬Ã¢â‚¬Å“ Alfred North Whitehead
I want to show you why this matters, but all possible examples are so laden with emotion and layered with disinformation, by the very nature of the problem, that it’s difficult to come up with a way to talk about it. This is the best I can do:
It’s often put forward as an historical truth that “the Jews killed Jesus.” The statement has some historical (if you accept the gospels as a written record) basis. Nevertheless it’s so laden with falsehoods, misconceptions, half-truths, and anachronistic context that it’s not only false but meaningless, except as a political tool. [If you're interested in the details of why I say that there's a good explanation here.] Jesus was not, until after his death, the “first Christian” and cultural hero which this statement assumes. It’s a political statement, a propaganda, whatever the literal historical reality happens to be. Said today it cannot be divorced from the emotional, religious, racial, and cultural baggage which surrounds it. What such a statement does is to obscure a complex situation and extract a meaning which did not exist at the time.
A thing is not true unless it is both accurate and kind.