History is a Weapon

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Catchfire Catchfire's picture
History is a Weapon

History isn't what happened, but a story of what happened. And there are always different versions, different stories, about the same events. One version might revolve mainly around a specific set of facts while another version might minimize them or not include them at all.
      Like stories, each of these different versions of history contain different lessons. Some histories tell us thatour leaders, at least, have always tried to do right for everyone. Others remark that the emperors don't have the slaves' best interests at heart. Some teach us that this is both what has always been and what always will be. Others counsel that we shouldn't mistake transient dominance for intrinsic superiority. Lastly, some histories paint a picture where only the elites have the power to change the world, while others point out that social change is rarely commanded from the top down.

       Regardless of the value of these many lessons, History isn't what happened, but the stories of what happened and the lessons these stories include. The very selection of which histories to teach in a society shapes our view of how what is came to be and, in turn, what we understand as possible. This choice of which history to teach can never be "neutral" or "objective." Those who choose, either following a set agenda or guided by hidden prejudices, serve their interests. Their interests could be to continue this world as it now stands or to make a new world. 
      We cannot simply be passive. We must choose whose interests are best: those who want to keep things going as they are or those who want to work to make a better world. If we choose the latter, we must seek out the tools we will need. History is just one tool to shape our understanding of our world. And every tool is a weapon if you hold it right.

A left counter-hegemonic education project

Issues Pages: 
Caissa

Almost any hisorian would agree with what is written above.

6079_Smith_W

Very interesting site. Thanks!

milo204

we need a site like that that deals with canada's history...

6079_Smith_W

Aside from the fact that we are currently on one of those sites, I think the resources are all there already. It's just a matter looking and, more importantly, thinking critically.

It would be a bad thing if anyone got lulled into thinking all the perspective one needs can be found on one website.

 

 

autoworker

Those with superior weapons often write the narrative.

6079_Smith_W

True, though for the most part the rest of the story is hiding in plain view.

Not to say that people aren't manipulated - they are. But they also tend to see what they want to see.

I don't mean to imply that there isn't any groundbreaking investigative work, or uncovered secrets, but I'd say most of it is right there for those who want to see it.

 

 

 

 

autoworker

Moreover, banality may be the most potent weapon in perpetuating that narrative.

Sven Sven's picture

As a reader or student, I don’t want to read history that is deliberately “used as a weapon” to advance a political goal (whether I agree with the political goal or not).  I want to make up my own mind.  I don’t expect scientific objectivity (that does not exist in history) but I do expect a serious historian or teacher to make a good faith effort to give as open and as honest an account of an event or period of time as she or he can.  Just because scientific objectively cannot be attained, that’s not a reason to make no effort to be as objective as possible.  It would be incredibly arrogant for a historian or teacher to “use history as a weapon” and to deliberately skew a view of history to advance a political goal – rather than to let the historian’s readers or teacher’s students come to their own conclusions.

Fidel

Quote:
History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of 'history' it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time - and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened."  (Hunter S. Thompson)

6079_Smith_W

Not to say that the idea promoted by the myth is wrong... just that it wasn't intended that way:

http://mediamythalert.wordpress.com/2011/06/14/too-early-to-say-zhou-was...

 

Caissa

Sven, the issue depends on the les through which a historian views history. Even the argument that something close to objectivity is possible is an ideological lens. An historian constantly has to decide what material and information s/he will privilege.

Sven Sven's picture

Caissa wrote:

Sven, the issue depends on the les through which a historian views history. Even the argument that something close to objectivity is possible is an ideological lens. An historian constantly has to decide what material and information s/he will privilege.

I agree with that (except for your second sentence).  But, I don't think the fact that we cannot obtain absolute objectivity in a historical analysis is a justification for chucking all efforts towards (imperfect) objectivity and shifting to "using history as a weapon" and purposefully skewing history to advance a political objective.  It's an arrogant and patronizing approach to history ("I know better than you, dear reader, and I'm only going to tell you the story that advances my political views and I'm going to do that by purposefully ignoring certain information and views that are contrary to my political views").

6079_Smith_W

@ Caissa

I agree completely about objectivity, but I also agree with Sven. As in - when your values come into conflict with what you see in front of you, which do you turn to as the truth? Of course we all have biases, but I think a dedicated historian has to try, as much as possible, to put fairness and an open mind above personal bias.

But the propagandist name notwithstanding, I have checked out a few of the articles, and really like the site. That, ultimately, is more important than the name.

 

 

 

Caissa

 I'll repeat,the concept of objectivity existing is an ideological one, Sven. Historians are not trying to discover some abstract truth Smith.  At best they are trying to understand what happened and why. There lenses influence the questions they ask, the material they examine and the type of answers they offer. Other people, and other historians, may differ. My thoughts are based on 12 years of university history studies in my younger days. They are only one lens. Van Ranke and Carlyle, to name but two, would definitely disagree with me.

Sven Sven's picture

Caissa: On what basis is an objective approach to knowledge "ideological"? Can you give me some illustrations?

Caissa

To start with it has an ideology that argues that something that can be objectively known happened. Beyond a mere statement of "facts" it doesn't get us very far. Even then one has to decide what "facts" they think are important and deal with what "facts" have been preserved through artifacts. Historians don't make objective choices; they make subjective ones.

6079_Smith_W

Caissa wrote:

 I'll repeat,the concept of objectivity existing is an ideological one, Sven. Historians are not trying to discover some abstract truth Smith.  At best they are trying to understand what happened and why. There lenses influence the questions they ask, the material they examine and the type of answers they offer. Other people, and other historians, may differ. My thoughts are based on 12 years of university history studies in my younger days. They are only one lens. Van Ranke and Carlyle, to name but two, would definitely disagree with me.

I'm not talking about abstract anything, Caissa, certainly not any notion of a perfect truth.

But if the argument is that it is all perspective and shifting sand then your position and my position is no more valid than those we call down. If that's the case then why pay attention to anything? Just tell me what to do and I'll believe it.

(And I sure hope this isn't going to turn into one of those discussions about there being no such thing as facts)

I am saying that a historian should try to be fair enough to accept the historical record even when it is uncomfortable andconflicts with what he or she sees through those lenses you are talking about. Especially when it does not support one's own perspective.

Is it perfect and objective? Of course not, and I never claimed it was. But it is far different than actively making history a slave to ideology, and I'd say that was part of Sven's criticism.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

As a literary/cultural critic who nonetheless is involved in historically based research, I come to this question slightly differently, but when I tell my students that any critical approach, even the ones we think are based in common sense or objectivity, are ideological, a frequent response, even amongst my peers, is that this means "all interpretations are equally valid." It doesn't. There are still measures with which you can evaluate different approaches, and the one I usually start with is to ask yourself what is at stake in your interpretation: cui bono?, etc.

Our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy. This discourse is historically grounded as an emerging class asserted its ethical and political authority in the face of a decaying aristocracy and religious hegemony. When you say it's "ideological" it doesn't mean "invalid" or "bad," it just means ideological: it's based in a certain ethical framework which views the world in a particular way. That is, it's based in the consciousness of a white, middle-class bourgeois man in the Cartesian/Kantian mode. They believed, rightly, that humankind was in the throes of a "self-imposed tutelage" and deliberately sought to break that tutelage. That's ideological, even if it was the right move at the time. However, if we begin to think of such a move as "natural" rather than ideological, we surrender our critical faculties -- ironic, given the impetus of the Enlightenment in the first place.

The easiest way to see objectivity as a mirage is to look at the documentary lens. We think of photography, video, etc. as "objective" because the "camera doesn't lie." But of course, it does. Even CCTV cameras, which appear to have no subjective input whatsoever were placed by a human hand which influences the story they tell. That's what I mean by "ideological": it doesn't deny the images of the CCTV camera, but it acknowledges that they were produced by a unique historical -- and human -- condition.

Slumberjack

Sven wrote:
But, I don't think the fact that we cannot obtain absolute objectivity in a historical analysis is a justification for chucking all efforts towards (imperfect) objectivity and shifting to "using history as a weapon" and purposefully skewing history to advance a political objective.  It's an arrogant and patronizing approach to history ("I know better than you, dear reader, and I'm only going to tell you the story that advances my political views and I'm going to do that by purposefully ignoring certain information and views that are contrary to my political views").

The political leaders that some of you people routinely help elect to office, along with the corporate media, do precisely that on a daily basis. Take for instance the Oka Crisis and the history of the claim to the area under dispute at that time, which still remains unresolved to the benefit of those who chose to ignore history as their weapon of choice, wielded against the Mohawk people and their claims.

6079_Smith_W

Catchfire wrote:

As a literary/cultural critic who nonetheless is involved in historically based research, I come to this question slightly differently, but when I tell my students that any critical approach, even the ones we think are based in common sense or objectivity, are ideological, a frequent response, even amongst my peers, is that this means "all interpretations are equally valid." It doesn't. There are still measures with which you can evaluate different approaches, and the one I usually start with is to ask yourself what is at stake in your interpretation: cui bono?, etc.

I'd agree with that.

And I think my test is congruent to yours - if something has the ring of truth even if it does not benefit or even discredits your values and beliefs, do you reject it or do you  consider it?

In any profession where one has to try to get at honest answers, that's a critical question, IMO.

As for the notion of objectivity, I think the most significant recent change happened in the 1920s, when media was concentrated into a few (more often a single) interpretation of the truth. Before that, most people knew that when they were reading a newspaper that it was an interpretation of the basic information, not the absolute truth (and many Canadian cities had scores of dailies and weeklies) .

(edit)

... and of course there is the ultimate test. That if you manage to have everyone convinced you are wrong, you are probably right.

 

ygtbk

Catchfire wrote:

Our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth century Enlightenment philosophy.

Catchfire, is this meant to be a true statement (i.e. describing something that is just unproblematically historically true), a false statement (not so describing), or a statement based on ideological assumptions (since after all it's about history)? If it's based on ideological assumptions, what are they?

I'd say it's false, since the idea of objective truth predates the eighteenth century.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

ygbtk wrote:
since the idea of objective truth predates the eighteenth century.

Yes, of course it did. But before the Enlightenment, objective truth came from the mouths of kings or gods. That's why "our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy."

ygtbk

@ Catchfire:

I think Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and the rest of that crowd might want to have a word with you ;-)

But when you say "of course it did", aren't you acknowledging a standard historical timeline? If I said, "Nonsense, our understanding of objectivity is rooted in the wise teachings of the Venusian space ponies who landed their flying saucers in 971 AD", would you buy that?

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

I guess you're playing undergraduate-level games with me. I will address any serious attempts at conversation, but these kind of gleeful gotcha pranks don't amuse me when they come from entitled first-year students, and they don't amuse me now.

Yes, I am telling a story of philosophical geneologies dependent on my own worldview which I base on my experience, my knowledge of our received literary histories and the legacies of those histories. I can defend my worldview in many ways that your bullshit premise about space ponies which insults this conversation and me cannot.

ygtbk

@ Catchfire:

Please calm down. I picked an absurd premise not to insult you but to emphasize that there are things that are true and things that don't even pass the laugh test. I apologize for offending you.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Yes, and none of that had anything to do with what I said. Believe me, I'm perfectly calm. You can reread my first paragraph at post #18 if you think it will keep you from posting the bullshit you think is funny or eye-opening. What you "emphasized" was that you either have no idea or no intention of understanding what I am writing, catch-all catalogue of Greek philosophers notwithstanding.

6079_Smith_W

Just thinking about equality a bit more, CF. I agree differing perspectives are not all equal in terms of benefit and value (though none are perfect) . And my "shifting sands" comment was intended to point out the difficulty in using the perspective argument against others.

That said, what does equalize us is our capacity for error and self-interest. For that reason, I think it is important to focus on proper methodology - the tool that anyone who is serious uses to try and minimize the inaccuracy of perspective.

After all, while benefit is one of a number of things which colours our perspective, to assume a direct relationship would be to assume that we are all intellectually dishonest (and I know you weren't making such a strong statement).

 

Sven Sven's picture

With regard to "intellectual honesty": If no element of objective truth exists in the study of history, then neither "honesty" nor "dishonesty" in the context of studying or writing about history has any meaning. A statement can only be honest or dishonest if the veracity of the statement can be shown to be true or false.

6079_Smith_W

@ Sven

Not necessarily. I understand and agree that there is no such thing as objectivity, and history is not a hard science, so not all of is it yes or no.

Dishonesty is ignoring inconvenient facts, or using facts in an unethical way.

 

jjuares

Catchfire wrote:

ygbtk wrote:
since the idea of objective truth predates the eighteenth century.

Yes, of course it did. But before the Enlightenment, objective truth came from the mouths of kings or gods. That's why "our understanding of objectivity is rooted in eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosophy."

I find this quite a Euro-centric comment. Every society has had its dissenters who did not accept the nonsense of the ruling class as any sort of truth. This of course doesn't even include those who did not believe in the ruling ideology but were afraid to speak up for fear of the consequences to them or their families.  It isn't just western  enlightenment society that had a belief in objective truth.

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Well of course it's Euro-centric. That's the Enlightenment for you.

jjuares

Catchfire wrote:

Well of course it's Euro-centric. That's the Enlightenment for you.

Your assertion that the search for objective truths beyond what the kings told the populace is what makes your comments euro-centric. Some of us come from cultures that had individuals that valued objectivity long before the European  enlightnment.

6079_Smith_W

@ Caissa

I think we all understand that in this context "objectivity" just means whoever has the loudest voice trying to convince us that his way is the only way.

I doubt that is what jjuares meant. And it is certainly not an ideal I was arguing for.

And the fact is, there are a number of perspectives - some of them far more informed than the academic approaches you mention. You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

(edit)

Case in point - that a significant number of the articles on the History site are not written by academics. One thing I really like about it is that many of them are primary sources, and eye-witness accounts, not something that has been spun one way or another.

Again, not perfect and in no way objective, but at least material that offers us the best chance to draw our own conclusions.

 

 

Caissa

As I was following to sleep last night I was thinking of this discussion( Boring life I know.)

Let's take the question of the cause of Confederation. Someone could approach it from many lenses/

A Great Man theorist might argue that the Grand Coalition of Macdonald, Brown and Cartier was the key factor.

A Marxist historian might examine it as a precursor to the National Policy and further exploitation of the hinterlands.

A military historian might emphasize the fenian threat and fears of the US turning its forces northward after the civil war.

A diplomatic historian might emphasize the role of the colonial office.

An post-colonialist might examine this as another step in the subjugation of first nations.

A regional historian might examine NB's rejection and subsequent acceptance of Confederation in consecutive elections or Joe Howe's anti-confederation movement in NS.

A political historian might examine the political deadlock in the Province of Canada.

So which of these is the objective lens?  

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

Eye witness accounts are never the same and thus they lack objectivity.  My favourite example is in the Duck Lake Interpretation Centre. There are three eye witness accounts of the first skirmish in the NW Resistance.  One is Cree, one is Metis and one is Canadian.  The three stories disagree on much of what happened and each interprets the rest differently.  The only thing all three accounts seemed to agree on was that the Canadians opened fire first.

If you read all three accounts you can get a feel for what really happened but if you read only one account no matter which one you would get a very biased and inaccurate description of the events.

6079_Smith_W

Yes k, and I did acknowledge they were perspectives, but at least they aren't clouded by the interpretation of some historian trying to tell us what it means.

I think this gets back to Sven mentioning that he has a problem with refering to history as a weapon, and I agree. Anyone who tries to use it as one isn't being honest, IMO.

Now in the case of this site, the title aside, I don't see them doing that. From what I have seen so far, I think they have chosen good accounts which challenge the popular and mainstream perception of things, and - most importantly, I think they are presented in an honest, non-manipulative way.

That's all I am arguing for.

 

lagatta

I think some are confusing objectivity and rigour - telling the truth as far as you see it, and using all available sources. 

I don't believe historical objectivity is possible either, and yes, I am also trained as an historian (or a historian; preferences vary). 

That does not mean that historical writing is the same as propaganda, whether political propaganda or simple commercial advertising. Simply the facts and stories you choose to investigate, and which you retain, will be very different according to your class, gender, ethnic background and when you lived, as well as your political and other choices. 

The Enlightenment was certainly a European event (though obviously some of the ideas, texts and material bases had their roots in the Middle East and beyond, and contact with/conquest of the Americas influenced it in other ways ("the noble savage", which could also refer to a genuine appreciation of Indigenous figures of the Americas, and a lot of stolen wealth...). But this European phenomenon very soon had an impact elsewhere, in the US war of independence, and after the French revolution, Haiti's own...) 

 

Sven Sven's picture

Another way of looking at this question is from the perspective of a reader of history:

When you read history, do look seek historical accounts that are purposefully skewed to advance the particular political views of an author?  Or, do you expect a writer to make a good faith effort to give as complete a picture of the events as is reasonably possible so that you can draw your own conclusions?

I'm sure there are many people who want skewed information (look how popular Fox News is).  But, I'd wager that intellectually curious readers want the latter type of effort.

6079_Smith_W

@ lagatta

Well said.

And to be clear, I think advocacy journalism is a good thing, and believe historians should have opinions and interpret. But it is, as you say, the rigour that counts.

For me it comes down to how much I feel I can trust a source, although they should all be read with a critical eye. Personally, I have no problem reading material that some consider conservative, or even right wing. I don't think one gets a real picture of what is going on without doing that. And I have read some perfectly valid interpretations from people on the right. But there is a big difference between The Economist and Fox News, just as there is between sources in the centre and on the left. It's not like the right has any monopoly on lies and manipulation.

 

 

Caissa

The latter type is impossible , Sven because it presupposes the author does not have his or her own lens.

kropotkin1951 kropotkin1951's picture

6079_Smith_W wrote:

Yes k, and I did acknowledge they were perspectives, but at least they aren't clouded by the interpretation of some historian trying to tell us what it means.

Actually I see it as the eyewitness accounts being the data for a historian. How a historian then records the story is where it becomes more subjective since depending on ones background one could be drawn to one of the perspectives over another.  However I also think that a good historian can look at the three accounts and make an assessment of what actually happened.

ygtbk

Sven wrote:

Another way of looking at this question is from the perspective of a reader of history:

When you read history, do look seek historical accounts that are purposefully skewed to advance the particular political views of an author?  Or, do you expect a writer to make a good faith effort to give as complete a picture of the events as is reasonably possible so that you can draw your own conclusions?

I'm sure there are many people who want skewed information (look how popular Fox News is).  But, I'd wager that intellectually curious readers want the latter type of effort.

And going back to the opening post in this thread, if an instructor selectively edits the history to be taught on the basis of his or her political convictions, then that's indoctrination rather than education, and she/he is not dealing fairly with the students. 

Sven Sven's picture

Caissa wrote:

The latter type is impossible , Sven because it presupposes the author does not have his or her own lens.

It's facile to simply assert that objectivity in history is impossible.

It is only "impossible" if we are talking about a binary differentiation: A particular work is entirely objective (which is impossible) or it is not and, if it is not, there are no elements of objectivity within it.

But, that is not the case.

Most historical works will contain objective elements (e.g., President Truman ordered the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan).  The more objective elements that are contained in a historical work, the more objective the work may be.

So, while no historical work can be perfectly objective, that does not mean that all historical works are perfectly unobjective.

With regard to subjective interpretation, I think this is what we should expect of a historian: Give the readers your thesis but also give your readers contrary facts and arguments to that thesis and then give your readers your logical and analytical reasoning for why your thesis makes the most sense.  With that, a reader can look at contrary facts and analyze the logic of the historian's reasoning and then draw her or his own conclusions.

 

6079_Smith_W

kropotkin1951 wrote:

 

Actually I see it as the eyewitness accounts being the data for a historian. How a historian then records the story is where it becomes more subjective since depending on ones background one could be drawn to one of the perspectives over another.  However I also think that a good historian can look at the three accounts and make an assessment of what actually happened.

That is largely how I see it too, except that any account or parsing of it is going to be subjective. There is no perfect and final truth.

But I agree that we have to try our best, and that for people in those professions it is most important to be honest in their interpretation.

But really, I think the most important thing to be concerned with is not the mistakes of those we disagree with, but our tendency to think we have hit upon the real truth.

 

Catchfire Catchfire's picture

ygtbk wrote:
And going back to the opening post in this thread, if an instructor selectively edits the history to be taught on the basis of his or her political convictions, then that's indoctrination rather than education, and she/he is not dealing fairly with the students.

It's only "indoctrination" if the teacher doesn't admit her own historical approach and calls the class "objective."

ygtbk

Catchfire wrote:

ygtbk wrote:
And going back to the opening post in this thread, if an instructor selectively edits the history to be taught on the basis of his or her political convictions, then that's indoctrination rather than education, and she/he is not dealing fairly with the students.

It's only "indoctrination" if the teacher doesn't admit her own historical approach and calls the class "objective."

If this position is granted (I disagree with it, BTW), it will still only be education, not indoctrination, if the student is free to respond on the basis of his or her own political beliefs or historical approach without being penalized for it. Otherwise the class will be one long argument from authority - one authority - the teacher's. And the students will be in the position of parroting back something that they may not believe. It can be done, but it's a charade - "they pretend to educate us, and we pretend to believe them".

sknguy II

The History is a Weapon site is a really interesting one. One of the toughest things I’ve tried to do was to explain Indigenous ideas and principles. I think the same holds true for storytelling or history telling. When you try explain an idea or concept, it’s meaning, or context, can seemingly change or contradict yourself from one situation or story to the next.

This is an excerpt of a book review by Dan Wulff, U of C, of Shawn Wilson’s book “Research is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods”:

Quote:
Wilson (2008) states, “[a]n idea cannot be taken out of this relational context and still maintain its shape” (p. 8). He credits Terry Tafoya (1995) with “[t]he closer you get to defining something, the more it loses its context. Conversely, the more something is put into context, the more it loses a specific definition” (p. 8). This appreciation of the embeddedness of ideas or practices in their contexts sets the stage for us to encounter ideas or practices in their complexity, not their individuality. This context issue was taken up by Adele Clarke in her book Situational Analysis: Grounded Theory after the Postmodern Turn (2005). In her book she actively wonders about the possibility of seeing the context of an idea, a person, a community, or a practice not as outside of, but within that idea, person, community, or practice. The desire to contextualize may be a way of subdividing our world that mystifies rather than clarifies.

I think that if you’re at least aware you can explore your own objectivity. I’m not sure that you can apply objectivity really, just an awareness.

RevolutionPlease RevolutionPlease's picture

Everybody dun looks the udder way...

 

 

RevolutionPlease RevolutionPlease's picture