Category: Shifting Perspectives Written by Nimue Brown
Making history isn’t an objective process. The choices we make – collectively – about the stories we focus on and how we tell them has everything to do with the present. While studying history can tell us a fair amount about the past, it has the power to reveal a great deal about the present.
Whose stories do we treat as important? Who is missing from the stories we favour? What current political thinking is reinforced by the stories we choose to tell about the past? This can be hard to spot because the stories that don’t challenge us feel affirming and don’t encourage us to question them.
Humans use stories about history to affirm the current state of the world. We like progress narratives that show us as being the best thing so far. We like to give the impression that the way we do things is the best or the only way of doing things.
At the same time we don’t like stories that make us feel uncomfortable. Nations whose wealth is built on slavery, violence and colonialism don’t like stories that cast their shameful history in a different light. The UK is terrible for this, so terrible that we’ve given more legal protection to statues of abusive men than we give to living victims of abuse. There are far too many people in the UK desperate to hang on to the implausible idea that we were a good thing for the many countries we exploited.
I grew up with history meaning stories of white men using their power over others. There are other stories to tell and we need those stories.
When someone tells you a story about the past, it’s always worth asking what purpose that story plays in the present. What agenda does it serve? What does it normalize? If you hear a story about the past and it makes you feel comfortable, consider the idea that this may be because you’re on the winning side that usually gets to write the past down on its own terms. If a story about things historical makes you angry or uncomfortable, or even makes you feel threatened, this is a really good thing to spend time with. What have you invested in that makes this story uncomfortable to you? It’s one thing if history makes you angry because you can’t bear the injustice you encounter, but quite another to be angry because it challenges your sense of self.
We all make stories about who we are and where we come from. For some people, the investment in the past, in ideas of nationhood and shared identity can be entirely good stuff. It’s good to feel rooted and to have a sense of place and belonging. Respect for our ancestors and love of the land are all good things. However, when a person’s story about who they are can only exist by denying other people’s stories and seeking to silence parts of history, there’s a lot of issue there. A sense of self that depends on silencing, whitewashing, minimising or denying is a fragile thing and the cost of keeping it viable can be high, and nasty.
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