Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Historical Progress and Reasonable Men

Miss S. raises some issues with one of my arguments from my presentation on Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead. I argue that history should be taught with a decidedly unpolemical stance, even when dealing with societies and institutions that most people today would find morally abhorrent such as slavery or open patriarchy. History should be presented from the perspective of those who lived then. We need to ask ourselves what was going through their heads when they did these things and what they would say in their own defense. The moment one takes a judgmental stance and starts to cluck about people in the past not being open minded or tolerant than one is no longer doing history. Miss S. asks:

Reading your post I can't help but feel as if your method of justification for the behaviors of people from the past fails to own up to the great potential that men possess. I'll explain why in a bit, but this is surprising because you seem to view those people and those societies in/from the past in high regard; higher regard than I (a non-historian) does. By our modern definition (and maybe even a historical one) "great" men were not those who compromised too often. If anything they were incredibly stubborn and rarely achieved any accolades for their behavior while they were alive.

You present slavery as an example of a social situation where bad moral actions (even for that society, at that time) could be reasoned away by the short-sightedness of the society and their reluctance to compromise their economic foundation. Perhaps I am interpreting this entirely wrong, but why should it be encouraged for the students to empathize with such a mindset and not be critical of it? There were plenty of other individuals from that same time period who were quite critical of the institution of slavery (I don't think anyone is debating that). What you have is a situation where sociology mixes with history and you have an example as to how gross acts of immorality can exist and the society at large puts up with it. Like how the Romans watched people being mauled to death by beasts in the Coliseum for sport. Like how our society today retains very little modesty in regards to sex.

In politics, yes you routinely make "deals with the Devil"; but also, if you notice, when you look throughout history, some of the great societal changes came about because either leaders or a group did not compromise -- and took the "all but nothing" stance. Believe it or not, this is not an outright criticism of your efforts. In fact if I were your student, I would find the exercise to be an interesting one. I would just wonder how you could explain away the impetus of ideas that were uncompromising and self-serving; yet impacted history greatly. Your approach would justify the actions of American slaveholders; but not that of the American (Union) government.

George Bernard Shaw once said: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man." I think Miss S. would agree with Shaw as would most people. I cannot disprove this claim, but would point out that it is based on a flawed human perception of history. One of the common traps that people fall into, when dealing with history, is narrative thinking. When studying historical events we look for stories to tell, ones that have all the qualities of the fictional stories we manufacture out of our own imaginations simply for entertainment. A good story that will hold onto the attentions of listeners and readers is going to have a unified story, with a clear beginning, middle and end, a limited number of characters, clear heroes and villains, something important at stake, like saving the world, with a climax in which everything will stand or fall based on one person making a single decision in just one moment. Since we like these sorts of stories, we will purposely try to construct historical narratives along these lines. The problem with narrative thinking is that there is no particular reason to assume that events in the physical world really do operate like this. So we fall into the trap of a self selecting bias; we see what we want to see even if it is a product of nothing more than our imaginations.

Does history advance because of a few brave heroes who do things that others think are impossible, defy the odds, and save the world? We wish to think this so we construct heroic narratives where society progresses through conflicts in which the good guys win in the end. A more accurate view of history would be that society evolves as part of a continuous process. The mechanism for this change is not clear cut conflict, but the compromises that different factions reach as part of their ongoing dialogue. Why did the Civil Rights movement succeed? Because blacks defeated their enemies with their marching or because mainstream America became convinced that giving blacks equal rights strengthened Middle America by bringing in moderate peaceful blacks and expelling segregationist whites? Middle America made a deal with black America and we are still working out the details. The same thing goes for the gay rights movement. Their success, ironically enough, has been due to their ability to adapt themselves to mainstream culture by seeking mainstream marriage than trying to actually change mainstream culture. For all the talk about extra-marital sex among American youth, the standard is still mainstream marriage. Groups outside of the mainstream make their deals with mainstream America and both sides win in the end.

It is very easy to admire someone like John Brown who made a martyr of himself trying to free slaves. But what did John Brown accomplish; he got a lot of people killed in Kansas and most famously at Harper's Ferry. In the end he freed no one. On the other hand take Abraham Lincoln, who is often drafted in the cause of American hero. Unlike the Lincoln of popular myth, though, the real Lincoln was very much the political pragmatist. In 1860 he did not run on a platform of getting rid of slavery, just to not allow slavery into the territories. How many slaves did the Great Emancipator free, zero. The Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in territories not currently controlled by the Union. That being said it set the stage for the thirteenth and fourteenth amendments by binding the American government to the ending of slavery. It was not the moderates who were being short sighted. In a sense it was people like John Brown who were the real short sighted ones.

We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process. When writing fantasy we could leave our Saurons and our Lord Voldemorts as being motivated just by evil. I do not understand evil as a motive. The closest I can come is the pursuit of good ends through means that are so evil that they cancel out the good at the end. For example there is trying to save the world by becoming a dark lord tyrant and nuking most of it. In fantasy one has the luxury of not having to seriously consider the "villains" and can just tell the story from the perspective of the "good guys." As a historian, though, I also have to be willing to consider "Sauron" and "Voldemort." Since it is precisely such people who represent the greatest difficulty, understanding them becomes the task which dominates my work as a historian.


Miss S. said...

Thank you for writing a post specifically to address my concerns.

RVA said...

Pt. 1

I find both of your following contentions persuasive, that – a) History should be taught from an unpolemical stance and that we should try to understand historical events from the perspectives, rationales, and narratives which individuals in that era would view the world; and b) that we inevitably transform history into a narrative with identifiable heroes and villains.

I find attractive your theory that history should be taught from an unpolemical perspective (inasmuch as possible) because we need to equip children with analytical and critical thinking skills, rather than imposing values upon them (i.e. capitalism is good and inevitable, democracy is without flaws, etc.). Values are which are ‘learned’ and ‘understood’ are much more powerful, durable, and influential than those which are imposed upon us. It is essential that we teach our youth the ability to understand both sides of an argument, rather than pushing them to become idealogues who lack the ability and skills to analyze the effects and implications of their beliefs. It is better to teach children why communism/Nazism/fascism is attractive, and then have them internalize that perspective, which will allow them to understand why Germany voted in the Nazis, or why Lenin became a Marxist; because it will then allow students to learn the lesson that ideologies which may be attractive in theory may turn out to be dangerous in practice, or that good ideas which gain popular traction are become corrupted and perverted by leaders who succumb to the temptations of power. We often try to “otherize” the Nazis and Communists; but instead we should seek to understand that they were human and that their decisions were driven by human instincts; rather than dehumanize them, we should try to understand what aspects of human nature led to their misguided decisions and results, which can only be done by internalizing their perspectives, so that we can learn and comprehend the lessons to be learned from the history of the 20th century. Students who lack the skills to internalize the perspectives from past historical eras will be more prone to be misguided by demagogues and idealogues because they will lack the tools and skills to withstand the imposition of social and political narratives which they encounter.

I am also very intrigued by your theory that history is often turned into a narrative with identifiable with heroes and villains. I would go further and speculate that humans have an intrinsic need, desire, and addiction for narratives; that our species inevitably tries to make sense of all external stimuli, and that our common vehicle of understanding an incomprehensible universe is to turn empirical reality into narratives, into stories which cater to our desire for a) intrigue, b) triumph of good, c) finality & resolution, and d) meaning to our existence.

RVA said...

In this sense, the two doctrines are in conflict: First, that we should unpolemicize history; Second, that humans inevitability tend to “narrativize” history to fit our cultural and societal values. You write, “We wish to find that hero who took on the forces of darkness and forever changed the world for the better. We want it so badly that we will write him into history, running over any inconvenient facts in the process.” This seems persuasive. But given that premise, I must ask you whether it is really possible for historians to write histories which are unpolemic? Even if historians are capable of writing unpolemical histories, will they have enough traction to become persuasive to other historians, or even to the general public? Does the structure and composition of History departments at American universities allow the writing of unpolemical histories? Is it possible to teach a course which doesn’t implicitly assign valuations to historical events or historical figures? Is it inevitable that historians “narrativize” history? Are there societal benefits to the polemical teaching of history which outweigh an unpolemical approach? Are there benefits to making history into a narrative?

This is all so interesting and thought-provoking! This was written at a whim, so please tell me if some of my observations or questions are unclear, and I will try to clarify my thoughts.

Miss S. said...

Amazing comments RVA; you were able to properly verbalize [much better than myself] questions regarding moving away from the narrative approach to history.