Submitted by: Amanda Jarrett
Interpretations individuals have had throughout history about their own history have always been diverse. As Becker mentioned in his article, no one event can fully be recorded due to the immense amount of individualistic perceptions and eye witnesses that come from differing backgrounds. One’s own personal experience and social context influences the ways in which they analyze their surroundings (Hunt).
When taking a step back from one’s own understanding of the world, it becomes clear that perception heavily influences the way states and humanity interact with one another. Hunt defines historical truth as having two components: facts and interpretation. Facts are inert until one laces them with interpretation; one cannot retain its significance without the other.
This can be observed in multiple aspects throughout ancient history and modern history. Historical truth advocates for finding the actual truth of facts and events behind the interpretations of the political structures at the time of the events. Historical truth looks for the full representation of history rather than the historical truths created by powered governments and influential citizens.
Unfortunately, the connection between what the government holds to be true and what their citizens consider to be the truth do not always align, creating a rife of distrust between them. This lack of unity in the idea of one’s historical truth in comparison to another causes tension that lead to major societal fall outs.
The stakes for the lack of historical truths for citizens have been detrimental. Divisions in humanity have always been evident, but none as obvious as race. The concept of race as it is known to day was developed in the 1500s. According to theorists such as Bernier and Voltaire, populations of people were grouped together by their physical appearance not initially because of the color of their skin but by their geographical location (Hackett).
A trend in categorization of races began, shoving populations into identifiable boxes, in an attempt to make it easier to grasp an understanding of them and what they considered to be their truth. Though, the only perspective that has been given by early racial theorists, and even philosophers, would be from the perspective of the state that held the most power.
In Painter’s book, she discusses how Ancient Greece produced knowledge about other cultures through their lens of culture and perspectives of understanding. This perspective of the rest of the world has been relayed as truth for hundreds of years even though it failed to express the perspectives of others eventually leading to a dominant narrative of what was the truth of the philosopher’s history, failing to separate narrative bias from what they considered to be scientific fact.
Their truth became historical truth by the generations that followed, shaping the human class divisions that molded the world today. Their theories have been contested both scientifically and philosophically, but those truths that they held have carried forward relentlessly because of how they continue to form individualistic and societal perceptions. The unfortunate aspect of this is that today’s society is dealing with the consequences of unreliable truth.
Citizens are not the only ones who get negatively impacted by the lack of historical truth from their past but also by the truths their governments solicit. The government and its policymakers push their perception of interpretation to its maximum limit, doing everything they can to be portrayed in a positive light.
A prime example of this is patriotic culture. Before the Vietnam War, patriotic culture was more inclusive than after because it allowed for multiple visions of the past be accepted. After the war, “patriotic culture devolved into a rigid patriotic orthodoxy-tightly linked with political and cultural conservatism” (Linenthal and Engelhardt, 98).
The American government would not let any negative rhetoric from the truths historians tried to bring to light because it threatened the American image. The perception of the war varied by what the government wanted to be seen, the citizens who opposed it, and the soldiers who fought in Vietnam.
It is important to realize that patriotic culture limited the amounts of perceptions that were represented in written history. The government attempted to create a historical truth that excluded the truth seen by the citizens. This disconnect amplified the major truth issues between citizens and their state, which can be further illustrated by the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
Once citizens revolted against the government’s truth, demonstrations of countering the narrative escalated. More truths that the American government pushed aside as well as its secrets. There are too many examples of this occurring, but to name a few: The Watergate Scandal, the rise of eugenics in America, and the lack of general admittances of horrible wrongs such as the genocide against the Native-American people. The American government allows its own bias towards its image to affect the way it writes truth, lacking its own reliability.
The truthfulness of interpretations entirely depends on coherence and its ability to offer explanations for important fact (Hunt). The fact is that it is impossible to have absolute truth, but “a closer look reveals that the standards of historical truth are incredibly powerful because they facilitate criticism” (Hunt, 59). Criticism also stems from a lack of reliability in the historical narrative. Notably, authors of history are inherently bias and thus making it difficult to display the whole truth of events. Finding and creating an historical truth that allows for a full representation of narratives and perceptive is crucial for societal growth.
Becker, Carl L. “Everyman His Own Historian.” The American Historical Review, vol. 37, no. 2, 1932, pp. 221–236.
Bernasconi, Robert, and Tommy Lee Lott. The Idea of Race. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2000.
“History’s Politics.” History: Why It Matters, by Lynn Hunt, Polity, 2018, pp. 63–88.
Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. W W Norton, 2010.
“Patriotic Orthodoxy and American Decline.” History Wars: the Enola Gay and Other Battles for the American Past, by Tom Engelhardt and Edward Tabor Linenthal, Holt, 2006, pp. 97–114.