The Abuse of History

‘The past is a different country’, but it needn’t be an alien one. I have always believed that we need to know our own history, be at home with the story of how we came to be. Often that means accepting that the narrative we grew up with is partial, even misleading in the way it suppresses some things and highlights others. Truth tends to be bigger and more challenging than we like to admit and few of us ever manage to see it whole, but I think we need to make the effort. To think historically is not the preserve of a few specialists. Rather, it is something we all ought to aim at, for those who don’t use history often end up abusing it.

Thinking unhistorically about the past can be dangerous. Take, for example, some of the comments you see online whenever there is some act of violence involving Christians and Muslims. Inevitably, someone will refer to the atrocities of the past. The historian in me winces at the frequently inaccurate references to the Crusades or the Ottoman empire, but they also make me want to ask why anyone should think that what happened in the twelfth century should justify or excuse what happens in the twenty-first. What is the connection, for example, between Frankish knights and most modern-day westerners? It is tenuous at best; but historical fact bends before the power of emotion, and that is the point.

Memory is a great gift, but it can play us false. It can make us perpetuate a cycle of distrust and aggression, of brutality and violence, that stems from an imaginary identification with the past. In short, it can imprison us in destructive attitudes and patterns of behaviour that are unrelated to actual experience. We live a fiction. Before pointing the finger at others, however, I think it would be useful to examine a few (unconscious) prejudices of our own. How do we perceive our own history and the history of our nation, Church or whatever? How far does that history illuminate the present, and how far does it cast a dark shadow over our ability to rub along with others in peace and harmony? The answers may not be comfortable.

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3 thoughts on “The Abuse of History”

  1. There is so much truth in what you write and I think that how and who you are educated and brought up by informs those ideas and prejudices that are illogical and mistaken and preserve hatreds which can be passed from generation to generation.

    Even in this country, we can have two or more versions of our own history, particularly from the Reformation onwards. There is the Protestant version of revision, and the removal of the perceived trappings of Catholic excess, which included of course, the creation of many Catholic martyrs and the persecution of many Catholics, while during the short reign of Mary Tudor, she created many Protestant Martyrs. The reformed Church of England than persecuted and drove out many Clergy and People who didn’t accept all of the changes which led to the creation of new Protestant denominations now called the Free Churches.

    This story told from a Catholic perspective demonizes the Protestant reformers, where told from a Protestant perspective it demonizes Catholics. Indeed it took over 200 years for parliament to emancipate Catholics and even today vestiges of that prejudice remain in our national constitution.

    Strangely enough, there remain people who refer back to those times as the cause of division and all the problems in our Churches and country today. Taking a partisan view of these issues can be like a cancer in our hearts and minds, a virulent poisonous cancer which sets people against people purely on the basis of historic events and a faith sincerely held.

    Northern Ireland suffered from this for generations and continues to do so. The Arch Bishop of the Church or Ireland has recently spoken out against Sectarianism views within the Church which are causing division and prejudice today, particularly in dioceses within the Republic of Ireland. A sad state of affairs indeed.

    We are supposed to learn from our history to avoid making the same mistakes as our ancestors, but if the things that we are teaching or learning continue to divide and cause harm to others, perhaps it’s time for a debate on how we teach our history in a way that helps greater understanding of the past, openly and transparently, without passing on those inherited prejudices.

    I pray that that day comes soon.

  2. History has a habit of being told to suit the needs of the present, rather than a yearning for objective truth. Here’s a facetious example in many ways: I happen to work in a hospice and because of its catchment area it is not uncommon that every few months we have a patient who is in the public eye (politicians, actors, media folk etc.). Last year a reasonably well known actor and comedian died at the hospice. I had done a fair bit of work with this person – mainly organising a solicitor to write a will and some low level counselling. When the celeb died there was much in the media about their passing – what struck me was that the given age was wrong, as was the date of birth – and several other facts about the person’s life were incorrect or muddled when reported in the media. This is not the first time I have come across reality being eclipsed by ‘the story’ – I’ve witnessed this with both media ‘celebs’ and politicians. Such experiences have led me to mistrust much that passes for ‘history’ (and news) as I am sure throughout ‘history’ there has been a similar manipulation of facts.

    History is indeed told to suit the needs of the present, be that a political need or a religious need. Last year I was at some doleful seminar held at the Houses of Parliament on the Church’s relationship with the welfare state. I was staggered to hear how many clerics and Christian politicians make huge (self-congratulatory) assumptions concerning the role of Christians in the formation of the welfare state. As a chapter of my doctoral thesis is given over to the evolution of the welfare state, the clerics’ and politicians’ history was simplistic to say the least – yes there were Christians who were instrumental in social reform (mainly Non-Conformists) in the late 18th and throughout the 19th century; but many reforms were achieved by Humanist and Christian politicians working together to force legislation through a mainly indifferent (tho’ mainly church-going) parliament. The more challenging and awkward question of why social reform was needed in a country that had been Christian for the best part of 1,500 years seemed to pass them by.

    Yes, history is a dangerous discipline – like much in human life, it can be a means of vanity, when it could be a means of learning valuble lessons and not repeating the errors of the past.

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