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.