03 Sep False Historical Narratives (ROBERT TRIVERS)
False historical narratives are lies we tell one another about our past. The usual goals are self-glorification and self-justification. Not only are we special, so are our actions and those of our ancestors. We do not act immorally, so we owe nothing to anyone. False historical narratives act like self-deceptions at the group level, insofar as many people believe the same falsehood. If a great majority of the population can be raised on the same false narrative, you have a powerful force available to achieve group unity. Most people are unconscious of the deception that went into constructing the narrative they now accept as true. Nor are they usually aware of the emotional power of such narratives or that these may entrain long-term effects.
There is a deep contradiction within the study of history between ferreting out the truth regarding the past and constructing a false historical narrative about it. As we have seen in this book, we make up false narratives all the time, about our own behavior, about our relationships, about our larger groups. Creating one for one’s larger religion or nation only extends the canvas. Usually a few brave historians in every society try to tell the truth about the past. But most historians will tell only some version of the conventional, self-aggrandizing story, and most people in the relevant countries will not have heard of (or believed) the factual assertions I just made.
One noteworthy fact is that the younger the recipient of the knowledge, the greater the pressure to tell a false story. So we are apt to tell our children a heroic version of our past and reserve for our university students a more nuanced view. This of course strengthens the bias, since views learned early have special power and not everyone attends college, or studies history if they do. Fortunately, the young often appear naturally to resist parental and adult nonsense, so there is at least some tendency to resist and upgrade. Just the same, there are strong pressures on professional historians to come up with a positive story, in part to undergird what is taught more widely.
Make no mistake about it. People feel strongly about these matters. One person’s false historical narrative is another’s deeply personal group identity—and what right do you have commenting on my identity in the first place?
But what are we to do? Yes, feelings run high, but false historical narratives are a critical part of self-deception at the group level, often with horrendous effects on others—if not on those practicing them.
It has famously been said that those who do not know history are destined to repeat it, or as Harry Truman put it: “The only thing new under the sun is the history you do not know.”
The folly of fools : the logic of deceit and self-deception in human life