What is History For?

What is History For?

History, Inside Out

This is part three of our continuing series on “The Uses of History.” You can find parts one and two here and here respectively.

Pixar’s new film Inside Out does a wonderful job of exploring something we all are intimately familiar with, but which we only rarely think about: our emotions. The study of cognition—meaning our explicit thought processes and consciousness—has been a part of psychology and neurobiology since the 1960s. But it is only relatively recently that the scientific study of emotions (an interdisciplinary effort lumped broadly into the category of “affective science”) has emerged.

And historians, too, have been getting in on the act. Spearheaded by the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, and the Australian Research Council’s Center for Excellence for the History of Emotions (a nationally-funded collaboration of five Australian universities), historians have been exploring the inner emotional lives of people in the past. I have heard this research agenda derided as “silly” at a recent conference, and surely it might seem strange to study the feelings of past people.

It can be assumed by humanists (such as me), that people in the past had the same emotional responses that we do—they experienced joy at their successes, sorrow at their losses, and had hope for and fear about the future. But, these historians provocatively ask, outside these broadest of terms, what if they did not experience emotions in the same way that we do? What if emotions themselves are culturally (and therefore temporally) defined? What challenges does that present to our historical empathetic imaginations—which I have argued is the core activity of creating good history—if these people do not just think differently than we do, but feel differently than we do? (more…)

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What is History For?

Shattering the Mirror: History and Narcissism

by Paul B. Sturtevant

This continues our series on the uses and importance of history. For our previous article on the topic, click here

If you didn’t sleep through your Psychology 101 course (and I didn’t… entirely…), you may be familiar with the theory of the Mirror Stage of child development. To recap: the Mirror Stage was proposed as a crucial part of child development by Jaques Lacan in the 1930s. Lacan proposed that at the age of about 6 months, a child begins to become fascinated with images of themselves in a mirror (or any reflective surface), but it takes them until about 15 to 18 months until they consistently recognize that what they are seeing is their own body. If you have children, or are allowed to borrow any occasionally, you probably can recognize this.

Lacan however, as was his wont, went beyond a simply mechanical understanding of this child development phase and applied it to a concept altogether more abstract. To Lacan, the Mirror Stage was a crucial moment—perhaps even a crisis— in a human’s developing subjectivity. To him, a child coming to terms with itself in the mirror was a shocking revelation that our “self” is not just a free-floating sort of consciousness, but is contained within a body that is both crucial to and external from that self; in his terms, that there is a separation between the body and the Ego.

The problem with narcissists then, in these broadly Freudian/Lacanian terms, is that they have not successfully moved past this phase of development—that they can’t look away from the mirror.

This obsession with ourselves, however, is far more common than that, and not limited to compulsive mirror-gazers. We all suffer from a related concept also explored by psychologists—the False-Consensus Effect. You certainly are familiar with it—the false-consensus effect is the tendency for people to incorrectly assume that other people are just like them—share their opinions, their beliefs, even their way of thinking.

It can lead you to think that yours is not just the right opinion, but the only one. Dangerous, indeed.

This error is rampant in politics; rich candidates for office have been particularly vulnerable to it, assuming that everyone shares their rarified lifestyle, and one response to it is the “check your privilege” meme. This has led to gaffes and idiocy in debates as wide ranging as the minimum wage to foreign policy.

“We will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.”

History and the Mirror

And so, I come to the nut of it. The second way that studying history is useful is that it helps you to resist the false-consensus effect. When studying history, we encounter people who are, in ways large and small, fundamentally unlike us. They are not just separated from us in time. They have a fundamentally different way of looking at the world that informs what they believe to be right and wrong, how they live, and what they value.

This is a core tenet not just of history but of certain fields of sociology. To quote Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s fantastic seminal work, The Social Construction of Reality, “What is ‘real’ to a Tibetan monk may not be ‘real’ to an American businessman.” In other words, even reality itself is subjective, and socially-defined.

Intensely studying the lives of people fundamentally different from yourself can be a useful corrective. It is a reminder that our perspectives are not just shaped by ourselves but by our times, and reminds us that we are not the final arbiters of reality and truth. In short, studying history can help us to shatter Narcissus’ mirror.

So, to again use the metaphor of the imagined dinner party—when asked why you study the past, you could do better than to reply: “Studying history reminds me that not everyone is like me. It helps me be less egocentric.”

The Paradox of History


For those regular readers, this may seem to fly in the face of what I wrote before about empathy. I can’t possibly have it both ways—history can’t possibly allow us to see ourselves in others and also recognize their fundamental difference from ourselves, can it?

To me, that is the fundamental tension inherent in history, both as an academic discipline and on a more philosophical level. It is the tension between recognizing people’s fundamental and specific difference from us – historicizing them – and recognizing their inherent similarity to us – empathizing with them. One arm pushes them away, one arm draws them closer. One views history as a social science, one as one of the humanities.

In reality, it is something of both. It is impossible to create histories—rendering limited evidence into logical narratives—without using a well-informed imagination. And that imagination is based, in large or small ways, upon empathy. But only using imaginative empathy when writing history can lead to wild flights of fantasy, or perhaps the cardinal sin of history-making: anachronism.

So, whether we acknowledge it or not, all historians must strike a balance between those extremes. How that is accomplished is what ultimately decides an individual historian’s style, perspective, and methodology. And this is, in large part, what I try to explain to my students when they ask how two historians could possibly come up with equally-valid but totally contradictory interpretations of the same evidence.

Yes, it’s a paradox. But unlike what some of the complainers in my class might say, this is not a weakness, but one of its key strengths.

How do you balance the two?


Featured image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gonzale/88206532

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Film and TVRace, Class and ReligionWhat is History For?

Would I Have Owned Slaves?

Note: This contains minor spoilers for the film “12 Years a Slave

Buzzfeed has flooded everyone’s Facebook pages with a peculiar sort of public history.

This takes the form of quizzes with titles like Which Founding Father is your Soulmate?, Where Should You Go in a Time Machine, or What Period in History do you Really Belong in?  They’re a silly bit of fun, to be certain, and obviously of very dubious quality. But they call towards a deeper impulse within public history: to imagine yourself in an historical context. It is first-person imaginative history, though of a very uncomplicated sort. This is the same way—though on a more sophisticated level—that participants in Renaissance Faires and historical re-enactors engage with the past. Though in my experience working with re-enactors previously, many of them tend to revel in an uncomplicated, romanticised version of the past.

But what happens if we complicate the idea and complicate the history? Is there any way that we can, in a more historically valid way, imagine ourselves in the past? And does our doing so offer us any further insights into the past or present?

As I have written in a forthcoming article, my first job in public history was as an historical interpreter at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home. One of the most difficult conversations I had with visitors involved the question of slavery. Washington was a slave owner.  And that fact caused cognitive dissonance in visitors—that one of the nation’s greatest heroes engaged in one of its greatest shames. Sometimes, their attempts to rectify this dissonance manifested as this question: “Was Washington good to his slaves?” When responding, I would offer the question: “How could you be good to a slave?” Some offered ideas like feeding them well, offering humane accommodation, or refraining from beating them. But I would often repeat my line of inquiry until they came to what I believe to be the best answer: you set them free.

Once this is established, we can then talk about how Washington compared to other slave owners.  He stacks up about average. He enacted some cruelties against his slaves and some mercies. He famously freed all the slaves that he owned* but only upon his death, when they were, by definition, of no more use to him.

And this, I hope, went some way to imagining both our historical heroes and slave owners in a more complex and complete way. We must first establish and emphasise that slavery was wrong, full stop. And despite the standards of the day, it was evil— though it is part of the privileged position of the present that we see it that way. But not all slave owners were created equal; though slavery dirtied all the hands involved, some radical abolitionists did risk wealth, social standing and even their lives to do away with it. And on the other side, some hands are immeasurably dirty.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, Fox Searchlight Pictures 2013

The film 12 Years a Slave does an excellent job of portraying the moral complexity of the institution of slavery. The director explicitly set out to portray, just as the memoir on which it is based does, the range and variety of people who engaged in, benefitted from and suffered under the slave trade. White people are shown benefitting actively or passively, militating against the system or enthusiastically embracing their abusive place within it. The African-American characters are similarly complex. Some passively accept the system, though most struggle, each in their own way, to find a way to survive or even benefit (for certain values of the word) within it. But the fear the system creates forces them often to comply with injustices. The protagonist, Solomon Northrop, is forced to whip another slave. The alternative would be to die. One of the fundamental cruelties of the system is that it encourages you, or even forces you to do horrible things in order to survive, in order to get by.

Reflecting on the film and my work at Mount Vernon, and considering the complex range of interactions with and reactions to slavery in Antebellum America, I find myself wondering how I would react if I was living as a white man in the south at that time. Certainly I— and I hope most people,  would like to think that I would see slavery for what it was, an unmitigated evil, and fight against it. But that seems like too much wishful historical thinking—a projection of modern values onto an imaginary, romanticised past. Instead, I think it a better tack to really think about my own complex reactions to the thorny political and social issues of today, and see how my reactions to today’s injustices compare to a hypothetical person from the past.

Historians typically avoid discussing their own personal and political perspectives in their work for fear of being painted as unobjective or biased.

But I think when exploring history through this first-person imaginative space, it is important to do so.

Politically I tend to be very liberal, especially socially. I believe strongly in social justice, I am in favour of environmentalism,  I am a feminist and am in favour of gay rights. But doing so is easy for me. I vote accordingly, and my teaching and writing reflects this perspective. But I doubt anyone would consider me a radical. I’ve only been to two protests, I’ve never broken the law in accordance with these beliefs (like, say, chaining myself to a tree or attacking whaling ships). I can only count one instance where I put myself any physical danger, defending a woman from a few drunk creeps, in accordance with my beliefs.

But I know that I let many things slide. I know that eating meat is very bad for the environment, but I am not a vegetarian. I try to conserve energy, but if it’s hot I will put on the AC. I am against sweatshops and refuse to shop at Wal-Mart, but don’t check the labels before I buy a t-shirt. I buy free range eggs, but don’t ask whether the restaurant does so before ordering breakfast. I have lent vocal support to my gay friends, but have neither sacrificed my time to march with them nor my money on donating to the cause. I am, I’m afraid to say, something of a liberal of convenience. Push does not generally come to shove about it, and if my support of those ideals threatened my life or safety, I’m afraid to say I would probably try to find a way to keep both my ideals and my life. I suspect many people behave in the same way.

So if I imagine myself realistically in the Antebellum south, who would I be? Not the passionate abolitionist, I’m afraid. I hate to say it, but I would likely be a character of convenient conscience. Had I owned slaves, I would probably free them in my will as Washington did, and think myself quite virtuous for doing so. In terms of Twelve Years a Slave, I might be a William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch’s character), a man who owns a slave plantation but seems to treat his slaves with relative kindness. But, he does not militate against the system or free his slaves and, when his safety is threatened by Solomon’s conflict with an overseer, elects to sell Solomon rather than risk himself. Or I hope I would be Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt’s character), a Canadian who is vocally against slavery and will argue convincingly against it because he risks little by talking. But when he is presented with an opportunity to right a serious wrong but, in attempting to do so, lose his job and risk his life, he does it. In so doing, he saves Solomon. Of course it’s important to point out that he only does so when the injustice he sees is made both personal—in that he knows and has come to respect Solomon—and also illegal— which gives him the ability to act against it by alerting the authorities. But notably, he does not try to free all slaves. He frees the one who begs him with tears in his eyes to do so, but only because he can do so without violating the law.

There are two ways to react from examining the past introspectively in this way. The first is complacency: to shrug one’s shoulders and fall back on the axiom that we all live according to the standards of our day. Surely there will always be injustice, and who am I to fight against my age?

The other, perhaps more interesting, way to view it is to use the past to reconsider my own actions in the present. If I really do feel strongly about social injustice, perhaps I should act more on my conscience, lest I continue to class myself as someone who might shrug and demure in the face of the injustices of the past.

Historians generally do not engage with the past in this fashion, and public attempts to do this too-often fall back onto cliché and romanticism. But there might be a way that historians can work together with their publics to better imagine, and appreciate, the complexity of  past people by reflecting on the complexity of our present selves.

* Note: Washington freed all the slaves he owned, but most of the slaves held at Mount Vernon were owned by his wife’s family, and so he had no power to free them. 

Photo Credit: Twelve Years a Slave, Open Library

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What is History For?

Shadows of Ourselves: Empathy and History

by Paul B. Sturtevant

What does history do for us?

The question is simple enough, but it strikes at the heart of what I do as a public historian. Sure, we can retreat behind clichés like the George Santayana quote: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But when you consider that idea in depth —that we should use history as a way to make decisions in the present—it becomes thorny fast. Sure, maybe a better consideration of history might have indicated that the war in Iraq was a bad idea, and that it would lead to sectarian chaos in the region. But if we use the past this way, it only resigns us to powerlessness. If the world is simply destined to behave as it always has, how can we possibly change it?

When historians are confronted with the question of history’s value and relevance, many have difficulty answering. Sure, it is a complicated question, but unless we are able to answer succinctly and powerfully when asked, history as an academic discipline will be consigned to obscurity. There was once a time when historians could get away with saying that history was important and worth studying simply because it was. In light of aggressive funding cuts to the arts and humanities around the world, that time is over.

There are many possible answers to that question. And I’ll write more about them as time goes by. The one that I’ll start with is the most interesting one I’ve heard recently. The idea was explained most succinctly by John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars and presenter of Crash Course World History  – a Youtube series that presents, in fifteen minute increments, entertaining summaries of world history. Green’s idea is this: “The study of History allows you to empathize better; it allows you to think more complexly about others.” And the importance of empathy – even imaginative empathy towards historical people – should not be underestimated. Simon Baron-Cohen, Professor of Developmental Psychopathology at Cambridge University and author of the Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty, (among many, many others), believes that empathy is the root of goodness in humans, and that a lack of empathy is the chief source of cruelty, barbarity and evil.

Baron-Cohen’s theories are of course more complex than that. And I am certainly not saying that studying history will make you a better person.

Actually, that is exactly what I’m saying.

History allows you to encounter people fundamentally different than yourself—people who grew up in a vastly different time and place, and who found themselves in an entirely different world than we see today. And yet, when read closely, we can see shadows of ourselves. I myself on a number of occasions, reading an old letter or standing in the keep of a shattered castle, have felt that I would not be so different from the people who lived there, who lived then. And that helps me, when reading stories about people today who live halfway across the world, to understand that even though they are in many ways totally different from me, they are complicated people doing their best to live a good life in their time.

Is this the only way to engage with history? Certainly not. But it is a useful one. So, the next time you are accosted at a dinner party and asked to justify why you are excited about the past, why you have dedicated your time to studying it, you could do worse than to answer “Because it makes me a better person.”

What do you think? How do you use the past? Have you encountered people in the past who help you to think about others?

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pearlsareanuisance/

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