Interpreting history is probably one of the hardest things anyone can attempt to do. In my view, the goal of history is to try and distill the past actions of every living or dead human to something comprehendible by the average person. It seems like a dreadfully complex topic butI’ve seen a lot of laypeople trying to do just that in under 280 characters online recently. I’m no historian, but I’ve found a lot of these “hot takes” to not mesh well with my personal understanding of history and I was trying to figure out why they frustrated me so much.
As I thought about it, I realized that I found a lot of these takes were falling for certain “historical fallacies”, thought patterns that are easy to fall into but cloud our ability to really comprehend historical truths. In this article I’ve tried to enumerate some of the most egregious fallacies I’ve observed in the wild and propose my own axioms to follow when trying to interpret a historical event. I hope this list inspires you to think a little more about what we believe and why we believe it.
Fallacy: Simple frameworks can easily explain history
Axiom: Life is complex
Many historical frameworks try to distill the inherent complexity of history into one liner. Marxists might hold fast to the idea that all of history can be explained through class struggle. Many religious followers believe that they bring truth and goodness to the world, everyone else is the enemy. The libertarian may believe wholeheartedly that the free market is the solution to our societal woes. Critical race theory adherents might try to explain any conflict along racial lines. (Sorry if these simplifications offend you, I’m aware that these ideologies are more complex than just one sentence, but many of their adherents don’t seem to be aware of that).
Frameworks are useful tools that we should not become too comfortable with. To think through issues well, we ought to be able to be able to pick up a framework when it’s useful but also put it down when it obscures the truth. To see conflicts or historical events as motivated by class or by race or by religion can be helpful but we must not marry ourselves to one perspective. A hammer is useful when trying to hang a picture but not when we’re trying to paint one.
Any historical understanding that makes life or human motivations or society seem simplistic should be rejected. It’s clear to me that I’m a bundle of many varied motivations and beliefs, I cannot be described so simplistically. Similarly, the society I live in is full of complex, interesting people. Any broad historical interpretation that reduces the complexity of any society to one or two motivations should be rejected outright.
Fallacy: There is only one reasonable interpretation of historical events (in particular, my interpretation)
Axiom: There are many coherent interpretations of historical events that deserve to be considered
Now before anyone comes in here screaming about cultural marxism, let me clarify myself. I’m not trying to argue that objectivity is impossible or that truth doesn’t exist. I’m not even trying to argue that there don’t exist interpretations of historical events that are just objectively better than every other interpretation offered. But what I’m saying is that there are a ton of ways to interpret a set of facts and we should never dismiss another reasonable opinion offhandedly.
Everyone has a different upbringing and set of biases and we bring those things into our interpretation of facts. Being objective as an individual is a noble call but it’s one of the hardest things we can try to do. Anyone who’s trying to dig to the truth of understanding something should not rely only on their own mind, they ought to rely on the multitude of thoughtful people around them who have different perspectives on the same event. Listening is a prerequisite for truth.
The moment you start thinking that those who disagree with you are idiots, it might be a good time to step back and think a little more deeply about the situation at hand. It’s rather unlikely that everyone else is just completely irrational, there’s likely a good few reasons that they think what they think. This doesn’t mean that everyone who disagrees with you is right, but it means you have an obligation to empathize with them. Maybe it’s irrational for someone to believe that manufacturing jobs are coming back to the US, but if I was a 3rd generation factory worker I’d probably believe that too.
Fallacy: History can be understood from the modern-day armchair
Axiom: Historical actions can only be deeply understood within their historical context
Words change over time. Group identities change over time. Customs, cultures, everything about society is constantly in flux. And it’s actually so insanely arrogant to read a journal entry from the 1700s about some complex social issue and think that you get what they’re trying to say. If you want to have a decent opinion on something in the past, you better be willing to roll up your sleeves and dig into the culture during that time period. Never take things at face value, there’s always work to be done to get a better understanding of what life really was like back then.
Fallacy: In history you’ve got good guys and you’ve got bad guys
Axiom: The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being
If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
I think this is by far the most important fallacy in this whole list. I plan on writing more on this topic because there’s a lot you can pull out of it, but I’ll try to keep it brief here.
Nothing is more unhelpful than to look back on history with a sense of superiority and derision towards those we’ve branded as villains, or to idolize those in history who we’ve deemed heroes. There is no such thing as a true hero or a true villain in history, people are far too complex to be put in those types of boxes. And putting them in those boxes is unhelpful for so many reasons.
When we villainize a person or a culture, we blind ourselves from the lessons that we can learn from it. It’s hard to imagine that you or I could participate in such evils like genocide or slavery, but that’s precisely what we ought to conclude from learning about these events. How easy it is to rationalize the hatred of the other or simply turn a blind ear to those being oppressed. To see ourselves as above these types of events or utterly opposed to these types of leaders numbs us to the atrocities of our day.
Similarly, when we idolize a person or culture from the past, we set ourselves up for disappointment and disillusionment. We naively begin to trust leaders that don’t deserve our total trust, we turn a blind eye to the complexities of life. If we lull ourselves into a belief that there is a stark difference between good and evil people, we don’t hold our leaders accountable and we don’t see the warning signs of the next atrocity.
This is not to say that there really aren’t evil people or generally good people in history. I’m certainly not trying to pull Hitler out of the “bad guy” territory. But when we begin to dismiss entire cultures of people as just “evil”, or view someone like Hitler as simply disturbed, we fool ourselves about the evil in our own hearts and our own societies.
Humility, patience, and open-mindedness are necessary virtues when trying to understand and digest complex situations. Having wise historical interpretations is just… hard to achieve. And when you build your worldviews up and commit yourself more deeply to a certain perspective, it’s good to double check your work. I hope this small list of fallacies and axioms helps you question why you believe certain beliefs.