Monday, June 24, 2013

History: Facts Important But Interpretation More So

We might say that history is the sequence of events, involving various people, happening at a certain time and place. We also use the word history to mean our retelling of those events.

History in the first sense of the word involves a certain number of facts. These facts are the real people, present at a real time and place, who are participating in real events. History in the second sense is our interpretation of those facts. It is the meaning we give to the facts.

These are nice simple distinctions. The truth, however, is more complex.

History in the second sense is the normative interpretation of events given by our culture. By normative, I mean the normal or standard interpretation accepted as true by almost everyone. Because it is normative, official storytellers—like teachers, authors, and journalists—must tell the story in the normative way or lose their jobs. Students, official learners of the story, must accept the story in its normative form, must get the story right, to pass their exams.

Strangely enough, the distinction between facts and interpretation is very muddled. Not only does the official story determine the normative interpretation of facts. It even determines what events, people, times, and places are accepted as factual or real.

For example, the sun orbits the earth. Fact or fiction? For almost all of history, that was a fact. Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God. Fact or fiction? That would depend on the story one’s culture says is normative. It would depend on the normative interpretation given by one’s culture.

As an individual, one may reject the normative story of one’s culture. One may even reject what one’s culture defines as factual. But it’s very difficult to do. We humans are weak, fragile, and limited creatures. To reject the normative story of one’s culture, or what it considers factual, is to subject oneself to indifference, ridicule, poverty, sometimes even imprisonment and death. It’s much easier to be normal!

It is much easier to be normal but, in truth, it isn’t always right. In truth, it’s often wrong and destructive. So getting our history right, especially our interpretation of what is factual, is difficult but worth doing.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
All rights reserved. Fair use encouraged.