Monday, August 27, 2018

Pitfalls of history - III

The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history. - George Orwell

History often documents the activities of those in power and ignores the day to day lives of ordinary people. This led Gandhi to write in Hind Swaraj,  ‘History, as we know it, is a record of the wars of the world...How kings played, how they became enemies of one another, how they murdered one another, is found accurately recorded in history and if this were all that had happened in the world, it would have been ended long ago.' He says that ‘history is really a record of every interruption‘ of the normal  tenor of life.

Many written works will be hagiographies of those in power. They will be works of propaganda to consolidate the position of a ruler by portraying their struggles to gain power as being inevitable, glorious, and popular. Such a manipulation of the facts is a feature of all authoritarian states. As George Orwell observed, ‘He who controls the past, controls the future, he who controls the present, controls the past.’ This phenomenon isn’t only a characteristic of one-party states. School textbooks in democratic states are often selective in their use of evidence reflecting the ideological leaning of whoever is in power. Francis Bacon said, ‘Knowledge is power.’ But often, especially in fields of history, sociology and anthropology, it is more correct to say ‘power is knowledge’. (I saw an instance of this in this article.) In this post, there is an observation by the philosopher Hannah Arendt on the role of falsehood in the craftsmanship of what we call history:
Men who act, to the extent that they feel themselves to be the masters of their own futures, will forever be tempted to make themselves masters of the past, too. Insofar as they have the appetite for action and are also in love with theories, they will hardly have the natural scientist’s patience to wait until theories and hypothetical explanations are verified or denied by facts. Instead, they will be tempted to fit their reality — which, after all, was man-made to begin with and thus could have been otherwise — into their theory, thereby mentally getting rid of its disconcerting contingency.
Important events in the history of a nation take on a life of their own and are related differently by different groups. Shahid Amin writes in Event, Metaphor, Memory of the different versions and emphases of nationalists, the nation-state of India and the local population of the violence at Chauri Chaura in 1922. As he says, ‘When historical significance is attached to an occurrence independent of the event, the facts of the case cease to matter. And where all subsequent accounts are parasitic on a prior memory, documentation seems almost unnecessary.’

History written today is a narrative of progress revolving around great people and great events, a grand narrative that Gandhi rejected. As Ronald Terchek writes in Gandhi: Struggling for Autonomy, 'Enamoured of progress, this meta narrative does not bother to assess the costs of change or consider what is being discarded, confusing greater control over nature for control over oneself and mistaking new powers over nature for wisdom.'

In Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film Rashomon, a murder is described in four mutually contradictory ways by its four witnesses.The film gave rise to the term ‘The Rashomon effect ‘ which occurs when the same event is given contradictory interpretations by different individuals involved.  It refers to the contested interpretations of events and the existence of disagreements regarding the evidence of events. It indicates the subjectivity of perception which distorts recollection by observers of an event resulting in their relating substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.

Such a “Roshomon Effect" was what concerned Gandhi while reading historical accounts. He was influenced by the Jain concepts of anekantavada (or "many-sidedness") and syadvada ("conditioned viewpoints"). It is illustrated  with the parable of the blind men and an elephant. As a poem about it concludes, 'Though each was partly in the right / And all were in the wrong!'. Thus while one's subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth. David Hardiman writes in Gandhi in His Time and Ours:
When in jail between 1922 and 1924 , he read Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire...He also read J.L. Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic...and Lord Rosbery's Life of Pitt....He felt that though Gibbon and Motley claimed to present the 'facts and nothing but the facts' -...'facts' were always open to dispute. Taking a passage from Rossbery, he remarked wryly that even Pitt's supposed 'last words' were denied by his butler. What remained, therefore, was a presentation of an argument by each author.
What he concluded therefore was that, far from being objective, histories were also myths constructed by a writer using various sources and were distorted by their own prejudices and fantasies. He preferred great myths of the past like the Mahabharata which did not claim to be objective accounts of past events. He felt that these myths preserved the ethical learnings from past events which was what was important. For  Gandhi, righting present injustices was more important than avenging past injustices.

Societies are divided into two types depending on their attitude to history. Societies which lay great store in recording and remembering the events in their past are called historical societies. An ahistorical society is one that is  lacking historical perspective or context.  These societies depend on folktales, epics etc. which they believe contain important lessons from past events. India has been considered an ahistorical society. Ashis Nandy says in a transcript of a speech he gave called History's Forgotten Doubles:
The major difference between those living in history and those living outside it, especially in societies where myths are the predominant mode of organizing experiences of the past, is what I have elsewhere called the principle of principled forgetfulness. All myths are morality tales. Mythologization is also moralization; it involves a refusal to separate the remembered past from its ethical meaning in the present. For this refusal, it is often important not to remember the past, objectively, clearly, or in its entirety. Mythic societies sense the power of myths and the nature of human frailties; they are more fearful than the modern ones - forgive the anthropomorphism - of the perils of mythic use of amoral certitudes about the past.

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