What are the ‘logical fallacies’ of history?
We can’t talk about accessing truth in any of the areas of knowledge, except, perhaps, mathematics. We can say nothing with absolute certainty. However, just as in the other human sciences, if we investigate the evidence rigorously, and use our own empirical knowledge objectively, we can go some way towards providing an accurate analysis of what happened in the past.
And just as the person employing reason in order to arrive at a truthful answer has to avoid logical fallacies (see the page on this in the Reason section), so the historian has to avoid certain false ways of looking at past events to avoid being arriving at a false interpretation of history. Here are some of the most common ‘logical fallacies’ in history.
As we have seen, every government is keen to be the custodian of the past, and present history in such a way that their position is strengthened. This is the case even in the most benign of nations, as well as the most iniquitous.
Commemoration and celebrations of past events are the most prevalent way in which the past can be hijacked for the purposes of the present, and drum up nationalistic fervour that will unite a country. Every country has anniversary commemorations, although these often obscure the true nature of what is being celebrated or remembered. But because they become infused with patriotic sentiment, it is very hard to remain objective about them, and persuade other people that what they are celebrating is a fallacy.
Perú won its independence on 28th July 1821, shortly after the Battle of Maipu, in which General San Martín defeated the imperialist army. But far from it marking the splendid moment of release from oppression, the country sunk into disagreement and civil conflict, with different individuals and groups vying for power. San Martín, regarded by most Peruvians as their liberator and national hero, become utterly frustrated by the impossibility of generating agreement between the different sides. He abandoned the country and went to live in France. Bolivar, who had gone on to help in the struggle elsewhere, had similarly disappointing experiences. He decided to leave for France as well, but died before he could set sail.
Nevertheless, independence in Perú and the other Latin American countries is a time for celebration, and is capitalised upon by presidents throughout the region, who appear at the head of grand parades, amidst a multitude of flying flags. Indeed, in Perú, it is actually a legal obligation to fly a flag on 28th July.
Most people don’t build up an understanding of history through academic study, or even reading history books, instead, they base their interpretation of the past on films, novels, paintings, and other artistic representations of what happened. In such sources, myths are often transposed onto reality, as seen with legends such as Robin Hood, King Arthur, and William Tell, and exaggeration is employed to spice up plot-lines, resulting in the line between fact and fiction becoming seriously blurred. This is what we mean by the phrase ‘artistic license’ – when artists are not entirely faithful to the truth in order to present a more effective piece of art.
This is not to say that such sources should not be used in helping us to understand the past: works of artistic expression are an important way of determining the Zeitgeist and technological level of past societies. But they be used with extreme caution in giving us an account of what actually happened. Arthur Marwick is clear on this:
If cultural artefacts are to be used at all in serious historical writing (and I believe they should – they can be invaluable for attitudes, values, and quality of cultural life), they have to be used seriously. If one is going to refer to a novel or a film, one must provide the essential contextual information about the artefact, and its production and reception, to make the reference a genuine contribution to knowledge.
Examples abound, and probably not the best one, but certainly one of the most entertaining, is how the film Braveheart portrays the Scottish struggle for independence against the English. In this film, a brave Scottish individual William Wallace, unites his people, and takes on the might of the English army, narrowly failing to lead his nation to freedom (note that we’re once again dealing with the issue of freedom, an issue which often leads to the worst abuses of historical truths).
There are many historical errors in the film, from the assumption that the Scots were in any way united in thought or custom, to the suggestion that William Wallace slept with the English queen and could have been the father of the Prince of Wales. Wallace’s role in history is also insignificant compared to other figures such as Robert the Bruce.
But what is interesting for us, beyond historical inaccuracies in the retelling of the story (this shouldn’t be considered a flaw in any film of this type), is the way in which many people have seized on the film as an accurate interpretation of the Scottish independence movement. The people of Stirling, so enamoured with the film, erected a statue of Wallace. And where did they search for it likeness – after all there are few, if any, records of Wallace’s appearance? Mel Gibson, of course.
Simplification and discerning patterns
History is vast. In principle, it is concerned with everything that has ever happened. We can thus only ever approach it by reducing it in size, and condensing the events that we are interested in investigating. Knowing how far to do this is very, very tricky, and depends to a large extent on the level you are studying it. For elementary school children, history is vastly simplified, and children are given a brief overview at best of whole historical eras, such as the Egyptians, the Aztecs, and the Romans. Moving up the school, topics are studied in more depth, and students may spend two years looking at the events of 50 years or so. Post graduates at university specialize in more detail still, dedicating their life sometimes to a single event, or historical concept.
So scaling down the past is inevitable for us to be able to develop a successful understanding of history, but this process should not result (unless you’re under 10 years old) simplifying it, or imposing patterns where there are none.
A widespread way of imposing patterns, found in even the most reputable history books, is by ascribing a characteristic feature on a period of history based on its decade or century. We talk about the ‘1960s’ as a period of social reform, musical freedom, and political modernization. But the ‘1960s’ as an entity doesn’t exist, it is simply way we have arbitrarily divided up time. Again, the forthright Marwick puts it well, extending this habit to whole eras, and using the term ‘periodization’:
It follows from all of this that periodization, the dividing of the past up into the eras or periods, has no a priori existence. It is simply an analytical tool of historians. A periodization which makes sense for the West, will not make sense for Africa or Asia. A periodization which makes sense for economic history, may well not make sense for social or political history.
Emphasising palatable truths
To study history is to study a great number of mankind’s darker episodes. From the previous century, the list of horrific acts always begins with the Jewish holocaust, but this is by no means the only act of genocide, or even its largest. Stalin is responsible for the deaths of over 25 million people in his own country. A figure of over 50 million has been attached to Chairman Mao in a 2005 book by Jung Chang. Many massacres need no other detail other than the place in which they occurred, like Rwanda, Bosnia, Afghanistan. Some events just need their date, such as the 11th hour of the 11th day 1918, or 9/11.
Trying to come to terms with such atrocities can easily have a psychological impact on a person, and the temptation is to try to make sense of what happened, or discern the ‘silver lining’. Unfortunately, this is often to misunderstand a thing which has nothing positive about it whatsoever. For example, accusations have been levelled against Spielberg’s Schindler’s List that it emphases the positive side of the holocaust, when to properly understand it, one has to understand that there simply was nothing positive about it. (This of course is to assume that it is a historical source, which may from the start be a misconception).
Another example is the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games. The story told in a lot of school history textbooks, and the one which has become common currency, is that Hitler’s plans to showcase his regime, and highlight the superiority of the Aryan race were thwarted by the performance of Jesse Owens. Owens is portrayed as the star of the Games, undermining everything that Hitler was trying to prove. In bitterness, Hitler even refused to shake Owens’ hand.
Whilst it is true that Owens’ performance was indeed remarkable – he won four gold medals – he by no means spoiled the party for Hitler. The games provided him with the opportunity to showcase the organizational skills of his regime (which actually went against the grain, since Nazi Germany in many ways was run very chaotically), and the ability of his athletes. They easily came top of the medal table, winning a total of 89 medals (33 of them gold) compared to second-place USA with 56 medals (24 of them gold). Not even the handshaking incident occurred in the way often portrayed: Hitler as head of state was not permitted by the Olympic rules to shake the hands of winning athletes. Indeed, Owens afterwards said that he had been treated very well in Germany, in stark contrast to the situation back in the USA at that time. He said:
Hitler didn’t snub me—it was FDR [Franklin Roosevelt, the US president] who snubbed me. The president didn’t even send me a telegram.
Of course, it would be much nicer to believe in the legendary story of how things happened, but unfortunately, that would take us far from the truth of what occurred.
Emphasising unpalatable truths
Some historians go the other way, though, and instead of trying to put a positive spin on history, fully embrace its negative side. There are often understandable reasons for doing this: many countries feel a great sense of guilt for how their past, and how they treated other nations and cultures, and wants to atone for their wrongs. This of course lands them in the trap of nationalism, but such is the potency of this historical fallacy that many historians have fallen foul of it.
Many European countries feel a great sense of guilt about their colonial past. This has spawned a huge outpouring of literature and history condemning the thinking behind imperial policy. The assumption until recently has been that everything about colonising other countries was wrong, and it was tough to argue against that way of thinking.
More recently, there has been a movement to re-evaluate some of the more positive aspects of imperialism. Historians have therefore focused on the setting up of infrastructure in countries such as India, and the establishment of law and order and democracy.
Blanket terminology is the name given to a term that assigns the same name to a range of often unrelated or disparate group of events, phenomena, or ideas. It is found most commonly in history, in which historical eras and long periods of time are assigned a name which tendentiously lends the impression of continuity. One such example is the Cold War.
The Cold War is the name given to the struggle that took place between the capitalist/democratic western world, and the communist eastern bloc, between 1945 and 1991. History books say that it began after the end of the war and the decline of the war time alliance, and ended after the collapse of the USSR. It was characterised by ideological struggle, and proxy wars, wherein each side supported the other’s enemies.
But what really constitutes the ‘Cold War’? At times, the Soviets and the USA were certainly bitter enemies – as in the early 1960s when the Cuban missile crisis brought the world closer to nuclear conflict than at any other time in history, and in the early 1980s, when Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire, and the Soviet government was run by sick old men who tried their hardest to oppress anyone who spoke out against them. But at other times, such as the détente period, and the last few years after Gorbachev had taken power in the USSR, relations were much better between them.
At times, it seemed that it really was the communist world versus the capitalist world, especially during the Korean War. But then the Chinese squared up against the Soviets, and for most of the period, their relationship was far bitterer than the one that existed between the Soviets and the Americans – indeed, they even fought a brief armed conflict against each other, which the Americans and Soviets never did.
It’s also wrong to see the west as a single unified bloc opposing the communist world. There were serious disagreements between them during events such as the Suez and Congo Crises, the French vetoed the British from joining the European Economic Community, and the British disagreed with the American ‘Star Wars’ initiative. In fact, when you look at the events of the ‘Cold War’ you find that almost none of them actually conform to the traditional definition of what the Cold War actually was. You find, in other words, that the term is a blanket one which simplifies beyond recognition a series of often unrelated events.
The invention of tradition
One example is the Thanksgiving Day in the United States and Canada. This is a traditional celebration of the first harvest of the pilgrim fathers, who shared their food with the indigenous Indians. There is a lot wrapped up in Thanksgiving. For some, it is a celebration of the origins of the USA and Canada.
Thanksgiving overlooks several facts about the early colonisation of the Americas. First, colonization by the British began in Virginia, and was characterised by disease, war, and famine. It was touch and go whether or not the settlers would survive; indeed, many did not.
Second, there is a lot of dispute about the pilgrim fathers themselves. They didn’t call themselves pilgrims, for a start, and the idea that they were seeking freedom of religion is hardly compatible with the idea that they established a strict religious code, and everyone was forced to adhere to it.
The image of generous colonists providing their Indian brothers food at the celebrations is also highly dubious. It is more likely that it was the Indians who gave food to the colonists. In addition, relations very quickly soured, and the Europeans turned on the Indians, with massacres being carried out against them in 1637. By the end of the 17th century, almost all had been wiped out. After the death of the Indian leader Metacom, the colony of Plymouth celebrated with a ‘day of thanksgiving’.
As Judy Dow and Beverly Slapin write in their post Deconstructing the Myths of “The First Thanksgiving”, Thanksgiving may be a way of hiding from past responsibilities, rather than owning up for them. Questioning why Thanksgiving is accepted so uncritically, they say:
Is it because as Americans we have a deep need to believe that the soil we live on and the country on which it is based was founded on integrity and cooperation? This belief would help contradict any feelings of guilt that could haunt us when we look at our role in more recent history in dealing with other indigenous peoples in other countries. If we dare to give up the “myth” we may have to take responsibility for our actions both concerning indigenous peoples of this land as well as those brought to this land in violation of everything that makes us human.