Learning Complexity from History

One of the worst characteristics of contemporary digital culture is the absence of nuance. Everything is portrayed as black-and-white. There’s a good side and an evil side. If you’re not willing to say this or do this, then you clearly don’t get it. If you don’t see the world my way, then you’re a racist or a bigot or an imperialist or a….you get the point.

But life doesn’t work that way. Human beings are complex creatures. We operate from all kinds of motives, some good and some bad. In order to really understand what is going on, we have to be willing to move past the shocking headlines and politically-correct groupthink. In biblical terms, we have to come to grips with Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick; who can understand it?”

The study of history offers us a unique window into understanding complexity. A good historian will pay attention to the complexities of the story she is telling. He will resist the urge to simplify everything into Manichean categories of pure good and pure evil.

For an article-length example of well-argued history that pays attention to complexity, I recommend this article by historian Jeff Fynn-Paul. He takes aim at the prevailing “stolen country’ narrative that posits that the United States was founded on European imperialism and racism.

Here’s a sample:

The narrative of the ‘stolen country’ or ‘Native American genocide’ does not stand up to scrutiny by any honest and clear-sighted historian. It is a dangerously myopic and one-sided interpretation of history. It has only gained currency because most practising historians and history teachers are either susceptible to groupthink, or else have been cowed into silence by fear of losing their jobs. Reduced to its puerile form of ‘statement of guilt’, this myth puts 100 per cent of the burden on Europeans who are held responsible for all historical evil, while the First Nations people are mere victims; martyrs even, whose saintlike innocence presumes that their civilisation and society were practically perfect in every way. This is no way to honour or respect the realities of First Nation lives and their agency. And it helps perpetuate the idea that the US and Canada are fundamentally illegitimate societies, and that by implication, every other country on Earth is legitimate. If we were to be honest, there is not a single country on Earth which did not displace natives, or which did not engage in nasty wars or ethnic cleansings at many points during its history. The current fad for holding up the US and Canada to special scrutiny and particular opprobrium is therefore distorting at best.

Leave a Reply