*Filtered, packaged, and served with a side of bias
In the context of topics that explore and analyze specific events of the past, the word ‘history’ is often used without producing too much conflict or thought. However, a closer look at the use of the word “history”, in its singular form, to describe an event of the past reveals a mistake that is made by many historians, either intentionally or non-intentionally. Although it should be the job of the historian to provide an accurate view of how events and conflicts of the past occurred, “history” itself is often composed of only one of many possible sides of a story. The use of the word “histories” in describing events of the past helps bring to light the idea that very rarely in the field of history can a single account or viewpoint of an event fully cover the complexities of history. Instead, a true historian must understand that there are multiple sides to every story, and that the same course of events can produce very different experiences for different people.
A popular saying that reflects the manner in which the field of history is often treated by both historians and their audiences states that, “History books are written by the victors”. A glance through an American history book, or the history books of any culture, reveals this to be a valid statement. Much of what any person considers to be “history” is not the true and unabridged story of the world – instead, it is a condensed version of history that is filtered through cultural and societal lenses. For example, take the term “American History”. To an average American citizen, this term consists of historical events such as the Declaration of Independence, the Civil War, and other historical events that were important in the history of the United States of America. However, these events do not comprise the entirety of the history of the Americas – on the contrary, they are but a small part of a history that includes many diverse cultures such as the Cherokee, Aztec, and other indigenous American peoples. However, this version of American history is foreign to the average modern-day American high school student. This is one of many examples of a cultural lens – instead of learning the different stories of all the people and parties involved in any historical event, most people are simply fed what their society considers to be the “most important parts” of history – while giving little to no information about the experiences of “the other side”.
An extreme, yet true example of how a cultural lens can distort peoples’ view of history occurs in Pyongyang, a comic by Canadian animator Guy Delisle that illustrates his experiences in North Korea. Living in one of the most oppressed and censored nations in the world, North Korean citizens have extremely limited access to any sort of information, and that which they do have access to is obviously inaccurate from the point of view of an outsider such as Delisle. Throughout his time in North Korea, Delisle is surprised by the ever present influence of Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il – North Korea’s beloved and totalitarian “Great Leader[s]” – which seeps into nearly every facet of North Korean life 1. Toward the midpoint of the comic, Delisle reveals to the audience what he has been wondering throughout his entire trip – “Do [North Koreans] really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?” 2 Delisle and his audience are lead to believe that the answer to this question is ‘Yes’. Although this may seem shocking to the point of view of an outsider, it becomes less surprising when one looks at the absolute control of information in North Korea. The information received by North Koreans is the result of information being put thought many extremely strict cultural lenses – only letting through the few pieces of (often false) information that the government considers acceptable for public knowledge 3. The extreme example of North Korea is applicable to other less extreme situations in which people are given a limited view of the past – a “history”, instead of a full and truthful version – a set of “histories”.
A shortcoming of many accounts of history is the lack of attention and acknowledgement that is given to alternate, but equally truthful points of view. This lack of attention combined with a cultural disregard for histories that are considered “irrelevant” often causes students and the audience of historians to forget that no story has only on side to it. The acknowledgement of the presence of multiple histories for any historical event by historians will help students and historians alike question what they are told by “history” and seek the truth about the past by seeking the alternate, unpublished histories that lie below the surface of every story.