Rewrite history, but only if the rationale for it is sound

By Biju Dominic
Photo: iStock

There is a new-found interest around the world in rewriting the history of many a nation. These moves could be attributed to political leaders who strongly believe what George Orwell said: “Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past." Earlier, nations were thought to be defined by ethnicity, language or culture, and/or by an idea of nationhood laid out by a constitution to reflect a national consensus. But in recent years, several historians have expressed the view that what truly binds a people together is a shared sense of the past. Is there any justification in these attempts to relook at a nation’s past?

For a long time, the predominant belief about human cognition was that what happens in the present is what matters most to the human brain. It was assumed that our brain is taking in sensory inputs from what is happening around us, processing these and arriving at an output that determines our behaviour at that point of time. In this input-output model of cognition, inputs from one’s past did not play much of a role.

However, in the last few years, discoveries in neuroscience have established that our brain is not an input-output system, but an anticipating system. In any situation, the brain is predicting what could happen in those circumstances. This prediction is based on one’s past experience of being in a similar situation. If what happens in the new scenario goes by one’s expectation, the past experience gets further reinforced. If, for some reason, the situation is not as per one’s prediction, it becomes a new learning for the brain on how to better predict similar situations in future. Present human behaviours are influenced by our own past experiences and also those that got handed down over generations of human evolutionary history. A lot of this past knowledge—and our deep emotional memories even more so—is stored at a non-conscious level in the brain. So although at a conscious level an individual might not be aware of them, they do impact the present-day thoughts and behaviours of an individual.

Not only individual decisions, but even corporate decisions are influenced by what happened in the past. In the past two decades, big data analytics have become the foundation on which many a corporate strategy is built. Big data is all about what happened in the past. The core belief that guides big data analytics is that data on past behaviour can help us predict what could happen in the future. So if the present actions of individuals and corporations are influenced by their past experiences, it cannot be too different in the case of a nation.

Data analytics experts would remind us that the quality of data determines the quality of the final analysis. So nations too need to have good-quality information on their past. But the quality of most nations’ historical data is suspect.

One of the major reasons for this discrepancy is that “history is written by the victors," as former British prime minister Winston Churchill famously said. Most historical data selectively captures what past rulers did. History rarely captures the lives and emotions of the ordinary people of that time. How do we correct this anomaly?

There is often an immediate tendency by present-day victors to drop everything of the past that does not fit their current narrative and record only what suits their agenda. This is just a repetition of the past mistake. Rewriting history should not be about extending the principles of guilt and responsibility backward in time over generations and trading apologies and forgiveness on behalf of people who are long dead. It will only end up reopening old wounds without having the ability to heal them. The study of history should not be based on a selective reading of religious texts and other documents. Instead, history should be based on the science of archaeology. In fact, archaeological evidence and not hear-say should be the foundation on which the history of a nation should be rewritten, if it must be.

Along with specific archaeological studies, it is very important that we develop a good understanding of the actual context in which past events happened. It is a common strategy of biased manipulators to single out a past event bereft of the actual context in which it took place and present that in a present-day context. Archaeologists and anthropologists should work with sociologists and other social scientists to provide a detailed understanding of the actual social contexts in which those events occurred.

“The treatment of the past through remembering and forgetting crucially shapes the present and future for individuals and entire societies," writes Martha Minow, former dean of Harvard Law School. A nation has very little to learn from remembering its past successes, but much more to learn from past mistakes. Much like in the airline industry, past errors should be analysed not to identify who was responsible for it, but to unravel why an accident happened, for example. Knowing why will help prevent any repetition of that mistake.

Such an unbiased understanding of the past will provide a far more holistic view of a nation’s history. It will remind us that several of our past heroes were not saints all the time and several villains of the past were not as bad as what historical narratives made them out to be. It will also help understand how much of the past continues to affect the present thoughts and actions of a nation.

Biju Dominic is the chief evangelist, Fractal Analytics and chairman, FinalMile Consulting


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