There’s no such thing as “history”: language and how it defines our world

The Buddha once said that “with our thoughts we create the world”. What he was referring to was how everything was subject to perspective and perception of the world. So, according to this view, everything is subject to opinion. But where does this leave us with facts and “history”? What I am about to tell you will blow your mind: there is no such thing as “history”.

Part 1: What is “history”?

1. History is objective

That is, it does not favour any view, looks at all sides of the story, and is unbiased. It is undiscriminatory, happened just as described and “are as they are”. Writers like Shakespeare have proven this to be true with figures such as Richard III and Cleopatra. And where are the unheard voices – such as Anne Hathaway and Anne Boleyn? 

2. History is based on real events

Surely we only need to look at the Arthurian legends to know this isn’t true? Any famous figure – William Wallace, Martin Luther, Florence Nightingale – has been embellished. So called “tales” are most likely no more legendary than greek and Norse myth. This results in false truths, such as 17th Century Pilgrims discovering and founding America (Leif Ericsson was there first). Everyone, from the authors of the Bible to the paparazzi in The Daily Mail, claims that they are telling real events as they actually happened.

3. History is factual

Unless you invent a time machine and film and interview everyone and everything ever in that time – wars, Christopher Marlowe, the Pope, Queen Elizabeth I, – there’s no way of proving this for sure. And even if you do, you still might get some details wrong. None of us were around in the time of the dinosaurs

4. Evidence can be misleading

A letter can be misconstrued, a torque is based on assumptions and opinions, a cause of death might have a different reason or explanation. If you’ve ever been to court, you’d know that only the people directly involved know what was going on – everyone else is guessing, and whoever is closest wins. You can take something as simple as mole as a bracelet and argue a case for anything about it, so long as you are a convincing storyteller with a plausible argument. We have no idea what Queen Victoria actually looked like (and the painting probably underwent the photoshop of its day) and it’s the same with most airbrushed pictures of celebs.

Part 2: We have representation – through culture

Whether it’s culture of its day, famous works such as novels and paintings or fioms and TV shows attempting to adapt history to its modern day, the only thing we have is representation. Numerous statues of people like Caesar and Napoleon exist. Lavinia Warren is a famous dwarf actor married to General Tom Thumb. We are forever bombarded with films, TV shows and documentaries about well known “real people” – the Brontes, Shakespeare, Stephen Hawking and Richard III. Not only has Postmodernism illustrated how one-sided history can be, but it also indicates how these people can be portrayed in different lights thanks to culture. How many times has Richard III been illustrated as a villain? What about Margaret Thatcher as Public Enemy Number One for the working classes? Or William Wallis a symbol of Scottish nationalism and independence? -(think Brave Heart). Each people take a side of a character and twist it according to their own favours and preference. Unfortunately, this often leads in an unbalanced overall view, and nobody really knowing the “truth” about what was really going on.

Celebrities are no different; for years Courtney Love has been labelled as off the rails, drug doing and a slut – without anybody knowing she is on the ASD spectrum. Freddie Mercury has been particularly associated with homosexuality and AIDS and shamed for it. Ozzy Osbourne has been portrayed as a victim of going crazy thanks to alcohol, and his sometimes dysfunctional family life with his wife Sharon.

Part 3: the present

What is the “present”? 1990-2015? 1985-2015? This very day? This year? Within the last 5 years? A generation? This century? We all think we know what the “present day” is. But what do we pick as some key moments so far? If we could create a list, it might look something like this:

The rise of social media – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, hashtags, followers etc.

Smart technology – mobile platforms apps, smartphones, tablets, and other “smart devices” smart cameras

Technology in general – satnavs, recorded tv, the development of self-driving cars.

Science – cloning, IVF and stem cell embryos, stem cell organs, genetically modified fruit, Cancer, unnatural chemicals, the environment, climate change.

Politics – the Coalition government (tuition fee riots, cutbacks), the European Union, Labour, Kim Jong il, the Recession, Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama.

Major historical events – 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the crisis in Haiti, William and Kate’s marriage.

Law – gay marriage, civil partnership, immigration laws, the EU.

Social – hipsters, boggers, chavs, gang culture, silver surfers, Muslims, “Britishness”, cyber bullying.

Big concerns and anxieties – airbrushing and Photoshop, plastic surgery and body image, the glamorisation of celebrities , single parenthood, the failure of GCSEs and non-academic subjects, unemployment, university, reality stars and Internet fame.

This is already a very long list, but it’s not complete. Of course, this will vary via decades, generation – for instance, 90’s kids over noughties kids – country and East/West. Not everyone may agree with this list; that maybe some things should be added or taken off, but we’ll stick with it for now.

In conclusion, there is no truth or answer to what history is or isn’t; there’s only perspective, representation and living in our own time through our eyes.

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