Stories about history are dangerous

To borrow Dan Carlin‘s phrase, I’m “not a historian, just a fan of history.” I read and listen to as much Canadian history as I can, then try to recount the events and facts that I find most interesting in a compelling way. This usually means I’m telling stories, which, if you want to be a little fancy, means I’m doing “amateur narrative history.”

It turns out narrative history is not only difficult but dangerous. This is a longer post than usual, because I think it’s important to explore the potential pitfalls of the kind of writing that appears on this internet web log site. I’ll also reveal some of the secret sausage making that’s gone into past posts, and provide a bit of a disclaimer for posts to come.

Emotive vs. historical empathy

Storytellers want to connect with their audience in an emotional way. That often means establishing a sense of empathy between the person hearing the story and the characters within. But empathizing with historical figures can be a lot harder than it seems, and attempts at empathy may leave you with a more distorted impression of the past than if you’d never felt anything at all.

A paper by Darren Bryant and Penney Clark explains two broad categories of empathy you might feel while learning about history. The first category is called “emotive empathy,” which is the type you’re most likely to experience when learning about history through stories.

When people feel emotive empathy, they “merely apply the understandings, beliefs, and experiences of their own worlds to interpret the experiences of historical agents and their worlds.” For example, a teacher might ask students to consider “what it might feel like” to be someone from the past, and ask them to “write a first-person account of that individual’s experiences.” But the average lay person would “rarely possess the contextual information or understanding to perform such a task with any degree of insight.” Instead, they end up “[projecting] their own feelings onto the historical actors” which risks exacerbating their “dubious historical orientation.”

Emotive empathy, therefore, is more like sympathy coupled with delusions of empathy. You don’t actually know how the historical person is feeling, but you imagine that you do.

The second category of empathy is “historical empathy.” Unlike emotive empathy, historical empathy “is in large part cognitive” and requires “an understanding that ‘people in the past not only lived in different circumstances… but also experienced and interpreted the world through different belief systems.’”

Historical empathy is a lot harder than emotive empathy, and that advanced difficulty is a feature, not a bug. Gathering enough context to cognitively reconstruct what it actually would have been like to experience past events with a totally different set of beliefs, values, and assumptions is so hard that the very process “acknowledges the limitations of our ability to understand the past.”

All of this means that if you’re picturing yourself in the shoes of someone from the past and you think you know what it would have been like to be them, or why they acted the way they did, you’re probably at least a little wrong.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

But because great storytelling usually calls for the audience to be able to identify with characters in the story, a narrative historian has bad incentives on this count. While a level of healthy skepticism is built-in to the process of reaching historical empathy, the erasure of doubt and ambiguity is more naturally built-in to emotive storytelling.

The problem, Bryant and Clark write, is that if simple historical narratives are successful by the standards of storytelling, the viewer or reader will imagine themselves to actually be there in the past, and they will interpret that past by “[accessing] personal experiences” rather than through “cognitive tools” like consulting multiple sources and understanding the historical context.

They then apply this framework to the main focus of their paper, which is criticism of the use of emotive empathy in the 2000 CBC TV series Canada: A People’s History. The producers of that show, by their own accounts, “viewed interjection by historians to analyze evidence or suggest alternative interpretations as obstacles to the flow of the narrative.” Gordon Henderson, a senior producer, is quoted as saying “I would rather see the narrative driven; I’d rather see the story kept alive. We want to avoid history class. We want to keep telling stories.”

“The myth of progress”

On the one hand, I’m mildly scandalized that producers of a massive, federally-funded documentary series designed in part to be used in classrooms would be so dismissive of actual history. On the other hand, I can empathize (er, so to speak). I’ve certainly felt this tension.

And while storytellers have conflicting incentives, their audiences can also fall into traps. When considering the perspectives of people who had very different values or world views than your own, “historical empathy is atypical and counterintuitive for most students,” who tend to have a “working assumption… that people in the past were essentially the same as they were.”

One of the problems with assuming people in the past “were essentially the same” as you is you can end up judging their words and actions in unfair and inaccurate ways. As a result, research has found that “students tend to view historical people as ignorant or mentally defective in comparison to contemporary people,” and “students view change over time as progressive, improving on the way things were in the past.”

In her book Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel writes about “the myth of progress,” and illustrates how this bias becomes additionally insidious when one of the things that “change over time” has produced is oppression and violence.

Vowel echoes Bryant and Clark when she describes “the myth that progress is tied to the passage of time, thus, things are always inevitably getting better.” As one example of how this plays out, she argues that this pervasive myth has directly reinforced colonialism. “The idea that Canadian society is evolving and progressing is an important part of” how many Canadians come to understand and process Canada’s colonial history. It becomes part of a “colonial imaginary” mythology, an “image… based not so much on historical fact as on ideological interpretation.” (119)

The assumption that progress is inevitably tied to the passage of time is maybe something you believe without really questioning it. I know I did, until I started reading history and finding counterexamples everywhere.

Show your work

Another problem with “presenting history… as ‘a story’” is that it is a “misrepresentation of how historical knowledge is created.” Stories have one definitive narrative, and they also tend to exploit binaries like hero vs. villain. But history is a messy collection of unresolved contradictions from multiple sources with multiple interpretations. That dissonance is never supposed to fully resolve.

Whenever I’ve started to research what I thought was a simple story I’ve quickly realized that it’s more complex than I assumed. Different sources have fully different versions of events, each answer reveals more questions, and there are rarely clearcut heroes and villains.

For example, in my telling of Mackenzie King’s diary about meeting Hitler, I only briefly touch on how many of his contemporaries shared his views, while simultaneously taking advantage of the fact that we, unlike Mackenzie King, know what’s coming. When talking about Canada signing on the wrong line of Japan’s World War II surrender, I present the story as if it’s a comedy, which totally falls apart if you stop to consider how the war had just ended for Japan, and the fact that Japan ends up being the butt of the joke. In my post about the “Operation Fish” plan to hide Britain’s gold in Canada, I play up the dramatic risks of the operation without including the precautions that were taken to successfully mitigate those risks.

Those are choices that I made in part to tell what I hope are compelling, engaging stories, as well as to keep posts short, which I realize is a principle I have now chosen to abandon. I don’t think that means I wrote anything that wasn’t true, and of course I try not to mislead. But I did discard some of the detail, context, nuance, and messiness, and in so doing may have contributed more towards emotional, rather than historical, empathy.

In Donnacona’s own words

Interestingly, Vowel also cautions “that it is too simplistic to think… in binaries” particularly when examining the histories and historical consequences of oppression and identity. (18) And it’s her area of focus — the histories of Indigenous peoples, colonialism, and the ongoing ramifications of those histories — that led me to Bryant and Clark’s paper in the first place.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell the story of Donnacona, a man who lived five hundred years ago along what we now call the Saint Lawrence River until he was kidnapped by men from another world, never to return home. Bryant and Clark’s paper turned up in my research because it criticizes how Donnacona’s story was told by Canada: A People’s History (CAPH).

Or, more accurately, it’s the story of Jacques Cartier, Donnacona’s kidnapper, that gets told. That’s because CAPH’s commitment to “tell Canada’s story through the eyes of the people who lived it” — by which they mean through actors reading primary sources, to the exclusion of historians and other experts who could provide context, interpretation, and alternative versions of events — confines us to Cartier’s account.

Donnacona didn’t write his side of the story down. We can’t know for sure what he knew, how he felt, what motivated him. If we want to guess, one way to do that is through the hard work of historical empathy. To try to get at “the understandings, beliefs, and experiences” of his world before even beginning to try to understand the story itself.

And then, even if we can do that extraordinarily well, rather than end up with one clear narrative we’ll instead be left holding a complex mesh of possibilities and paradoxes. That makes for good history, but complicates the story.

In the case of CAPH, write Bryant and Clark, storytelling wins out. “Viewers learn the opinions of Aboriginal peoples [including Donnacona and his sons] through interpretations offered by European characters,” resulting in “an empathetic distance from Aboriginal peoples and a sense of proximity to Europeans.”

Can’t stop won’t stop

I have no idea why you’ve read this far (omg thank you), but one of the reasons I’ve written all this is by way of asking permission to keep telling stories, admitting and acknowledging the shortcomings of doing so, and identifying ways to avoid the worst pitfalls of narrative history.

Even the Bryant and Clark paper I’ve quoted so heavily from doesn’t argue people shouldn’t consume narrative histories or attempt to tell each other stories about the past. The gateway drug to my current obsession with history was the Hamilton musical, which, while managing to convey a remarkable amount of historical fact, also falls into many of these traps. Millions of people still connected with it, though, and many of them went on to learn even more about the history through other avenues.

Historical stories and snapshots should be a starting point for discussion and exploration. Students of history who create or consume narrative histories should remember that their “conclusions should be regarded as tentative and may not be in agreement with” other people’s interpretations, including those of historians. And that’s ok. We should just be aware and cautious of the limitations, and always keep learning.

More people should know this:

8 Replies to “Stories about history are dangerous”

  1. Thanks for this post Chris. It does help me get a better understanding of where you are coming from, and what to expect in future posts, or at least how to interpret them.
    I am reading a Canadian History textbook and this post will mean I continue reading but perhaps with a different mindset.
    Are you familiar with Philippa Gregory? She writes historical novels, primarily about the Tudors. They must be written in the Historical Narrative format and make for wonderful reading.

  2. Good post Chris, this is a very thoughtful post about perspective and context. Especially the ‘progress’ narrative.

  3. I read that farbecause your writing compelled me to do so. You’ve probably already seen this, but just in case, check out the TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story. Pretty good.
    Keep those stories coming. We love them.

  4. I have just been catching up on your posts. This one really hit home as I am a clergy person who tries to both bring the stories of the Bible alive but also to keep them in the context of their times. Too many people cherry pick verses and stories and transport them to their own times with no understanding of the background and historical setting, Also every author or scribe puts their own bias into their writing depending on whom they want to influence and what the breakdown of their audience is based on gender, ethnic background, cultural norms etc. I believe the saying that “history is written by the victors”. We are fortunate if we ever have a chance to hear or read the version by the degeated.

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