by Steven Ramey
* This post originally appeared on the Culture on the Edge blog.
History-making involves the creation of connections between events that generate meaning and order. It is really the same as any storytelling, where the creator of the (hi)story decides what characters, actions, and elements fit together to construct a meaningful narrative. These storytellers, whether historians, journalists, or novelists, have significant power to construct the narrative of events in ways that reinforce preferred ideologies, assumptions, and stereotypes.
A Facebook post in response to the earthquake in Nepal became one egregious example of this. Along with expressions of concern and discussions of charitable efforts to address the tragedy, one person promoted a different take, connecting the earthquake to a ritual last fall to suggest that the Earth was taking revenge for “the world’s largest animal sacrifice.” This account references a festival to Gadhimai, a goddess of power in Nepal, that takes place every five years. This storyteller asserted,
During the 2014 festival, an estimated 205,000 animals and birds were sacrificed. and NOW they are Suffering as #Nature takes revenge of your past bad actions, unfortunately #innocents suffer too.
This festival has sparked protest and complaint, with animal rights activists succeeding in placing restrictions on the transport of buffalo from India before the 2014 festival. The history propagated in that Facebook post appears to be an extreme version of the concern for animal rights, a version that most animal rights activists, I suspect, would find abhorrent. Perhaps the author was even writing hyperbolically to express disdain for the festival. Whatever the author’s intent (which is inaccessible to us), finding such connections between events is how the creative history writer generates a narrative that supports ideological and moral convictions.
A less far-fetched version of history story-telling is evident in the media coverage of protests in Ferguson and, this week, Baltimore. Critiques of media coverage repeatedly have emphasized the selection of images, such as the front page photo in the Baltimore Sun this weekend that highlighted violence on a day when thousands marched peacefully. Such history-writing, of events that just happened, constructs a narrative of lawlessness that reinforces particular views of society and some of its members.
Unfortunately, violence in Baltimore increased further on Monday, possibly in response to rumors on social media or the “preventative measures” of officials. Do the various narratives constructed in the media influence the responses of both police and protestors to the actions of the other group? How does it naturalize the idea that violence “will not be tolerated” when the citizens and not the state are the actors? As Craig Martin wrote yesterday, which protests do our narratives validate, and which ones do our narratives marginalize? In these ways, the history-writing in some media reinforce particular ideologies of tough enforcement, state power, and personal responsibility. Of course, my analysis above, and the critiques of the media, are also efforts at writing history, creating connections between a different set of elements to make a meaning that fits a different view of the world. When we judge a narrative as convincing (or not), how much of that judgment reflects our own preconceptions and view of the world?
The historical narratives carefully laid out in a history textbook are no different. We might find them more reasonable, especially if they confirm our preconceptions, but they still involve someone deciding which events and images are significant to construct the narrative that makes sense to them, that they wish to promote. Whether textbook controversies in India or Texas or the debates surrounding Howard Zinn’s work in Indiana, the person who writes the narrative chooses how to create that narrative, just like any storyteller.