The dangers of not knowing history

February 23, 2023 10:09
Photo: Reuters

History is boring. We get it. I get it.

Indeed, there’s a reason why certain politicians and goons enjoy piling on history – it’s because history is defenseless in face of the more exciting, animated, and aesthetically pleasing offering of lies. Arendt spent half her life trying to escape from totalitarianism, and the other half reflecting upon the nature of truth and politics. In politics, there is no truth. The more politics there is, the less history at large.

That has always been the way – though with the resurgence of strong man politics and Great Man theories of historiography, the era we live in is particularly vulnerable to the politicisation of history, and the downstream ignorance that such overtures perpetuate amongst our future generations. Indeed, the modern era sees history dangling on the tethers of what remains of truth-seekers – fending themselves against an ever-enlarging swamp of truth-denialism.

I digress. There are three acute dangers that arise from our not knowing history.

The first, constitutes a failure to grapple with and learn from past mistakes. No country is perfect. Many countries have checkered, blemished pasts that should neither be swept under the rug, nor amplified disproportionately to the exclusion of its growth and the present. The former is a form of perverse erasure – designed to keep in positions of power those who have benefited from exclusion, exploitation, and egregious violence. The latter, on the other hand, is a form of historically rooted revisionism, a school of thought that seeks to draw hasty generalisations whilst undermining our ability to grasp the present truth. We need to learn and move on – as opposed to forget and repeat – the very same errs that our predecessors committed. History is an invaluable textbook, only if we don’t scrap the whole syllabus just because we’re not fans of the examinations.

The second, is the consequent hubris that this would thereby engender in us. In not knowing how wars were started by chauvinists and jingoists making absurd claims on territories (hello, Russia; hello, Ukraine), we risk slipping into a default mentality that pre-programmes us in favour of rationalising any and all decisions that our government opts to undertake, even if it comes at the expense of our society at large. In not understanding why men rebelled in the past, rulers fail to take the temperature of the room – and come to deliver across neither dimensions of performance legitimacy, nor procedural legitimacy. In not recalling the devastation wrought by purported revolutionaries, who are little more than hyper-idealists that lent their zeal to deeply destructive, perverse movements dismantling social order and stability, we risk slipping into romanticising revolutionary violence – a force that eventually collapses the common good to the whims of a small minority of revolutionary vanguard.

The third, is that history is the best means of understanding our own, and others’, cultures! If we don’t want to be shut out of discursive systems and cultural logics that we may find alien and hostile to ourselves, the best remedy is to learn the ropes of these cultures, to appreciate the idiosyncrasies and nuances of them, such that we could develop the competence and confidence to critique and reform these problematic cultures from within. How could we possibly comment on historical injustices… without knowing these injustices, to begin with? And how can we engage in a fair assessment of comparative merits and demerits of governance systems, if our very starting-point is a fallacious and erroneous assumption that certain countries did not and do not exist? Not knowing history could well mean that we also lose sight of and touch with geography. Now that would be a most disorientating outcome.

Seize the day. But let’s not seize history. We can debate history, critique history, and even make history. But let us not erase, and let us not ignore, history.

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Assistant Professor, HKU