When I was in university many years ago, I studied history. I didn’t learn a linear collection of facts, I learned feminist history (also known as her-story), varieties of narratives, and that history is complicated. I was happy to learn history this way and I still believe that it’s valuable and necessary. The world IS complicated. Many people have a lot to add to the commonly known facts. But I think we’ve come to a crisis about history and what is true.
In a short little essay, it’s impossible to deeply explore this idea, so this is no more than a brief consideration about a few things that struck me this week.
I like being in Israel in the springtime and I like the spiritual journey that Israel as a country and as a people takes to get to Independence Day. It’s no secret that I consider myself a Zionist. But right around Independence Day there is another commemoration day called Nakba Day. Nakba is the Arabic word for “catastrophe.” On May 15, the Palestinian population marks the catastrophe of a Jewish state being created that at the same time created a refugee crisis.
I think people today consider history to be a story that is told about the past. There are heroes and villains. It’s not a gigantic leap to suspect that each nation is the hero in its own story. Even if we accept that not all heroes are perfect and not all villains are totally evil (a common theme in today’s storytelling), we still kind of need to see a cohesive storyline about the events of the past. We find comfort in cause and effect. It’s sensible and logical. Otherwise, it’s all just chaos and nothing matters. So when we tell ourselves stories about our past, we don’t simply recite facts in chronological order. We want to be entertained.
Wikipedia says that postmodernism is “typically defined by an attitude of skepticism or distrust toward grand narratives, ideologies, and various tenets of Enlightenment rationality, including the existence of objective reality and absolute truth, as well as notions of rationality, human nature, and progress.” We are also told that this is where the idea of relativism comes from, which includes the idea that truth is relative, both yours and mine.
So we circle back to Israel. According to postmodern history, Independence Day and Nakba Day are two equally true truths. From the point of view of Israel, its narrative is that five Arab armies attacked and Israel fought a war to give birth to the state. From the Palestinian point of view, they got kicked out of their homes and a new state was created that had no place for them. Postmodern theory tells us that with these two equally true truths – and the understanding that there may be more equally true truths – here we have a full picture of history.
The problem for me is that without the idea of an objective truth – tangible evidence and a series of provable facts – to balance each narrative against, then what exactly is true about any narrative? It’s true to you and therefore it’s true to everyone? I believe there is a place for narrative, but there also has to be a place to measure that narrative against facts and evidence. Additionally, if two narratives exist in parallel, do they even have to intertwine or can they stand alone and still be true?
Pulling all these thoughts together, I’m led to a spine-chilling fear. History is a story. Our narrative is true. We are heroes in our own stories. Today, we need to tell our stories in 144 characters or less. So the one with the shortest, most compelling, most entertaining, most memorable slogans wins history? After all, the most often repeated narrative becomes the first among equally true truths. I hope that this is not what we have come to.
This short essay is not an attempt to debate the truth of the Nakba or the truth of Independence Day. There are large sections of many libraries doing that without my input. The point of this essay is to suggest that all of us have a responsibility to remember that there are many voices that add to our understanding of the past and we should rejoice in the complexity of the world, but if we allow that all truth is relative and subjective, then everything and nothing is true. Somewhere there is a middle ground where we can have all the voices and a measure of truth.