The idea of historical revisionism is something that is brought up a lot, by everyone, for many different reasons. When you hear the phrase ‘rewriting history’, it tends to conjure up murky and Orwellian imagery, a world where fact is replaced with a manufactured conception of the past. To the contrary, I would argue that historical revisionism should be encouraged – so long as it is done correctly.
There is one major contradiction I’d like to bring forward. One segment of the population that is against historical revisionism tends to be that which touts phrases like “whites are being written out of their own history” or “Western civilisation is inarguably better than any other”. The kind of people who think political correctness is destroying the world, and that history proves the dominance of the white race due to our spreading of values like “freedom” and the like.
The contradiction here is this: they are, in fact, the ones who are referring to an already heavily revised history. Colonialism, for example, is seen as a good thing, because we brought all of the good Western civilisation traits with us to teach the natives. Yeah, perhaps we weren’t very nice to the Indigenous peoples, or the Indians, or the native Americans – but liberty, life, and the pursuit of happiness, right?
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
So sayeth the United States Declaration of Independence. It would do well to note that only men, not women, are mentioned here, and given the existence of slavery for some years to come (with institutionalised racism still existing today), it can be implied that people of colour were excluded. Those who cling to the ideas of Western hegemony and exceptionalism will always retaliate, when their revised version of history is torn away, by (rather ironically) accusing historians recovering the truthful histories of rewriting it. There is a distinct difference between rewriting history and uncovering it – for an example, read Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe to dispel a few myths about Australia’s Indigenous history. Highlighting and acknowledging the atrocities committed in colonial times is not “tearing down Australia’s history” – it is Australia’s history, we can’t just ignore the inconvenient or darker moments.
That is the kind of historical revisionism that, when done properly, is extremely beneficial. Not revising, but actually correcting the historical record to more accurately portray the events of the past as they happened. I have seen people who refer to the height of the Roman Empire as a white paradise, when in fact any knowledge of the Roman Empire would tell you it spanned continents. Similarly, the British and American Empires have also spanned continents and incorporated – often by force – many peoples into their midst. The world has no ‘white’ or ‘black’ history, merely countless perspectives of a global history that must be acknowledged as a whole.
(That is not to say ‘white’ and ‘black’ history can’t be used as phrases when describing particular topics or events, but they cannot be used as exclusionary or revisionist in a negative manner).
I hope this piece makes some kind of sense – the ideas make sense to me, but formulating them into words is difficult. Essentially: historical revisionism is good if carried out in the context of portraying true history, particularly that which has been rewritten or covered up previously, while the negative side is the manufacturing of that false, exclusionary history, usually done with the purpose of elevating a particular race of people above another.
If it doesn’t make sense? Well, I might revisit it at some point.
Liked this? Read my What Is History?: A Reflection series starting HERE