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Is History Dangerous?

an essay by ex-Hurtwood student, Su Wen Liew. This examination of the philosophy of history was written for the NCH essay competition in 2019, for which Su Wen received a special letter of commendation.

Churchill stated that “history is written by the victors”, meaning that the way in which it is portrayed through the public sphere is highly selective. In some cases, fiction cannot be distinguished from fact and opinion has become a substitute for the truth. This is notable in the current day through the weaponization of social media, which has given the online community the capabilities to manipulate or twist information on a global scale. In the past, false news had made it easier to circulate ideas with ill intentions or inaccuracies, with the earliest instances of these accounts being found in 1439 during the establishment of the printing press. Although its creation had led to the initiation of widespread news, documentation at the time was influenced by subjectivity and lacked verification. Unreliability was inherent in newspapers as journalistic ethics were non-existent, meaning the material conveyed to the public was partial and partisan. This demonstrates that the establishment of the press made it difficult to disentangle the truth from theorised myths, ranging from fictitious stories of sea monsters and sinners who caused natural disasters. Anyone had control over the information distributed, meaning those with ulterior motives could make belief factual as even claimed trustworthy sources including the Venetian Government’s relazioni fell victim to inaccurate narratives as well. Accusations of Anti-Semitism made by a Franciscan preacher in 1475, claiming that the Jewish community murdered a 2 year-old child through a process of blood draining, initiated violence against the Jews and encouraged other groups to commit similar acts, strengthening the false reports of “blood libel” stories that carry on to this day. Beliefs gain acceptance if substantiated over time when all other perspectives are erased, making Churchill’s statement accurate as figures in power are able to steer history in their direction.

Fabricating events in the modern day has been a result of the emergence of social media, suggesting that the bulk of the population relies on information filtered by the internet instead of professionally reported sources. Recent incidents that illustrate humanity’s vulnerability to misinterpretation would involve accusations of interference in the American election by Russian-backed Twitter users. A pro-Brexit group called “Leave.EU” apparently employed Cambridge Analytica to harvest data from potential voters to reorient their attitudes. This shows that campaigning has been adapted to target people’s preferences without their consent, underlining the issues of privacy and manipulation within the media. Since then, the company has been subject to numerous investigations in relation to the scandal, which includes their involvement in the US elections. Platforms like Twitter allow for small, individual factions to exist within their own realities and garner support from those who hold similar beliefs. Rumour cascades, which are subjective statements given on a certain topic, often become unbroken chains of extensive tweets that usually consist of inaccurate assertions such as the incorrect story of Floyd Mayweather wearing a hijab during a Trump rally which garnered the attention of 380,000 users. Furthermore, a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claimed that “false news is 70% more likely to spread on Twitter”, due to its extensive sphere. This can be diffused further through the resharing option, affecting the rate at which news is propagated online. Circumstances including the 2016 US election may have been affected by 2,000 Russian Twitter accounts that tried to alter the vote, whilst hoaxes in regards to the Parkland shooting in Florida misidentified the gunman. Therefore, the media faces an entirely disparate matter in the present day in comparison to the past, as everybody has the ability to rewrite history due to growing online accessibility.

History can be alternatively misinterpreted and repeated as a result of ignorance. This would include factors such as the emergence of race realism in the modern day, which is the act of asserting the inferiority of other cultures and deploying this concept through political or social conventions. The creation of the wall on the Mexican border to immobilise immigrants and travel embargoes imposed against Muslims, are a few out of the countless examples that showcase the unjust opinions of pigmentation defining value. The proliferation of intolerance for other ethnicities and advocating for a single, superior race has become a common trend in American culture since Donald Trump’s inauguration. During the Charlottesville protests, a car ran over multiple protesters who were rallying against the white nationalists. In return, the president responded by blaming both sides for the violence, causing white supremacists to feel validated. Chris Barker, a Ku Klux Klan member, even stated that “more whites are starting to be more proud”, indicating that such groups who endorse intolerance are increasingly excused for their actions. Recently, this immorality has been countered and recognised by musician Donald Glover, whose music video “This is America”, strongly reinforces this idea of the unfair treatment of African Americans in such a heavily inequitable society. It references moments of violence, such as the South Carolina church shooting and highlights how non-white citizens have limitations to their freedom of expression. Minority groups are still subject to prejudice as a result of ignorance and no true consideration of the social justice people have fought for throughout history. Despite the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery, laws ensuring equality may not have necessarily been assimilated into the hearts and minds of the people.

Ultimately the absence of acknowledgement for those who have fought to claim racial equality suggests that history’s present struggles are not wholly appreciated by those who did not experience the fight for egalitarianism throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This encompasses hate crimes across America in the modern day, ranging from the Charleston church shootings in South Carolina to the violence advocated by hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan who operate in 22 states. Furthermore, cultural segregation in the modern day is catalysed through the Trump Administration’s actions of undermining inexpensive housing, voting rights and retirement security for African Americans. A main discriminatory policy dating back to 2017 would be the travel ban from Muslim countries, impacting Libya, Chad and Iran. The primary goal of the embargo aimed for a “complete shutdown” of Muslims entering America as expressed by Trump, deeming that these immigrants had posed a threat to the people and prestige of the country. From these actions, making “America great again” seems to embrace the forceful displacement of these outsiders who are being categorised as a single, violent unit. On the other hand, voting is especially a cause of concern as despite the Voting Rights Act of 1965, states such as Texas and North Carolina in the present day still impose electoral discrimination through the Voter ID Laws. These derogatory attitudes seem no different from Jim Crow laws in 19th century Southern United States, where racial inferiority was legalised by the Black Codes that aimed to reintroduce servitude and limit balloting rights. A similar case of ethnic antagonism can be seen from the recent Windrush scandal in the UK, where immigrants of the Windrush generation were denied jobs and access to medical care. Home secretary, Amber Rudd, was held responsible for aiming to set “ambitious but deliverable” targets for a rise in enforced deportation rates, reinforcing the fact that social hegemony imposing against other ethnicities is still prevalent in the modern day. Events of the past and present can effectively argue that race-related exclusion has continuously been embedded into the lives of the people. The ongoing racism of today’s society does not occur overtly through slavery or segregation in public areas, but is found in disrespectful discourse, stereotypes, and instances of police brutality. The abolishment of discrimination through legal means is not equivalent to the issue being gone and the past should be discerned as a learning mechanism to prevent bigotry from reappearing. Instead, cultural intolerance has become too closely associated with the past, showing that this prejudice is no longer recognised as a topic for discussion. Hence, there is a considerable risk of misremembering as humanity fails to remind itself of modern-day ethnical imperatives.

In conclusion, history is too easily forgotten in the modern day, either wilfully or through complacency. Time has established a distinct barrier between us and the reality of the past. As a result of historical dismissal, people believe that the atrocities once committed are no longer conceivable. Simultaneously, the strengthening waves of fake news have made the population more susceptible to preconception though the blurring of the truth and deception. Progression should not be mistaken for greater understanding and society should bear this in mind as ignorance is no longer blissful. If powerful leaders can pinpoint these misunderstandings in history and learn from them, the adverse consequences of inaccurate news can be reduced. Until then, history will remain as a subject bound to manipulation from which we will cease to learn.


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