Tag: Galilean Relativity

The Narratives of History: Applying Lessons from the Past

“History is written by the winners” is the popular view. But your winner may not be my winner. A lot depends on the narrative you are trying to build.

History is rewritten all the time.

Sometimes it is rewritten because new information has come to light, perhaps from an archeological find or previously classified documents. When this happens, it is exciting. We joyfully anticipate that more information will deepen our understanding.

But rewriting frequently happens in the service of building a cultural or national narrative. We highlight bits of the past that support our perceived identities and willfully ignore the details that don’t fit. We like our history uncomplicated. It’s hard for us to understand our groups or our countries, and by extension ourselves, as both good and not-good at the same time.

Culture is collective memory. It’s the interwoven stories that we use to explain who we are as nations, organizations, or just loosely formed groups.

Many of us belong to multiple cultural groups, but only one national group. Margaret MacMillan, in The Uses and Abuses of History, explains that “Collective memory is more about the present than the past because it is integral to how the group sees itself.” And “while collective memory is usually grounded in fact, it need not be.”

We have seen how people justify all kinds of mistakes to preserve the personal narratives they are invested in, and groups also engage in this behavior. Countries rewrite their histories, from the textbook up, to support how they see themselves now. Instinctively we may recoil from this idea, believing that it’s better to turn over all the rocks and confront what is lurking underneath. However, as MacMillan writes, “It can be dangerous to question the stories people tell about themselves because so much of our identity is both shaped by and bound up with our history. That is why dealing with the past, in deciding on which version we want, or on what we want to remember and to forget, can become so politically charged.”

For example, when Canada’s new war museum opened, controversy immediately ensued because part of the World War II exhibit called attention “to the continuing debate over both the efficacy and the morality of the strategy of the Royal Air Force’s bomber command, which sought to destroy Germany’s capacity to fight on by massive bombing of German industrial and civilian targets.” RAF veterans were outraged that their actions were considered morally ambiguous. Critics of the exhibit charged that the veterans should have the final say because, after all, “they were there.”

We can see that this rationale makes no sense. Galilean relativity shows that the pilots who flew the bombing campaigns are actually the least likely to have an objective understanding of the events. And the ends don’t always justify the means. It is possible to do bad things in the pursuit of morally justified outcomes.

MacMillan warns that the danger of abusing history is that it “flattens out the complexity of human experience and leaves no room for different interpretations of the past.”

Which leaves us asking, What do we want from history? Do we want to learn from it, with the hopes that in doing so we will avoid mistakes by understanding the experiences of others? Or do we want to practice self-justification on a national level, reinforcing what we already believe about ourselves in order to justify what we did and what we are doing? After all, “you could almost always find a basis for your claims in the past if you looked hard enough.”

As with medicine, there is a certain fallibility to history. Our propensity to fool ourselves with self-justified narratives is hard to overcome. If we selectively use the past only to reinforce our claims in the present, then the situation becomes precarious when there is pressure to change. Instead of looking as objectively as possible at history, welcoming historians who challenge us, we succumb to confirmation bias, allowing only those interpretations that are consistent with the narrative we are invested in.

Consider what MacMillan writes about nationalism, which “is a very late development indeed in terms of human history.”

It all started so quietly in the nineteenth century. Scholars worked on languages, classifying them into different families and trying to determine how far back into history they went. They discovered rules to explain changes in language and were able to establish, at least to their own satisfaction, that texts centuries old were written in early forms of, for example, German or French. Ethnographers like the Grimm brothers collected German folk tales as a way of showing that there was something called the German nation in the Middle Ages. Historians worked assiduously to recover old stories and pieced together the history of what they chose to call their nation as though it had an unbroken existence since antiquity. Archaeologists claimed to have found evidence that showed where such nations had once lived, and where they had moved to during the great waves of migrations.

The cumulative result was to create an unreal yet influential version of how nations formed. While it could not be denied that different peoples, from Goths to Slavs, had moved into and across Europe, mingling as they did so with peoples already there, such a view assumed that at some point, generally in the Middle Ages, the music had stopped. The dancing pieces had fallen into their chairs, one for the French, another for the Germans and yet another for the Poles. And there history had fixed them as “nations.” German historians, for example, could depict an ancient German nation whose ancestors had lived happily in their forests from before the time of the Roman Empire and which at some time, probably in the first century A.D., had become recognisably “German.” So — and this was the dangerous question — what was properly the German nation’s land? Or the land of any other “nation”? Was it where the people now lived, where they had lived at the time of their emergence in history, or both?

Would the scholars have gone on with their speculations if they could have seen what they were preparing the way for? The bloody wars that created Italy and Germany? The passions and hatred that tore apart the old multinational Austria-Hungary? The claims, on historical grounds, by new and old nations after World War I for the same pieces of territory? The hideous regimes of Hitler and Mussolini with their elevation of the nation and the race to the supreme good and their breathtaking demands for the lands of others?

When we selectively reach back into the past to justify claims in the present, we reduce the complexity of history and of humanity. This puts us in an awkward position because the situations we are confronted with are inherently complex. If we cut ourselves off from the full scope of history because it makes us uncomfortable, or doesn’t fit with the cultural narrative in which we live, we reduce our ability to learn from the past and apply those lessons to the situations we are facing today.

MacMillan says, “There are also many lessons and much advice offered by history, and it is easy to pick and choose what you want. The past can be used for almost anything you want to do in the present. We abuse it when we create lies about the past or write histories that show only one perspective. We can draw our lessons carefully or badly. That does not mean we should not look to history for understanding, support and help; it does mean that we should do so with care.”

We need to accept that people can do great things while still having flaws. Our heroes don’t have to be perfect, and we can learn just as much from their imperfections as from their achievements.

We have to allow that there are at least two sides to every story, and we have to be willing to listen to both. There are no conflicts in which one side doesn’t feel morally justified in their actions; that’s why your terrorist can be my freedom fighter. History can be an important part of bridging this divide only if we are willing to lift up all the rocks and shine our lights on what is lurking underneath.

Galilean Relativity and the Invasion of Scotland

A few centuries ago, when Galileo (1564-1642) was trying to make a couple of points about how our world really works, one of the arguments that frequently came up in response to his ‘the earth orbits the sun’ theory was “if the earth is moving through space, how come I don’t notice?”

Not that I have much to begin with, but I don’t feel the wind constantly in my hair, I don’t get orbit-induced motion sickness, so why, Galileo, don’t I notice this movement as the earth is spinning around over 100,000 km per hour?

His answer is known as Galilean Relativity and it contains principles that have broad application in life.

Understanding Galilean Relativity allows you to consider your perspective in relation to results. Are you really achieving what you think you are?

First, an explanation of the theory.

Imagine you are on a ship that has reached constant velocity (meaning without a change in speed or direction). You are below decks and there are no portholes. You drop a ball from your raised hand to the floor. To you, it looks as if the ball is dropping straight down, thereby confirming gravity is at work. You are able to perceive this vertical shift as the ball changed its location by about three feet.

Now imagine you are a fish (with special x-ray vision) and you are watching this ship go past. You see the scientist inside, dropping a ball. You register the vertical change in the position of the ball. But you are also able to see a horizontal change. As the ball was pulled down by gravity it also shifted its position east by about 20 feet. The ship moved through the water and therefore so did the ball. The scientist on board, with no external point of reference, was not able to perceive this horizontal shift.

This analogy helped Galileo explain why we don’t notice the earth moving — because we’re at the same constant velocity, moving with our planet.

It can also show us the limits of our perception. And how we must be open to other perspectives if we truly want to understand the results of our actions. Despite feeling that we’ve got all the information, if we’re on the ship, the fish in the ocean has more he can share.

History offers an illuminating example of this principle at work.

In the early fourteenth century, two English kings (Edwards I and II) were repeatedly in conflict with Scotland over Scottish independence.

Nationalism wasn’t as prevalent as an identity characteristic as it is today. Lands came and went with war, marriage, and papal edicts, and the royal echelons of Europe spent a lot of time trying to acquire and hold on to land, as that is where their money ultimately came from.

There were a lot of factors that led Edward I, King of England, to decide that Scotland should be his. It has to do with how William the Conqueror divided things up in the area in 1066, the constant struggle by the English for the strategic upper hand against France, and more generally, the fact that the King of England was at the head of a feudal system that, “by enlarging a class of professional soldiers who owed military service in payment for land, it enabled it,” says William Rosen in his book The Third Horseman: Climate Change and the Great Famine of the 14th Century.

Edward I wanted to rule Scotland. The Scots weren’t interested. He invaded half a dozen times and succeeded only in giving birth to a separate Scottish identity. His desire for Scotland became his Galilean ship. He couldn’t see beyond that desire to understand how his actions were actually fundamentally undermining his goals.

History regards Edward I as a decent king. Strategic in battle, a good administrator, and so one can assume that what he generally wanted was to rule over a prosperous and powerful country. In his mind then it may have been a very simple equation – since prosperity in the middle ages was tied up with land, then to have more of it must be good. And Scotland was in a convenient location, as opposed to, say, Mongolia.

What Edward I did not see was that the repeated invasion of Scotland was undermining the very prosperity and power he was hoping to augment. It was costing tons of money, money that had to be raised from the nobility that supported his monarchy, which in turn had to be raised via the peasants from the land. People were getting sick of watching their taxes go up in flames on the Scottish border. And, as Rosen claims, “A king’s authority depends utterly on the loyalty and faith of his people.” Lose your popular support and you lose everything.

When Edward I died, his son, Edward II, inherited his father’s quest to own Scotland. He too repeatedly invaded with no lasting success. And he had it even worse. The beginning of his reign coincided with a major famine that decimated the population. This was followed by diseases that swept through the agricultural animal populations. So there was less money to support war.

But Edward II kept taxing and invading Scotland anyway, indifferent to the plight of his people. This contributed to widespread disgust with his reign and eventually led to his being disposed of, and likely murdered, in favor of his son. A cautionary tale on what happens when you lose the loyalty of the people you are meant to be leading!

This all begs the question, was Scotland really such a great prize to justify the repeated attempts to conquer it?

The answer is no. As Rosen writes, “the conquest of medieval Scotland was, by any rational economic calculus, a poor bargain for both of England’s King Edwards, who together spent more than the entire value of the country in one failed expedition after another.”

They certainly did not see this.

It is important to know that in Galilean relativity, neither the perspective of the scientist on the ship nor the fish in the ocean is incorrect. Both perspectives are true for those doing the observing. Because the scientist has no external frame of reference, he is not mistaken when he says that the ball moved only vertically, and not horizontally.

You aren’t always going to be able to adjust for Galilean relativity. Given the roles, expectations, and mythology surrounding kings, both Edwards were acting according to the viewpoint they had.

So discussing the attempted conquest of Scotland by both Kings is not about revealing that their assumptions were incorrect. From their perspective acquiring land was always a good thing. But by failing to consider other perspectives they didn’t achieve their intended results – control of Scotland – and, more importantly, were unable to appreciate the results they were affecting. More land cannot come at the expense of support for your leadership.

It is likely that at least one advisor might have said to the Edwards, ‘hey, maybe you should spend some more money on preventing the starvation of the population that pays you taxes and take a break on this Scottish thing’. This is where understanding Galilean relativity is useful – you won’t shoot the messenger.

You will know that sometimes you are on the ship, and the limitations this entails, and so be open when the fish shares his perspective with you.