Psychic Balkanization and the Study of History

We are aware of something called a “past.” In the realm of common human experience, at least, we find ourselves remembering something which happened “before” the current moment. Leaving aside the metaphysical questions around this, our human brains require that some kind of pattern or story be imposed on this collection of memories. On the personal scale, we are all familiar with how we create a personal narrative around the events of our lives. Likewise, on the larger scale of human societies, we craft what are known as “histories.”

Part of Industrial Civilization’s story concerns the notion that there can be some “objective” account of the world, and this includes the idea of “history” as a scientific pursuit rather than an art form. Despite the long erosion of the modern progressivist notions concerning objectivity, most of us tend to approach the study of history as though it were the impartial uncovering of fact. I think that when we reflect on how difficult it can be to get two married people to come to agreement on something that happened to both of them years before, we can understand how this notion of an “objective” history is little more than a conceit. The events of the past, like those of today, did not occur at all in the neatly packaged, definite way that we are accustomed to thinking. True, one can find undisputed commonalities. Wars, for instance, would be tough to mistake for something else. (Unless they’re call “police actions…”) We are sometimes fortunate enough to have the diary of someone in power, or other writings. And large scale undertakings leave a definite paper trail. But the assemblage of these items into a coherent story is the job of historians.

Which is where what I call the psychic balkanization of our society comes in. While many are aware that the evaluation of facts is largely guided by social programming, there is still pressure to find a “true” story. This is largely the province of amateur historians who are intent on proving some pet theory, or worse “debunking” someone else’s. These individuals will largely rely on secondary sources, and these sources will be of a particular “school” within various history departments. Thus, you have numerous groups of individuals all reading from their pet clique’s historical material, and creating what amounts to propaganda for the viewpoint that attracted them to that school in the first place. The result of this is the nauseating circle jerk mentality found in internet forums, where those not initiated will be mocked, abused, or condescended to depending on how polite the person they encounter happens to be.

This is important for Pagans, since we are often embroiled in historical controversy, generally centered around the assertions of non-professionals. So we hear that so and so has “debunked” the Burning Times “myth,” for instance. To begin with, the word “debunk” is almost exclusively used by that odious group of reductionist materialists who have the audacity to call themselves “skeptics.” It means nothing more than arranging facts in a way that suits certain a priory assumptions and then be unusually snarky about it. Second, the use of the word “myth” in this way is denigrating to Paganism. It simply means “fiction” or a “lie.” The allied assumption then, is that there is some generally agreed upon, uncontroversial “true story” when such a story will never be found. Because history isn’t an account of facts but an interpretation of them.

I could belabor the particular example, but I won’t. The specifics are far less important than the general tendency. Quite often, when we approach history, we don’t realize that there is a kind ideology behind the way the facts are being presented. It’s premature to jump on a particular book or article and say that this has, once and for all, proven or disproven this or that idea. No discipline actually works this way, and I think it’s important to remember that. It might, at the very least, increase the general level of comity in our community, which I feel is something we need.

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