“History is written by the winners.” -George Orwell
Whenever we read an article, a book, or a novel about any historic event, it is very likely that it has been written from the perspective the author favored the most. Read anything about World War 2 written by an American or British author. Odds are that they will portray their own countries as the ones who won the war. The “peacekeepers”. It is true, they did fight and they did suffer. However, the truth is that while the Americans and the British were fighting 20 Nazi divisions, the Soviets were fighting 200. Nevertheless, bias does not have to be a lie. It can be an incomplete truth. There are several articles and books about the Spanish Conquer of Mexico. Most of them say the truth, but not all of it. It is common to read how the Spanish colonizers entered the country and just killed a lot of natives to then rule everywhere, which is completely right, but it only tells half of the story. The Spanish arrived at this new land, allied with any town who were under the tyrannic reign of the Mayans, and then took down their empire. Afterwards, they ruled everywhere. As Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Clio, the muse of history, is as thoroughly infected with lies as a street whore with syphilis”. It is a fact that any historic matter we know is not fully accurate. This is because “History is written by the winners” and therefore we will probably just know a part of the story. King Aethelred described the Danes (Vikings) as “a bunch of merciless raiders and killers”, while the Anglo-Saxons would murder or prosecute the ones who refused to praise god.
Grammar is another possible variable that can affect the veracity of any past event. Ellen B. Rockmore in “How Texas Teaches History” states how the writer’s decision about how to construct sentences, the subject of a passage, and whether the verb will be passive or active, will shape the meaning of a sentence. The use of passive voice and improper nouns can lead to a misinterpretation of a text. It can be used to give less importance to a topic while still technically maintaining the truth. An extract from a history textbook, “Texas United States History” shows a good example. “However, severe treatment was very common. Whippings, brandings, and even worse torture were all part of American slavery.” Here we can see how the use of passive voice makes the sentence sound less powerful, therefore obscuring some parts of it and decreasing its influence on the reader. However, if the passage was written as “Slaves were whipped, branded and tortured” the whole sentence sounds more vigorous therefore truly stating the relevance of the matter.
3 thoughts on “The Effect of Bias and Grammar on History”
So Jan, what is needed to ensure that we have historical accounts that are fair, truthful, and accurate?
Multiple perspectives and physical evidence.
I agree and understand your post and I think that the biggest part in History as an AoK is the doubting part, how much can you trust in the versions, you explained well the concept “History is written by the winners”. A very solid post. I also liked the Spanish Conquer.