History and Judgement

Discussing history is a surprisingly contentious activity because to a great extent we define who we are (and what our institutions are) by our past actions.  Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that when Chris Blosser posted the fascinating (to me at any rate) story of Mitsuo Fuchida, who went from living the samuri-derived Bushido code of behavior to becoming a Christian missionary as the result of seeing the lived-out Christianity of Westerners after World War II, one of the first comments was:

And yet how many of you would still defend the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Not to mention the bombs he have dropped repeatedly on Iraq?

This is, I think, indicative of a certain approach to discussing history, one in which discussing historical events must always involve ritual denunciations of specific wrongs, or perceived wrongs. Thus, for instance, a discussion of America’s founding documents must, according to this school of thought, always include a statement that, “Of course, this was written in the context of minorities and women having no rights at all.” Any discussion of WW2 where the Allies are treated as having been better than the Axis must result in a denunciation of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the firebombings of Tokyo and Dresden. Any discussion of the medieval Church must be accompanied with denunciations of the crusades, clerical corruption and anti-semitism. And on, and on.

While it is certainly important to bring our sense of moral judgement to our understanding of the past

— and to use that reflection on the past to help us understand the present more objectively — I think an over emphasis on this kind of morality-play history does both history and our moral sense a real disservice. Too often the reflexive expression of disapproval results in the assignment of a related motive: “Because they were racist.” “Because they were colonialists.” “Because they wanted economic dominance.” At which point, any ability to understand the real people involved and their motivations vanishes in a puff of ideology.

To my mind, the most rewarding approach to history is to understand as sympathetically as possible the motivations of all those on both sides of major historical conflicts. Picking a “good guy” and “bad guy” and engaging in constant denunciations of specific acts is generally not condusive to this. Certainly, that does not mean that one may not judge the morality of historical events. But it does mean taking a less judgemental approach to history as a whole.

Simplistic narratives are generally the enemy of historical understanding.