Dec 01, 2018

"History is Written By Victors" is a Foolish Phrase

Some quotes are clever; some only superficially so. Often, we are so awed by a statement that we don’t ever question its veracity. Take, Betteridge’s law of headlines, for example. The maxim assets that every headline ending with a question mark can be answered with a “no.” A straightforward analysis points that the law only applies 25% of the times. Probably, the originator didn’t consider genuine uses of having a question as a headline.

“History is Written by Victors.” The quote gets attributed to Winston Churchill, but its origins are unknown. It implies that history is not grounded in facts, rather it’s the winners’ interpretation of them that prevails. The victors can force their narrative down on the people. (Actually, there could be multiple interpretations. The term ‘winner’ itself is ambiguous. So, I have made certain assumptions.)

To an extent, this happens. Mercedes had to apologize for tweeting a quote of Dalai Lama after receiving a backlash form the Chinese. Why? Because he’s considered a terrorist in the mainland. Debate on Tibet’s sovereignty aside, it’s obvious that PRC has tried to disseminate a twisted version of the history.

However, there are so many things wrong with the phrase that it can’t be taken seriously (unless you were to severely limit its scope.)

First, history isn’t set in stone. When new facts emerge, it gets revisited. The Wright Brothers, who were celebrities in their heyday, believed so strongly in their innovation that they never considered that they are crossing the line in enforcing patents. Such was their stature that they won every major lawsuit. Today, those actions are rightfully considered patent trolling. Of course, the public view is still in their favor today. But, that’s only because what they did was truly revolutionary.

You might win history for a certain time period, but that doesn’t imply no one will question you actions in the future.

Second, it’s difficult to assume that a person or a regime can force an interpretation unless they were to be highly oppressive. Promoting and mantaining a false image of the past would mean to oppress all the facts and mediums of free speech. After all, it only takes one dissenter to take down the whole narrative. Some regimes, like North Korea’s, have been exceptionally successful at this. Amid deep surveillance, and strict control on access to information, the public is fed with patently false information: “South Korea is poverty-stricken,” “North Korea ended WWII,” and “Koreans are a pure and superior race.”

But, how far can one go when there’s a little bit of democracy and free speech? China is known suppress all accounts of Tiananmen Square Massacre, but that hasn’t erased the knowledge of the event from the nation.

The counterexamples to the phrase are numerous.

The Reality

Sometimes, historical facts do get twisted for petty gains. Sometimes, people are made to buy a blatant lie. I can recall a book that proudly claimed that plastic surgery, nuclear weapons, aeroplanes and big bang theory were already discovered in ancient India.

But, that doesn’t have to do anything with who’s the winner or the loser. The driving factor here is who stands to gain the most. It’s fairly simple to bolster citizens’ self-image by harping about the glorious past. Hence, the Indian politicians’ sustained efforts to do.

History is written by everyone. The more accurate quote would be, “History is temporarily twisted by people who’re going to profit from it in the short term.”

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