A friend of mine teaches a general world history course to college Freshmen. She was recently telling me about a frustrating incident where she was teaching about context and understanding historical events but one of her students wanted to show off his knowledge of facts.
She was teaching about Ivan the III and how some historical sources call him Ivan the Great and others call him Ivan the Terrible. Her student couldn’t let go that there is a different Russian ruler (Ivan IV) who is also known as Ivan the Terrible. She kept saying, “This is true, but this is not the point. The point is that this one man is known historically by these two names and this is because some people saw his reign is great and some people will deeply hurt by his actions and thought he was awful.”
She had to revisit the topic in a subsequent class because it is an important point that needed to get across. When you triple the territory of your state, you’re going to make a lot of people happy. You’re also going to make a lot of people unhappy. So, depending on if you were part of the expansion or you were expanded into, you might have a different view of the event.
As researchers, this is something we come across everyday. There is the data and there is our interpretation of the data. But, data often lends itself to multiple interpretations. Sometimes, you can get to the same point from two different paths. The world is like that.
With this discussion with my friend fresh in my mind I posted an article on Facebook about ten revolutionary women that we don’t often learn about in school. I thought it was an interesting article because women have been involved in lots of movements globally but we don’t learn about their involvement. Women and minorities, peskily, get scrubbed from history. (They either make history but are asked to sit down because its not the best photo op or people don’t talk about them (and then when they do, they don’t actually mention them by name.)So, hearing about diversity that actually existed in historical movements not only broadens our understanding of how those movements worked but also can give us a sense of the complexity of the historical event. (Instead of, say, just “memorize these names and dates. Some important stuff happened.”)
So, I posted this link and then then watched (in horror) as a discussion played out in the comments between my conservative father and a friend from a former Yugoslavian country. I stopped the discussion pretty early by asking my Dad to no longer comment (largely because he was doing some rhetorical things that DRIVE ME CRAZY, but that is a post for another day). The thrust of the discussion was this: my father wanted make sure that I knew that communism was bad and killed lots of people and that we shouldn’t honor all of the women on the list. Of course, learning about someone and their actions is not the same as honoring them. My friend wanted to make sure that my father knew that celebrated Western women like Margaret Thatcher caused suffering abroad AND at home. It devolved from there. Mud was slung. As someone who loves my friend and loves my father, I stared at my Facebook for a few minutes trying to figure out how to reconcile the two viewpoints before just giving up and asking one side to just cool it.
Later in the week brought the anniversary of the 1991 Belgrade protests. After the initial protest on March 9th (protesting the rule of Slobodan Milošević and his party), there was more violence, police brutality, and, well, the Bosnian war and NATO bombings and, we all remember the ’90s, right?
It occurred to me that my friend and my father might actually agree on a few things (if people weren’t so rhetorically contentious.) And, it also occurred to me that the same Ivan the Great/Terrible framing issue was relevant to this car-crash Facebook discussion.
For my Dad, communism was a real threat and Soviet communism was a scourge that needed to be wiped from the Earth. The Soviet government (and other communist governments) were responsible for thousands of deaths and other untold human horrors and communism had to go. So, communism going was a victory! One for the record books! Excellent work, good job, everyone!
But, for my friend in Eastern Europe, regardless of what it had been before, the victory my Father and others like him heralded opened up a decade of protests in the streets, political killings, police brutality, the selling off of national assets (in ways that did not benefit the people), a war in Bosnia filled with atrocities and NATO bombings, all of which the current states have yet to completely recover from.
When thinking about any event, historical or current, we sometimes need to step back and think about what baggage we’re bringing to our interpretation. Why do we think a win is a win? What were the consequences of the event? Are we leaving anything out to get to our interpretation? These details are important.