A reader wrote in and asked, “Can history be objective? Or will any rendering of history be tainted by the historian’s personal perspective?”
Actually, history can and must be objective. But it has to be fact-based. And then, once facts are established, general conclusions must be drawn from the facts. The problem with most historians, as we know them, is that they start out biased. For example, they start out with the idea that freedom is inhumane and irresponsible, while government control is usually a good thing. As a result, they look at the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt or Lyndon B. Johnson and conclude, “Look at all the good things they did.” They select for facts which support, or at least seem to support, their preexisting view of history and morality.
Truly objective history would simply start with the facts. In fact, that’s what history is supposed to do. It’s supposed to show us the facts in their full context and either (1) leave us to draw our own conclusions, or (2) consider conclusions that are carefully argued from the full reporting of those facts.
I’m not only talking about academic history here. I’m also talking about how people use history in their everyday lives. People rewrite history all the time. When a friendship or a marriage goes badly, they will sometimes sacrifice the facts to their already established emotional conclusions. They don’t only do this in front of others; they do this in their own minds. Instead of looking at all the factors which contributed to and/or caused the downfall in the relationship, they only remember and focus on the factors relevant to the conclusions they now prefer to hold. Not everyone does this, but many do. And everyone is subject to it, without a full and honest commitment to total objectivity at all times.
“Total objectivity” means first and foremost, at all times: The facts…and ALL of the facts. People who rewrite history in their minds often do so with absolute facts. The presence of those facts in their histories is not the problem; it’s the absence of equally relevant ones that causes problems. We’ve all heard the expression (in a courtroom context), to tell “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” There’s reason for saying it this way rather than simply, “Tell the truth.” Human beings can be marvelous at rationalizing things. Rationalizing includes leaving out relevant facts. That’s why everyone’s policy within his own mind ought to be, “I will focus on the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, at all times.” Focus on facts first — and then form conclusions. Facts always come first.
Seeing all the facts objectively doesn’t simply refer to morality. It also refers to mental and emotional health. Cognitive psychologists have asserted that emotional problems such as anxiety and depression are rooted in a failure to see the whole picture. I just published an entire book on the subject of psychotherapy and mental health. The central premise of the book was that everyone should regularly introspect. In practice this means: Always be asking yourself to note the facts that would lead you to a different conclusion than the depressed or anxious viewpoint. I offered dozens of examples of this in the book.
Focusing on facts does not mean that you’ll always feel good. Some facts are unpleasant. But ignoring them won’t make them go away, and the advantage of focusing on facts is greater than the discomfort sometimes caused by doing so. Plus, as cognitive psychology shows us, making yourself focus on ALL of the facts will expose the distortions and errors in thinking that lead to depression, anxiety and other emotional discomfort. In short, focusing on reality makes you happier overall, even if not always in the moment. This is because it’s better to know, than not to know — because knowledge is power, and power over one’s life is a necessary component of happiness.
Even in times like ours, where so much that has been so great is starting to go so wrong, it’s better to know and understand than not to do so. If we had better historians and more intellectually honest leaders, corrections would be taking place in social policy and we’d be on the road to recovery. Instead, people hold onto long-since falsified attitudes and viewpoints which only get us into bigger trouble.
It’s better to understand than not, because in understanding you get to the truth. Objective truth and knowledge are powerful things, both for individuals in daily life and for society as a whole.