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I’ve been thinking a lot about history lately. Partly because for the last year, we’ve been continually reminded that we’re “living through history” right now. Mostly, this reminder is used to encourage people to care about our current situation, whether COVID or politics. It’s a warning to everyone that this is a time future generations will look back on and scrutinize. It’s suggesting each individual needs to choose “which side in history they want to be on.”
Choosing a side in history reminds me of a moment in one of my high school history classes. I think we were learning about the Spanish Inquisition, but I can’t be sure. Anyway, a classmate mentioned how the history book we were learning from really only gave one perspective, the winning side. To which our teacher responded with the famous quote often attributed to Winston Churchill,
“History is written by the victors.”
For some reason, this quote stuck with me. Something clicked inside me when I heard it. It made me question everything I’d ever learned about the past because I realized I didn’t have all the information, aka a well-rounded view of historical events. I only knew what the history books said.
As you know, before the digital age our knowledge came from books. The problem is, people write books, and people aren’t exactly known for being objective — even when supposedly delivering “the facts” of any given situation.
Think of the beliefs surrounding the origins of America for example. For decades, the history books glorified Christopher Columbus for “discovering” America. He was, and is still, celebrated for his bravery and adventurous expeditions. He was considered a hero. All the books said so.
We’d all been led to believe the birth of America was some great work of diversity and cooperation. The colonists, led by Christopher Columbus, saved the Native Americans and provided a better life for them. This is because the colonists won, so they wrote the book and exaggerated their victories. (As many “winners” do.)
Of course, now we know the hero reputation of Christopher Columbus is not as shiny as once thought. In fact, Christopher Columbus didn’t land in North America as the first westerner, he landed in the Bahamas and went on to explore Central America, Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The truth is, a man named Leif Eriksson is now thought to be the first European to set foot on North America, more specifically Canada, and he did it 500 years before Columbus.
Regardless, colonists laid claim to a land that was already occupied. They stole the land from the Natives (who they deemed as savages) and murdered or enslaved any who tried to stop them, or who wouldn’t conform to the western way of life.
Though we only reach this conclusion by using our critical thinking skills while learning the colonist praised their violent methods of persuasion. There’s little to no documentation of the Native American perspective on the events, at least no well-known ones. Most were lost, destroyed, or buried. Coincidence? Maybe, but doubtful.
Discovering the other side of historical events is always a big deal. For example, think about all the knowledge we have about Hitler. We already knew of his horrific acts and the destruction he caused — yet the discovery of Anne Frank’s diary shook the world because it gave a detailed perspective from the other side of the story.
History Will Never Be The Same
But for the foreseeable future, the way future generations view history will be very different. The internet changed everything. The victors aren’t writing the history books anymore, at least they aren’t the only ones. Everyone gets a say about how events took place. Anyone and everyone with an internet connection has the ability to share their views and experiences with the world.
So today, when people are saying we’re living through history and we need to choose how we want to be remembered, it’s actually very literal.
From now on, or at least for as long as we can access the internet, future generations will have a complete picture of our lives and the events we live through. Not just for major historical events either.
Think about it, your great-great-great-etc-grandchildren will be able to view your social feeds, read your words, and watch you in videos in a way no current generation has ever had the opportunity to do.
Imagine what we’d know if the Native Americans had social media or blogs in 1492. What would the world look like if we always had access to infinite information? I bet we wouldn’t even recognize it.
Instead, we’re still relatively new to the digital age. Gen Z is the first generation to have the internet throughout their entire lives, and they still have plenty of life left to live.
No single perspective will ever dominate history anymore. All sides of every event can and will be found. Everyone has a voice and can be heard. Future generations won’t need to wonder what really took place.