Historical Bias

Sep 2006
1,453
Korea (but I'm American!)
#1
Do we have biases when we study history? By that I mean, when we look at a conflict involving two countries or peoples, do we tend to think of one side as "the bad guy," and the other as "the good guy."

For Example.

Everyone knows WWII.
UK US are the good guys and Germany and Japan are the bad guys.Right?
But the UK had a huge chunk of the world conquered prior to WWII. They came out of WWI with more conquests than before, when Germany is often thought as the conquerer.
Japan was brutal and conquered a lot of Asia but most of the conquests were places that were just conquests of white peoples. Dutch East Indies, Phillipines, Indo-China, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia. I'm not saying WW I and II shouldn't have been fought. I'm talking about the perception of our minds on good guy bad guy.

Persia vs Greece. Persia is the bad guy, but Greece is the good guy.
Alexander the Great is seen as some great guy conquering Persia. But then we have Ghengis Khan the conquerer. He's usually seen as some asiatic barbarian. Alexander brings light to the Middle East, but the Ottomans taking over Byzantium and moving toward Vienna are The Enemy At The Gate.

Cowboys and Indians is another classic. The Indians are the bad guys. They are savage and scalp people, and the murderous Cowboys and American Calvary committing genocide are the brave good guys.

The Islamic Empire. The Muslims come into France but are stopped by the brave Charles The Hammer Martel. Whew! He saved France from the barbarians. Meanwhile Cordova in Islamic Spain becomes the jewel of Europe. And Baghdad is the center of the world's learning.
Brave Richard the LionHeart leads the Crusade against the Muslims, who see the Europeans the same way the Europeans see the vikings. A bunch of barbarians bringing nothing but death.

Brave Israel is beseiged by the Arabs. (This is one that I was seriously mistaken about for a very long time:( ). Meanwhile the Palestinians are stuck in a network of prison walls and getting pulverized by Israel's firepower and determination to wipe them out.

Then there's the Yellow Menace of the early 1900's. However it was the Europeans who tried carving China up.

As Historians should we be fighting against these biases? Should we talk about history is a more neutral way?
 

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
#2
There are very few good guys or bad guys in history, its all based on the individual's perspective.

There are some individuals that were truly evil - Hitler and the leaders of the Inquisition both come to mind immediately for me - but IMO true conflicts between good and evil are extremely rare in human history. The German soldier in WWII had a wife and kids, or parents and girl, waiting for him at home just as soon as any American soldier.

I like Belisarius' signature about there being three sides to every story:

The Indians were horribly cruel, scalping and torturing and killing women and children - well, so did the Europeans/Americans! The white men were dishonest, breaking treaties, cheating Natives out of their land, forcibly assimilating them - so did the Indians!

Historically, and in the modern day, human beings have been remarkably childish and immature about this. To us, its "them verses us" - but that's how it is for "them" too! Every nation, every people, has its own story, its own reasons, or excuses, for the things it does/has done.
 
#3
One that has always been interesting to me is the bias involving the colonization of the Americas. To most people Spain is seen as "evil" and England as "good" and I don't really understand why.

How different were the English and Spanish attitudes towards the natives they found? Both waged wars against the Indians, the Spanish seemed to try to integrate the natives into their society more, but neither treated them anywhere near fairly.

One answer would be language I suppose, Americans naturally being more admiring of England because of their shared language. But then why do the French and Dutch not get the bad reputation that Spain has in regards to colonization?

Religion would be another option, but again France had the same religion as Spain for the most part.
 

Salah

Forum Staff
Oct 2009
23,284
Maryland
#4
One that has always been interesting to me is the bias involving the colonization of the Americas. To most people Spain is seen as "evil" and England as "good" and I don't really understand why.

How different were the English and Spanish attitudes towards the natives they found? Both waged wars against the Indians, the Spanish seemed to try to integrate the natives into their society more, but neither treated them anywhere near fairly.

One answer would be language I suppose, Americans naturally being more admiring of England because of their shared language. But then why do the French and Dutch not get the bad reputation that Spain has in regards to colonization?

Religion would be another option, but again France had the same religion as Spain for the most part.
Pretty much all the original European settlers in the Americas were brutal and greedy, but the Spaniards developed a reputation for being particularly brutal and greedy, largely thanks to the Conquistadores.
 

Bismarck

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
2,847
rangiora
#6
I think contemporary conflicts are seen as good v bad - this is necessary in order to drum up support and feeling for the war. By the time these conflicts have passed into history, however, this ceases to be the case. Rarely in any study of WWII will you read historians describing Hitler in terms of good and evil - it is left to the layman to use such terms who maybe wants to make an appeal to emotions. No serious study of past conflicts ever presents it in terms of good and bad.

As for the colonisation of America, it is simply a matter of perception. Because the United States and Canada are seen to be more successful than the South American or Latin American nations, people have mistakenly assumed that the British were better colonizers than the Spanish. The reputation of the Conquistadors has probably contributed to this perception, but their notereity has as much to do with time and place as it has with nationality. In other words, had it been British adventurers forging their way through the South American hinterland in the 16th century we may just as easily have been reading about their atrocities and greed. British colonialism didnt really take off until the late 18th century, by which time enlightenment values had begun to permeate through society - hence the perception that the British were more moderate colonizers.
 
Likes: andyferdinard

Belisarius

Forum Staff
Jun 2006
10,339
U.K.
#7
Can't really add much to this, other than to say I tend to view historical events through the prism of a virtual courtroom, with the participants as "witnesses" Each has their story, some are truthful others not; some hostile, others with agendas. Figuring all this out and coming to a conclusion is the fun part for me.

Anyone who sees history in terms of black and white, just doesn't get it.
 
Jan 2008
18,733
Chile, Santiago
#8
Do we have biases when we study history? By that I mean, when we look at a conflict involving two countries or peoples, do we tend to think of one side as "the bad guy," and the other as "the good guy."
In the first place, the bias comes from those who write History.
Anyone who sees history in terms of black and white, just doesn't get it.
Agree, this is why it is necessary to read many books/articles on a particular topic and then use our best judgement, as you say just like in a courtroom.
 
Aug 2009
208
#9
But how did they get this reputation? I wouldn't imagine it was already established by, say 1700, as nobody really cared about how the natives were treated at that point.
No, the "Black Legend" was already a hot topic in the sixteenth-century. Foxe and de Montez, Benzoni, and the Dutch revolters all appealed to it and helped spread it. Note that they are Protestant, but I'm not sure it should be dismissed out of hand.
 
Apr 2009
4,428
Alabama, USA
#10
You are very correct, OP. There are a lot of bias everywhere, even personal bias doing single studying.

Although I am still learning to view history through the eyes of the people that lived there, I keep catching my self 99% of the time trying to inject 21st-century logic into history.

Now, there are people that I avoid like the plauge in history, folks like Hitler, Custer, Andrew Jackson, and other I don't particularly like, and that may not neccesarily be a bad thing, but it is important to not rewrite history to your own liking and pretend none of that happened.

Hitler happened. Andrew Jackson and Custer happened. Slavery happened. Innocents have suffered.

To pretend they didn't happen is a gross insult to history, I think.
 

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