On Revisionism

by northernbeholder

“Revisionist” is a dirty word these days.  It’s gotten that way because you most often hear it applied to people trying to make wildly unbelievable or unsupported claims that fly against the accumulated historical knowledge of society – holocaust deniers, for example, are often more politely referred to as “revisionist scholars”.  Starting from there, though, the term has spread, and now pseudo-intellectuals who see anyone challenging their worldview label such persons as “revisionists” and revile them, regardless of whether their arguments are backed by evidence or not.

This trend really bothers me, because the study of history is inherently revisionist.  Every time a scholar puts out a new theory or proposes a new interpretation, they are revising our knowledge of the past.  Whether that revision is accepted into the general mainstream of historical scholarship depends on how well they argue their case and what sort of evidence they have backing them up.  When it comes to holocaust deniers, their work remains on the outside because the preponderance of evidence is heavily against their theories.  However, other revisionist theories are accepted and promoted when they have a great wealth of evidence to support them.

The vast majority of accepted historical knowledge today is revisionist of previous theories and views.  What the western scholarly community thought of the people of Africa in the 18th century is not what they think today; the opinion has been revised as new knowledge and evidence of their history and culture was disseminated throughout the western world.  Today’s view of Africa and African history is revisionist of yesterday’s, but because yesterday’s view was narrow and riddled with misunderstanding and falsehoods, the revision – which is supported by improved research and understanding – stands triumphant.

This rant was brought on by some reactions I have seen to Paradox Interactive’s newly announced DLC for Crusader Kings II.  I have previously lauded the game for its historical accuracy; the new DLC rather undercuts that, adding in scripting to trigger an invasion across the Atlantic ocean, an invasion travelling east: the Aztecs attacking Europe.  It’s a distinctly ahistorical scenario, as the Aztecs never possessed the technology needed to even successfully reach the Eurasian continent, let alone mount a full-scale invasion. As it’s optional content, I can’t bring myself to get too worked up about it; it’s not as though this is going to appear in my copy of the game if I don’t want it to, after all.  However, when some people expressed discontent regarding the radically alternative history presented by the DLC (as opposed to the usually reality-grounded nature of Paradox’s grand strategy games) they were shouted down by others for being “revisionist” by claiming the Aztecs were technologically inferior to medieval Europe.

I say to those people, your views are the revisionist ones.  They are revisionist because the original Spanish history of the New World reads something along the lines of “Met the locals. They have a beautiful city but are savage barbarians.  We destroyed them through the strength of God.”  That is the original historical record, and anything else – regardless of whether or not it’s more accurate – is revisionist of that.  So stop using “revisionist” like a dirty word.  The study of history is a constant act of revisionism, and if we never changed the way we view things, we would never progress.  If you encounter someone making an argument you consider ill-founded, counter them with an argument of your own, backed by the evidence of your own.  That’s how our knowledge develops – not through anger and the silencing of dissenting views, but through knowledgeable discussion and consensus.  Admittedly, not everyone is willing to have that reasonable debate,  but at least give them the chance before you jump down their throat.