Friday, November 19, 2021

The Problem of History: Emic and Etic Perceptions

“History is the memory of states.” ~ Henry Kissinger in A World Restored. Kissinger's words can be taken as a critique of Western historiography—he has divulged that the history written by Western historians is essentially a memory of the Western states. 

History is of two types: Emic and Etic. Emic history gives you the perceptions of the people from within the civilization or social group. Etic history gives you the perceptions of the people from outside the civilization or social group. Since much of world’s history has been written by Western scholars, when you read a book on the history of the West, you generally have an emic perspective (the perceptions of insiders, the Westerners), but when you read a book on the history of Asia, the Americas, and Africa, you generally have an etic perspective (the perceptions of outsiders—the Western view of other civilizations).

The history of the conflicts between the Ancient Greeks and the Persian Empire, comes mostly from the records of the Greek elites. The Persians did not leave self-glorifying records. The Greek elites did that and they have a stranglehold on history. The quality of life was much better in the Persian Empire as compared to the Greek city-states which were plagued with violence and poverty—that is why the Persian Empire was home to more Greeks than the combined population of Athens, Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and Argos. The Greek city-states had a huge slave population (in Athens and Sparta 75 percent of the people were slaves).

We know little about the people that the Romans (during the Roman Empire) described as barbarians. We have no information on the Hun Empire, even though in the third and fourth centuries, the Huns were a significant empire in Eurasia. We know about the Western view of the Mongol Empire but we know little about the Mongol perspective. When you read the history of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, you are reading how the European imperialists (Columbus, the conquistadors like Hernán Cortés, the Catholic preachers, and the European settlers) viewed the Arawaks, the Aztecs, the Incas, and the Native Indians. 

After reading the books based on the accounts of the Spanish conquerors, people become convinced that when Columbus and the conquistadors arrived, the Americas were a land of philistines, savages, and cannibals. The Western historians do not tell you about how the Arawaks saw Columbus, the Aztecs and Incas saw the conquistadors, and the Native Indians saw the European settlers.   

We know little about the towns and cities that existed in North America before the Spanish, British, and the French arrived. We know little about the culture that existed in Africa before the Dutch and the British arrived. We read the history of the Boer Wars mostly from the perspective of the British and the Dutch—we know little about the view of the Africans in whose land this war was being fought. We know how the British, in the nineteenth century, viewed the Chinese but we know little about how the Chinese viewed the British. When we read the history of India, we read mostly about the perceptions of the British imperialists and their Indian devotees.

History shows the West in good light, not because they have always been the best, but because they have written most of history. In his novel 1984, George Orwell said: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.” As long as the West continues to have a stranglehold on the past (history), it will control the present and the foreseeable future.

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