As we got acquainted with our Novgorod guide, during our trip to Russia a few years ago, she mentioned that she taught world history. Right away I knew what she meant. Her history course went all the way back to “the beginning,” to the “dawn of civilization” about 7,000 years ago. This is what “world history” meant when I was in high school in New York, in the 1960s, and what it means today, half way around the world, two generations later.
Most of us never give this definition a second thought. But when we do, its weirdness is impossible to avoid. The “world” of which it purports to be a “history of” has actually existed, not for 7,000 years, but about 4 billion years. Moreover, we have existed as Homo sapiens for 300,000 years and as a distinct line of primates for another 6 million years. So even if we accept the idea that “world” history is legitimately limited to “human” history, the mainstream definition is still woefully incomplete, ignoring all but a small fraction of our species’ history.
What is going on?
As I see it, three fundamental factors are at work.
The first is fairly apparent, once you begin to reflect on the mainstream culture’s wildly distorted vision of world history: Our breathtaking self-absorption.
World history is about “us,” and us alone. Other species that coexist with us or preceded us – even the dinosaurs that dominated the world far longer than we have – are written out of world history. Equally absent, with the sweep of our conceptual pen, is any physical phenomenon that is not directly implicated in “our” dramas.
Moreover, the “us” we are talking about isn’t even all humans. History only begins when people like us first appeared; modern folks who live in sedentary communities, have a written language, and organize themselves in hierarchical/ authoritarian patterns. Everyone who lived before then is consigned to “pre-history,” the implicit message being that– having nothing to teach us – these people can and should be ignored.
Notice also, that world history is further limited to a very distinct subgroup within this already limited group. Virtually every society and ideology that earns history’s attention has one key element in common: Its ability to dominate large numbers of people during the time in which it is of historical interest. That is the common thread that draws into a coherent story characters as diverse as the Egyptian pharaohs, the ancient Greeks, Roman Emperors, Christian and Muslim thinkers and rulers, Napoleon, the British Empire, Hitler, Stalin, and the United States.
In other words, history is about winners; the people who best exemplify a dominant culture in which competition, dominance and control are valued above all else. In this myopic view, everyone else is either a foil in the winners’ drama or a non-entity, literally ignored out of existence.
The second factor that the mainstream definition of world history highlights is the extent to which our extreme self-absorption goes unnoticed. How is it that so many teachers, students, textbook writers, and professional historians can so easily and comfortably accept such an obviously distorted definition of world history?
The answer is not stupidity. It lies instead in the fact that from birth – from all sides – and, literally, for millennia – we have been massively brainwashed to think in this way. And because we are continually bombarded with myopic, self-absorbed ways of thinking, we exist in a context in which our distorted definition of “world history” is commonplace – unremarkable and, thus, seldom noticed or commented upon.
Examples of this taken for granted self-absorption are everywhere. Serious historians, for example, continue to argue the merits of American exceptionalism; the view that our country is different and unique.
Really? Seriously? Exceptionalism has been the cry of every empire and petty despot since, well, the dawn of world history. In fact, the only thing that is exceptional about the claim of American exceptionalism is how truly unexceptional it is.
Similarly, every generation’s financial bubble, including the run-up of housing prices leading up to 2008’s financial meltdown, has been an extolled as an exception to the hitherto normal rules of economics. Every 20 years or so, we are told – and millions believe – that our current investment strategies are somehow different and special.
Another rather stunning example is intelligent design; the idea that only a being with a brain like ours could have possibly created the world. Here again, massive self-absorption is at work.
Physicists, systems theorists, and students of ants have all persuasively demonstrated that many intelligences are not housed within a single skull.
In addition, contemporary neuroscientists, such as Daniel Siegel, point out that human intelligence does not arise out of a single brain in isolation, but instead results from the ongoing communion of one brain with others.
Nevertheless, intelligent design, in a classic example of blind egotism, simply asserts that “of course” our brain – that is, intelligence residing within a single human skull – is the highest expression of intelligence and, as such, is the only form of intelligence that could have possibly created such a complex universe.
The final factor that our weird definition of “world history” points to is to the extent to which our massive self-absorption is viewed as someone else’s problem. So, in writing about the ego-centrism of intelligent design, I confidently imagine the head-nodding agreement of my more secular readers. And yet, how many of these readers fall into the equally myopic trap of dismissing non-scientific thought as something from a primitive and outmoded past; a past that has been thoroughly superseded by civilization’s “progress” to its current “superior” state?
As this example illustrates, while I may see – and judge – the myopia and self-absorption in your way of viewing the world, I seldom see it in mine. Thus:
- Religious fundamentalists believe they have found the way – and reject any history that contradicts their sacred texts.
- Secularists view pre-scientific thought as primitive and intellectually bankrupt.
- My country/culture/sect is unique and special.
- Women judge men as “less than” even as men judge women as overly emotional.
- My school/job/neighborhood/car/handbag sets me apart.
The list is endless but the common thread is this: We – that is, I and people like me – are different and better.
One very fair response to this rant about self-absorption is to ask why it is so objectionable. Can’t a passionately partisan love of country – or group – or family be an effective and fulfilling approach to living? My answer is no.
While the immediate psychic pay-offs are real, these self-absorbed approaches to living are, in the end, self-defeating strategies. When primary loyalty is to a group, it too easily puts important areas of our psyche at risk, suppressing the nonconforming ideas, temperaments, emotions, and drives that inevitably exist within our endlessly complex psyches.
In addition, it ignores the fact that we humans are intensely creatures of habit. For this reason, a split approach to living – being judgmental and dismissive of “others,” even as we seek to create an island of empathy and understanding in our smaller, self-selected group – can never work. Inevitably, the attitudes we habitually practice, out there in the larger world, will infiltrate and infect ways in which we deal with members of our group and, sadly, with our selves as well.
The proof? Living a world where a split approach is the norm has produced just such a dismal outcome: A culture in which injustice and inequity – together with anxiety, depression, and a wide variety of other addictive and self-destructive behaviors – are rampant.
Radical Decency offers a more hopeful alternative, in two fundamental ways.
First, it is based on behaviors – being decent – and not a set of beliefs. As a result, it avoids the trap of confusing and compromising our vocation of decency with a priori notions about who we’re supposed to be.
In addition, it is inclusive. By challenging us to be just as attentive to others and the world as we are to our selves, it specifically excludes the possibility of privileging one group over another – of making “world history” only about “us.”