The Basis of Bias

Most history is guessing, and the rest is prejudice. ~ Will Durant, The Story of Civilisation: Our Oriental Heritage

In a recent interview, Thomas Holland said, “The very idea that history should be written without bias is itself a biased one.” How much can we agree with Holland? And does this mean that all of history writing is (or should be) essentially biased?

Perhaps the only way to write about history without bias, and it is possible, is to list facts. And this statement of fact should not have a single adjective. That itself may seem almost impossible. And even if it were done, reading of such history would be dull, to say the least.

    The sword of history has two edges, one that cuts open new possibilities in the future, and one that cuts through the noise, contradictions, and lies of the past.” ~ The History Manifesto, by David Armitage, Jo Guldi

The sword of history has two edges, one that cuts open new possibilities in the future, and one that cuts through the noise, contradictions, and lies of the past.”
~ The History Manifesto, by David Armitage, Jo Guldi

All bias is essentially political in nature, when stripped of the stage from which it speaks. It may not necessarily have an inherent propaganda, but the nature of the bias is political. The locus of the writer in relation to the history that she writes, determines the nature and degree of the bias. It may get further aggravated by the discipline of an -ism that she follows. Her personal understanding of the constructs of history-telling also come into play. Uday Kulkarni makes a pithy point here of these constructs:

These constructs, and other -isms are essential for a rounded reading of history. (If we are not to read history as a list of dates, places, and name) Equally necessary, is for the reader to be aware of these -isms. For further refining the roundedness of a particular history, it would be a good idea to read the same history by different authors. A writer’s bias of a particular -ism is identified by knowing about the author. Other biases leak through (a) the use of extreme adjectives or (b) the use of extremely vague or extremely specific descriptions of constructs. Superlative adjectives do a disservice to the reading of history. Most of them are prone to visualisation, and almost all of them fuel extreme emotions (and bias) in the reader and propagate the bias.

The writing and reading of history, both, also need to be situated in the era of that history. Our understanding of society, as we live in, should never be the standard by which we decide the good and the bad. The civilised society that we live in is a result of the events that we read of. Standing tall at the end of the refined time-line of evolution, it is irrational, to look back and judge it from where we stand. That is a sure sign of introducing bias.

Holland says:

A concern always to be true to the facts as they can be ascertained; a recognition that people in the past lived by different standards; an obligation to get things right about the dead; a sensitivity to what shapes primary sources. All these are crucial. But I repeat — the greatest virtue of all in a historian is curiosity!

The responsible writer of history therefore will attempt to reduce bias, but need not invest effort at eliminating it altogether. The responsible reader will identify the genesis, nature, and purpose of the bias. Hopefully not introducing his own, but recognise the existing bias, nonetheless.

History has this power to create major theoretical debates, revealing that what was previously accepted as a natural truth is actually no more than unexamined bias. ~ The History Manifesto, Jo Guldi & David Armitage (Free download)

The writer and the reader of history, are both historians. And questions need to be asked, constantly.

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How to Write (and Read) About History (via OpenCulture)

History books are usually fun. Not all books, but most of them who tell stories well, and who tell them right. The more interesting books are about the history of history or the science of history, if I can call them that. And then there are books about the writing of history.

In a nutshell, the book argues that historians have lost their public relevance by writing histories of the ‘short term’ — essentially ‘micro-scale’ histories — when they could be writing bigger, deeper histories, covering longer periods of time, that help readers put our world into perspective. What Guldi and Armitage are calling for is a return to long, meaningful narratives and big-picture thinking — the kind of thinking that could perhaps pull the historical profession out of crisis. As someone who got his PhD in History during the ‘micro-scale’ era, all I can say is — amen to that.”

Free Download of The History Manifesto: Historians New Call for Big-Picture Thinking | Open Culture: (Via. Open Culture)

History manifesto

I believe the short-term or the micro-history is interesting because of the specifics in the story. The big-picture histories are loftier, abstract to an extent, and perhaps not-so-interesting. It does not however mean that “big-picture histories aren’t important. The context of a micro-scale histories are equally important as the specific in it.

In my study of the Maratha Confederacy  I’ve been studying the histories of various confederacies around the world, and have been curious about the nature of how confederacies come in to existence, their character, and their eventual demise.

While I don’t intend to write a book on history, it seems that the book may help me find a better direction to the manner in which I study history. I am looking forward to reading this book.

Writing History

“You must never write history,” he said, “until you can hear the people speak.” He thought about that for years, and it came to feel like a valuable guiding principle for fiction as well. If you didn’t have a sense of how people spoke, you didn’t know them well enough, and so you couldn’t—you shouldn’t—tell their story.

~ Salman Rushdie, quoting Arthur Hibbert, in The Disappeared

Baljuna Covenant

The men, excluding Genghis Khan were nineteen in number. The water that he refers to are the muddy waters of the Baljuna (perhaps a lake, or a river).

Upon arrival at the Baljuna, the provisions were used up. It happened that from the north a wild horse ran up. Kasar brought it down. From its skin they made a kettle; with a stone they got fire, and from the river, water. They boiled the flesh of the horse and ate it. Genghis Khan, raising his hand toward the sky, swore thus: ‘If I finish “the great work”, then I shall share with you men the sweet and the bitter; if I break my word, then let me be as this water.’ Among the officers and men, there was none who was moved to tears. [Genghis Khan, by John Man, Bantam Books, ISBN13: 9780553814989]

This, according to John Man, ‘marked Temujin’s [Genghis Khan] nadir in military terms, but a turning point in terms of leadership.‘ This situation, is brought upon Temujin by way of treachery, because of which he retreats to Baljuna.

The most authoritative document on the history of Mongols is the “The Secret History of the Mongols,” and it fails to mention this.

I can imagine why.

Such instances are the ones that go off record. You may know about it, but there is never a document about such incidents. For one, they potentially expose a weak moment about a hero, for the other, and perhaps more important, these incidents are so intimate that they are necessarily off the record. Even if you were a part of the incident and were charged with documenting history. There is something about men in difficult circumstances that binds them, bonds them.

We might think that this was pure rhetoric and exaggeration, but, you might agree that we aren’t new to rhetoric and exaggeration. I invite you to read today’s newspaper (or any day’s newspaper for that matter).

And while we are at it, here is some more, from “The Secret History of the Mongols”:

Thus Jamuqa, attempting to demoralize the Naiman soldiers
on the eve of battle with Chinggis Qahan, attributes qualities of superhuman toughness to the Mongol commanders:

Their foreheads are of cast copper,
They have chisels for snouts,
They have awls for tongues,
Their hearts are of iron,
They have swords for whips.

The Context of History

History is always to be looked at in the context of the future…never in the context of the past…

An Etymological Question

In the book, Genghis Khan: Life Death and Resurrection, by John Man, I stumbled upon the word – Subedei. This is the name of one of the four generals of Genghis Khan – known as the “four hounds.” The variants of that name include, Subotai, Subedei, Tsubotai, and the preferred spelling Sübeetei (Chinese). Something about this name and some further clicking from one link to another was a path to a thought – a theory.Here I go, with the theory (yes, yet another).

I believe this is another example of a person who became a word. Like Louis Pasteur. A small background, before I begin: Subedei is a Mongol word. According to the Wikipedia article on Subedei, he is also know as “Subedei Baatar (meaning Subedei Warrior/Hero in Mongolian history books)” Baatar, seems to be a common word in Mongolian – Starting from the capital – Ulan Baatar (spelling variants to this exists too, Ulan Bator, for example). I’ll stick with Baatar for this article. Ulan Baatar translates to Red Hero, named in the honour of Damdin Sükhbaatar.

And coming back to the theory, I believe that the word Subedar in Hindi (Hindustani, to be more precise), is a derivative of Subedei. Apart from his other conquests, he fought significant wars in Central Asia – I’d assume that given his fame – he lived in the history books of that time – for some time. So the word must have remained in memory for some time – let’s assume a couple of hundred years – for the sake of my theory – and that the word eventually became a more generic one – to mean a lead – in an army. Subedei died in 1248. A little more than hundred years later, Timur-e Lang was born (1336) and ruled most of Central Asia until 1405. Along comes Babur in 1526 – after the First Battle of Panipat – and establishes the Mughal Empire. Mughal, being the Turkish word for Mongol. Pretty long winded, but I’ll now get to the point.

This is how I think the word Subedar, though a title now, came as a variant of Subedei via Mongolia. The reason, by the way, about the background of Ulan Baatar earlier, is that I noticed a word, in the book, Subotai the Valiant: Genghis Khan’s Greatest General by Richard A. Gabrielbagatur. It gives the same meaning to this word as baatar – brave, valiant, hero. Bagatur – again – closely resembles Bahadur – the Hindi word for brave, valiant, hero. Richard Gabrial further works on this word and mentions that the Russian word – bogatyr – is a derivative of bagatur.

This theory has been confirmed.

The Subedar theory however is suspect, a bit fanciful even. (Just this indulgence, however, has helped me stumble on a few things of note.) The reason why my theory may fall to pieces, is that it’s likely that the word is an extension of the word suba, meaning district, collection of villages etc. and anyone who was responsible for such a suba, would aptly be called Subedar.

But if bahadur travelled from the steppes of Mongolia via Uzbekistan to India, there may be a glimmer of hope for subedar.

PS: If you do have ideas about the root of Subedar, I’d love to hear from you – help my theory – either ways.