Selective Recollection: Why We Don’t Remember History Accurately

A good friend once commented on how differently things might have been had voters known of Watergate in 1972 and elected McGovern instead of Nixon. On its face, it is an interesting thought. However, it fails to take into account two things. First, the news about Watergate broke in June of 1972, so voters did know about it. Second, McGovern was drummed out of politics amidst scandal as was Nixon. McGovern didn’t even carry his home state of North Dakota in the 1972 election. The thought might have been enhanced had my friend used the premise of electing Humphrey in 1968. Humphrey, after all, was at least an honorable person who came much closer to winning than McGovern.

Another friend recalling the era talked about how a movement of young people got rid of a corrupt President through protests and demonstrations, especially over the war in Vietnam and Watergate. Most of those protests took place in Nixon’s first term, and the biggest were over Vietnam. Kent State happened in 1970, about fourteen months after Nixon took office. The protests were pretty much incessant throughout his first term, and yet he won 49 states when he was re-elected in 1972. The protests had little to no impact on Nixon’s political career.

The dance simply was over. Articles of Impeachment would inevitably be drafted, and, if convicted, the Senate would decide his fate. Obviously in disgrace, he resigned partly because of the likelihood that he would be convicted and removed, and partly to not put long time colleagues in the position of having to vote on it.

Nixon was a rather devious man, but he also had some accomplishments that make him not all bad. His administration established the Environmental Protection Agency, and also established diplomatic relationships with both Russia and China. It is those types of rather monumental accomplishments that keep him far from being the worst President ever.

That is, only if you want to remember history accurately.

For most people who read this, Nixon’s time in office will have been long before they were born. However, they, too, will tend to not remember history accurately as they live it, remembering it from only their perspective, and believing what they are later told happened, whether it happened that way or not. The more people who say they believe it, the more comfortable many people become accepting it. We can become selective in our recollection of the events, perhaps even modifying some of the events in our lives to better fit our collectively popular beliefs.

That is how it happens. Right now there are people holding onto beliefs more because they are comfortable around the people with whom they associate, than because what they believe is true. They are pitting themselves against other people who are holding onto their beliefs because of the comfort of association, and not necessarily because what they believe is true.

John Maynard Keynes once said, “Americans are apt to be unduly interested in discovering what average opinion believes average opinion to be.” I do not believe it to be only an American thing to do, but what he is describing is a form of tribalism in which people feel comfortable surrounded by people for reasons of popularity despite what the truth may be. In my opinion, this is caused by gravity exerting its universal force upon how we think in groups, and, ultimately, as a society.

Among society as a whole will be small groups of extremists at two different points on a line. The numbers of people who fall into the points between the two extremes will increase to form a bell curve with it reaching its highest point at the median. That median may be slightly right or slightly left of center, but it will represent the greatest number of people. It really doesn’t matter what this line represents, but for this topic it would represent what we believe happened in history.

For example, most people think Nixon was a terrible President. Their opinions are largely based on how their friends feel about him, and little of it on independent study. Most of them, including their friends, cannot name three good things Nixon did, but you can if you paid attention during the opening paragraphs.

If you tell your friends, and changing their beliefs to be popular with you are more important to them than retaining their beliefs to remain popular with others, the bell curve moves exponentially toward that belief about history. If it is the belief that he had some historically significant accomplishments mixed in with his ultimate failure as President, then the movement of the curve is more toward truth. If it is the belief that young people drove him out of office with their protests, then the movement of the curve is more toward lore.

The same principles apply to our view of current events. Usually, we will not have first hand account, so our beliefs about what is happening are formulated more on what our friends think than on what is the truth. Whether it is gravity, tribalism, or the undue interest in discovering what average opinion believes average opinion to be, it will become the basis for what we selectively recall in the future as history. It will range from two extremes and take an upward swing to a median point, either at the center, or slightly left or slightly right of center.

The truth will be somewhere on that line, perhaps even beyond one of the extremes. It will not move to accommodate popular opinion. Popular opinion may be right on the truth, or it may be way off. It is there to seek for those who care to do so, and we all should care to do so. However, seeking wisdom through truth is not common. Most people are too busy for that, so they make their determinations about deep subjects based on headlines, memes on the internet, and bumper stickers that they become acquainted with through friends.

They, then, debate others to determine whose headlines, memes on the internet, and bumper stickers can draw the largest and loudest crowd of supporters, confusing popularity with truth. Much of what we believe to be true we believe because it is popular to believe that. We really have no clue why it is popular, and it has long been that way. Sadly, there is no evidence that humankind is evolving out of the nature to be accepted by a group into natural seekers of truth.

As these days fade into history, our selective recollections will be those we believed to be true, possibly believing they are true only for popularity or because it is what we were told was true. It is often more lore than truth, and the part that is truth is often incomplete.

For example, I assume most people know who Paul Revere was. What we know about him making the midnight ride to warn colonists that the British are coming is true. What some may know, but others won’t, is that he met up with two other people; one, William Dawes, was doing the same thing from a different direction, and the other, Samuel Prescott, they recruited to help, also alerted the colonists of the impending war. Only Prescott completed the ride.

Another person, Israel Bissell, rode more than 300 miles over four days alerting colonists. So why don’t we know about him?

It is possible that we know of Paul Revere, and not the others, because Paul Revere was politically active, including participating in the Boston Tea Party. The others are obscure except for that fifteen minutes of fame. However, I believe it is far more likely that most people who know of Paul Revere know only of his ride and not his overall political activism. They likely know that more because of a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860.

It told the truth, but it was incomplete. If the poem were about “the midnight ride,” Dawes and Prescott were omitted, perhaps only because their names are not so reverent as Paul’s name. One could argue that Bissell’s ride, though far more epic and reaching, lasted four days, so it was not simply “a midnight ride.” However, that omission makes what we think we know about Paul Revere more legend than historical accuracy about warnings colonists got from brave people.

If one concludes that the poem, then, was about “Paul Revere,” why is there no mention of his political activism at other times? If we want to be historically accurate, we might consider that Longfellow was a poet and educator, and not an historian. He was also a rock star because books and papers were the main media of the day. One could certainly forgive the poet his omissions, then, if those omissions were for artistic license rather than selective recollection. It certainly has lasted longer as a poem about one of several people risking their lives for a cause than it likely would have if he were to have written an essay about the separate events. His poem was the equivalent of music and videos by today’s standards, and it was a huge hit.

Parodies of Longfellow’s famous poem by other authors told the tales of some of those other freedom riders, but one would be more likely to learn of those in a literature class than in a history class, for that is where one would learn about Longfellow and his critics. My point is, Longfellow’s poem has become the selective recollection for most people about who did the midnight ride warning the public that the British are coming, if they even know that much. Some people believe it was so long ago that it doesn’t matter today.

This goes beyond what we believe into why we believe what we believe. The reason we will believe what is happening today when recalling it in the future is we will select headlines, memes on the internet, and bumper stickers that espouse our moral perspectives at that time to represent our recollections of past events we lived through. What we selectively recall in the future about these days will be more representative of our moral perspectives at the time of recollection than our moral perspectives these days.

It has to do with that popular opinion, tribalism, or gravity thing I mentioned earlier. What we will believe in the future is not necessarily what we believe today. Our selective recollections about history may change because of an evolved belief through additional consideration of evidence, truthful or not, or we may change because what we believe today will not be popular in culture or amongst friends in the future.

Though we can escape on a personal level the reasons why people don’t remember history accurately, it will not happen on a societal level because it would require a change in the natures of the beasts we are; sadly, there is no evidence of any such evolution in human nature.

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