Emphasis: Positive or Negative

Every story has elements of good and bad. We can choose at what time to end the story (all stories must have an end, simply because of the limits of time and pages). Weddings and births are just as real as betrayals and deaths. Good things do happen; people do engage in noble acts. Giving the bad things power to negate these is superstitiously giving evil way too much power.

We can chose where on the spectrum to tell the story -- over-pessimistically, over-optimistically, or realistically. And no, "realistic" doesn't automatically mean "tragic" or "sick" or "evil." In most cases, realism will lie somewhere near the center of the spectrum. Yes, there are some cases which are realistically near the bad end, but by definition these are very rare, for to be at that extreme end, the bad parts have to be prevalent, and/or extreme -- and these are comparative characteristics, meaning "more" or "worse" -- than the norm and stand out as unusual against the general background of the human condition in that era and place.

Holding the beliefs of one's culture (and by "culture" I mean an overall, longtime, pervasive one, rather than a political or idealogical subculture joined in adulthood) or acting in accordance to that culture, however wrong its basic tenants, doesn't make an individual "evil" or "immoral" or "sick" (or "seriously flawed," the current euphemism for "evil" or "immoral" or "sick").

Facts must be presented. But wording and emphasis are choices -- choices that tend to say more about the teller (and/or the audience the teller is trying to please) than the subject.

Wording, emphasis, comparison with an impossible (or exceedingly difficult) or rare ideal can distort a statement toward an artificial negative. Consider the following:

"He freed eleven slaves." (A basic statement; it inherently feels positive, as the verb is a positive word.)
"He only freed eleven slaves." (The wording adds a criticism of lacking.)
"He freed eleven slaves, but we must always remember that he owned slaves in the first place." (The emphasis is placed on the negative.)
"He freed eleven slaves, but another planter freed all of his." (The existence of the greater is presented as a foil to negate or diminish the good. In addition, it's presented as if the two circumstances were the same.)

The problem comes not when there are a few books showing the dark side of history, or a single unflattering biography. It comes when this type of history is seen as the only valid view, when every admiring statement must be offset by a criticizing one.

Home                           Essays on Historiography