Understanding Our History: The Principle of Selectivity

May or may not be accurate
May or may not be accurate

Our lives are entirely composed of stories. Our personal stories, the stories that are shared, the television shows we watch and the books we read together make days of our lives. It’s important then to understand how narrative operates. Whenever a narrative is told, it operates under the principle of selectivity. The principle of selectivity simply means that while there are a near infinite number of details that could be included in a story, but there are a finite number of details that are included. The author or narrator selects which details are included and which details are excluded.

This principle works across all narrative types–fiction, nonfictions, historical, literary, et cetera. Consider for instance the narratives in the Pentateuch (i.e., Genesis-Deuteronomy in the Old Testament). The author includes few details about the Israelites slavery in Egypt between the Jacob narratives and the birth of Moses. Neither does he include many details about what happened during the Israelites 40 years in the wilderness. And all of the details relayed had some connection to the Israelites–what was happening in South Africa was not included as it was not relevant. The author only included details that had a function in the narrative.

The same principle applies in movies. There’s a spot in every Harry Potter movie  where the whole storyline is in the fall till suddenly snow! Christmas songs! Christmas! The narrative switches between seasons because many of the trite and routine details of each day are not important or relevant details.

What is important to recognize though is that narrative can be manipulated as details are misconstrued or only positive or negative details are included. That is how a lot of political adds operate–by including the positive details about their candidate against the negative details of another candidate. That is the nature of propaganda, misconstruing details to change the minds of the masses.

So why do I bring this up? We need to recognize that history is written by the “winners.” Our view on American history is fairly one-sided. Our history books, our social studies courses, the Thanksgiving specials on TV all include certain details and exclude others, either actively or passively. So while what we read in our history books might not be wrong, it is definitely incomplete. There are more perspectives to be heard than just the “American” perspective.

As it relates to the holidays, Native Americans have a very different recollection of the first Thanksgiving and the tradition since than Americans do. I’m not going to go into all of the details, but I think we owe it to our Native brothers and sisters, and to ourselves to educate ourselves and to learn history from multiple perspectives. To get a very succinct overview of the historical “first Thanksgiving,” check out this great article is a recent blog by Jordan Sharp, Western Region Area Director with YouthWorks. I’d also highly recommend reading an interview with Ramona Peters, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer by the Indian Country Today Media Network about the Wampanoag perspective on the first thanksgiving.

For those of you who are less than thrilled with reading, I’d suggest these 2 John Green video. The former deals with Native-English relations in the 17th Century. Watch the whole video or follow this link to hear John Green make a particularly apt point at the endSeriously, please follow that link.

The latter video doesn’t deal too explicitly with the first thanksgiving, but he does address a whole lot of historical misconceptions, which again reiterates my point that only certain details can be included in a narrative, an in historical narrative they can be easily misconstrued.

And so on this Thanksgiving learn our history from multiple perspectives. But don’t limit this principle to some historical account, but let it change how you listen to stories. Ask of the political adds “What details are included and what are excluded?” Let it change how you read the Bible as you ask “Why did the author include this point?”. You’ll be better for it.


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