History is all about narratives – how to blue the abstract truth

There is an old adage that history is always written by the victors. In a sense it’s true. If you’ve just won, you’re going to want to portray your side as the legitimate party. That’s why Richard III got such a bad rap from the Tudors. But to me the universal point is that history is all about narratives – which tend to be shaped by whoever has power at the time. As those power balances change, so too does the nature of the historical narrative being used by those in power to justify their position.

This works at all levels. Let’s take a personal example. I write entirely on personal effort and merit. My contribution to historical scholarship at global level was recognised a decade ago when I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London, on merit of my publications.

I have friends in the academic field here in New Zealand who have supported what I’m doing. But alas, my reward from various other members of the local academy – all employed at my expense as taxpayer – has been a narrative to the effect that because I have published extensively in their territory on my own merits, I must be ignorant of academic techniques, incompetent at every turn, personally worthless, and so stupid you’d think I spent most of my time first wondering which way around to sit on a toilet, then getting it wrong. Curiously, the more I publish on personal merit and effort, the more frenzied and derogatory the commentaries seem to get. Last year alone, one academic historian published the ‘Wright is a personally worthless incompetent’ narrative no fewer than six times – a repetition that smacks not of fair criticism of my work, but intentional malice.

The general issue, of course, is that this narrative presents both as a direct attempt to do me financial and reputational damage, and to gas-light. And that’s the general point. Narratives don’t convey an objective truth. They convey a story that authors wrap in all the terminology of ‘objectivity’, but where they are actually peddling a particular line.

My book on the Treaty of Waitangi was picked up as a core text for a Treaty course being taught at one university – a great endorsement of what I’d written – but at the same time other academics were queuing up to kick me over it (I’d committed the cardinal sin of not sufficiently mentioning the owner of this territory, a historian who’d made her career out of the Treaty’s story from the early-1980s perspective).

This is also true of the way we view history. In New Zealand’s case – as I explored in my book Waitangi: A Living Treaty (Bateman 2019), the ‘history’ taught at schools through much of the twentieth century reflected a narrative founded in Pakeha visions of the late nineteenth century. By this view, Maori had fought with Pakeha, were beaten, became friends, and the country enjoyed the best race-relations in the world thereafter. There was only one problem. It wasn’t true. As was well known at the time, in reality Maori had been sidelined and stripped of their land over a span of decades by the relentlessly growing economic and political power of the intruding society. By the 1890s most Maori were living in ruralised poverty: New Zealand society, in practise, was separatist. But the history narrative of the day focused elsewhere, justifying the colonial position; and at a time when dominant Pakeha society had appropriated surface aspects of Maori life as their own, even Maoritanga could not escape colonial power.

Such late colonial-age narratives are not unique to New Zealand, of course. That thinking has changed since, and for obvious reasons. There is a New Zealand lobby group named after a brand of furniture polish that continues to peddle the discredited late-colonial narrative today. But times have moved on; the view of history from the third decade of the twenty-first century is very different. Is that, itself, a new narrative? Of course. Every vision of history is going to be mediated by current cultural priorities – and so new narratives arrive, discrediting the old.

The fact that history works by narratives does not mean then rejecting new narratives, or imagining that one can escape the frameworks of analysis: but it does mean exploring and understanding the process behind them, including discovering how that understanding can, in turn, be used as a tool to explore the past. That’s what I do in my histories, as far as possible. This, it seems, is received as breaking the ‘fourth wall’ of the field and thus further proof of how wrong and stupid I must be, although history is one of the few fields where self-analysis of the methodology is part of its academic technique (‘historiographical method’). The method is taught post-grad. Curiously, a paper I wrote recently as part of a project was received by a former senior lecturer at the RMC Sandhurst with the comment that, were he still teaching there, he’d use it as an essay question and get his Honours level students to figure out my methodology.

My technique is one I’ve built from my history degrees (plural), from my original science background, from my post-grad studies in philosophy under Prof. Peter Munz (himself a student of both Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein), and my undergrad degree in anthropology initially under Prof. Ann Chowning. My approach is that there is no abstract truth: everything is relative, and understanding emerges from exploring the relationships.

For some reason this has led to some in the the academy pursuing their narrative in which I am portrayed as an incompetent, inept idiot, as I say. What would Rick Sanchez do, I wonder?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2022


15 thoughts on “History is all about narratives – how to blue the abstract truth

  1. For over 18 months I worked at the university here, first in HR, but soon after with the accountants. Having once been a student at a different university, it was an eye-opening experience encountering professors outside their teaching roles. The continual, petty bickering from some over status was difficult to comprehend (I’d see the emails). The most crucial trait needed for working in HR was the ability to assuage fragile egos and weather attacks. Fortunately, as a part-time employee, I escaped the attitudes—most of the time. Once, while covering the front desk, I was viciously attacked the instant I lifted the phone. A professor who couldn’t be bothered to look something up in the system BEGAN with belittling me before making his request.

    I was all too happy to then work for the accountants processing federal forms the students submitted and scanning old documents into the system. HR, though, continued to fumble with massive, withering paper files because professors were continually demanding access to their files to see what was in them (in other words, paranoia born of insecurity much of the time).

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    1. It’s a sad indictment of the kind of people that seem to float to the top of the academic pile. I used to see similar behaviours when I was a student – which convinced me not to pursue an academic career. Not all academics are like this, but enough are to ruin it for the rest and create a very unpleasant environment. What’s disturbed me since is that despite my not engaging with their community, local academics haven’t been satisfied with letting me earn a living on my own merits unmolested. They’ve instead actively tried to damage my income and good name with the public. They also damage my publishers by this behaviour, via lost sales, and it got to the point last year where I was discussing legal action – there’s one guy in particular who’s like the Terminator. The odd thing is that I don’t actually know any of these people – nor do I have an argument with them. But apparently I have to be destroyed at all cost anyway. It’s the behaviour pattern I’d expect of a psychopath, not an intellectual who prospers at public expense.

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      1. Obviously, education doesn’t erase demons. Those before the degree are those after. It is, to me, criminal behavior.

        I can say that during my time at the university, I consulted one professor. I wanted to know if it was possible for Ontyre’s moon to be visible only one month in three (otherwise, I’d have to “create” a reason). He spent over 30 minutes working on it. He was so excited, I believe I spent the entire time grinning. Intellect is such an undervalued trait these days. In the end, he worked it out and I named the moon after him. I emailed him to let him know and included an excerpt where a mother explains to her daughter about Ryzer. He was excited about that, too.

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        1. That’s excellent support! Did the answer relate to the orbit of the moon vs the axial tilt of Ontyre? These things always add richness to a story. I have to say that I have my supporters in the field too – good friends who back what I am doing. Unfortunately this doesn’t stop others from being, shall we say, less generous.

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          1. He told me it was a captured moon that had an elliptical orbit. For my purposes—and because it needed to be visible to some locations for the entire month—it’d appear to rise slowly and then more quickly cross the sky. It isn’t critical to the stories (they’re fantasy, after all), but I did want to know if it was possible.

            It’s disturbing to think that people so lacking character are teaching others. Perhaps more so that institutions would employ them.

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    1. I deliberately did not pursue a career in university academia because of the sub-culture. Not all academics are like this, but enough of them are that they create the sub-culture and ruin it for the rest. What has irked me is that, despite avoiding that little world, some of its beneficiaries have chosen to pursue me out into the public arena. The funny thing is that I don’t know the people doing this – they are strangers with whom I have no known argument, other than writing in territory they clearly regard as theirs exclusively. And not one of those behaving this way have had the guts to introduce themselves – not one! To me that speaks volumes in terms of the calibre of people I am dealing with.


  2. Like Christina, I’ve worked as a lowly peon in universities and witnessed the petty power games at first hand. I’ve also worked in corporate and lo! Same petty power games. It used to be a joke amongst us peons that most of middle management spent more time writing memos to cover their arses than any actual ‘work’. It’s all about ego.
    As for you, Matthew, you may write about history, but you’re not an historian in the literal sense. You’re an investigator and communicator who brings the skills and methods of a whole range of disciplines to the problem of history. That is a very different mindset..and it works. 🙂

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    1. Thank you! I guess I tend to pursue fields until they cease to be a challenge, then look around for something else. This has led me from studying music and physics through to anthropology, history and economics. I actually worked in an economic institution for a long while – there is a big overlap between that and the methodology of history. I’ve found the methods of critical analysis that were taught as part of my history degrees to be handy. But everything else has contributed too, so when I write history I’m also extending the net to include the sciences and sociology, along with my life experiences in the wider world which have taught me a good deal about how things work in a practical sense. This is a distinctly different approach from that taken by (say) an academic historian whose sole experience of adult life is as a university student and then a lecturer. I suppose this leaves me open for being jeered by the nay-sayers for being an alleged dabbler, but I prefer the word ‘polymath’. 🙂

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      1. lol – polymath is a good word to describe you. Dare I say it? History will decide who’s remembered and who isn’t. As I recall, Da Vinci was a bit of a polymath too. 😉

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  3. (A) I have no doubt that most, or perhaps even all, of what you say about your critics in the academy is true. I spent decades at a small college working as an academic administrator, full-time, and as adjunct professor of philosophy, part-time, in a small then four-year college in the U.S. The attitudes and the behavior of all-too many of the faculty there, and most particularly in the humanities and social sciences, maps all-too neatly with those you have just described.

    That does not, however, keep me from thinking that, if your stated views that (1) “everything is relative” and (2) “Every vision of history is going to be mediated by current cultural realities – and so new narratives arrive, discrediting the old” were true, without qualification, then it does not seem possible for us to ever achieve any genuine historical knowledge.

    Would you be willing to grant that (1) not everything is relative and (2) not every affirmation or denial to be found in every “vision of history” will end up being discredited?

    (B) I’ve never seen the word “blue” used as a verb.


    1. In answer to (1) and (2) : no. I have spent a lifetime analysing history and the more I look into it the more I consider that there is no objective truth. The documentation from which we draw understanding is not merely incomplete of itself, but often inconsistent – even within itself. As one example, I’ve read soldiers’ records which mis-spell the name of the soldier between different dates. The conclusion is that any study of history must, by nature, be a discussion, and that the onus is on the historian to develop the necessary mechanisms of critical analysis to be able to do so.

      ‘Blue’ can be used as a transitive verb; and there is also a process for treating steel known as ‘bluing’, in which it is directly a verb. My usage, however, was a word-play reference to the Oliver Nelson album of 1961, ‘The Blues and the Abstract Truth’.


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