The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Learning history

History has always been told and written from one point of view. The one of the author. The story he tells is meant to help his audience become aware of how history created the environment the reader is experiencing.

At the same time, the reader takes this story to transform it into his reality.

An example Lilian Thuram shares in a Google talk is the idea that Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. That was true for Europeans. However, the existence of the Americas wasn’t news for its inhabitants. It’s an example Lilian Thuram uses in his presentation and as part of the education against racism, his foundation is providing.

In German history, we can see how two different versions of German history started to collide after the fall of the wall. It contributed to complicate and slow down the sense of belonging to one nation. Even after more than 30 years of an ongoing reunification process, the idea of an eastern and western Germany remains in our collective mind. It takes time to transform this difference in learning and perception. The sense of inequality remains present. Sometimes it even is at risk to transform itself into the opposite. The longer it takes to create equality the more difficult it becomes to experience it.

There is nothing wrong with the habit to write history in this way. It belongs to our natural and human ethnocentricity. Where things become less straightforward is when the public dialogue takes ownership of the research done to describe differences between groups. When it creates a categorization and stereotyping that leads away from seeing individuals as unique human beings. A process that easily transforms itself into a hierarchy of categories. It has the potential to define superiority and transform individual ideas of self-worth.

That’s when stories become the way to establish dominance. One that describes a hierarchy that is used to construct a new reality.

For his fellow Europeans, Christopher Columbus discovered the Americas. A discovery allowing for a sense of superiority of being part of those discovering something new. In a world looking for remarkable success, the same happens with companies developing new ideas, with leaders achieving turn arounds or people seen as heroes or influencers.

The challenge we are facing here is how this narrative contributes to perpetuating a command and control structure. A structure way too complex to manage in a global and fast-moving world and transforming uncertainty into a norm. And yet a structure individuals may often ask for to gain the comfort of a clear structure in the desire to leave uncertainty aside. It Is a desire that is based on the way we’ve learned history. But it also is how many experienced the comforting experience of trusting their parents to overcome uncertainty.

It shows how the stories we tell ourselves and the story we tell to explain history are deeply intertwined.

Transforming the stories and learning the skill to deal with a changing environment will be based on asking questions and being constantly engaged in learning. It must include the ability to question existing assumptions. It is staying aware that we deal with the visible as well as the invisible.

In his (french) talk, Lilian Thuram explains how the minority is the visible group, whereas the majority remains invisible. By making the norm invisible humans create an attention span for the unusual. By having norms and habits, humans enable themselves to make fast judgments and act quickly.

What  Thuram invites us to do is to pay attention to what is invisible, that is unconscious. By becoming conscious of it we can create the leverage to step into the complexity of a diverse world. It’s a world in which acting quickly requires thoughtfulness and the ability to shift our reaction to fear.



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