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History shows the truth

Last week, I attended the online national conference of the Pambansang Samahan sa Sikolohiyang Pilipino, a multidisciplinary gathering of scholars of indigenous Filipino psychology. I look forward to this event every year, as they never shy away from relevant social themes and topics, and in my opinion, is an exemplar of a truly inclusive community of scholars and advocates. Despite the term Filipino psychology, it extends beyond disciplinal walls and welcomes practitioners and nonresearchers.

What I enjoy the most are the vibrant (and sometimes passionate) discussions after the presentations, something I rarely witness nowadays in the age of faceless, muted Zoom boxes. I like advocacy-based academic gatherings in general because the questions have a greater purpose: How do we solve societal ills and build a better nation for Filipinos?

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This year’s theme centered on the issue of disinformation. Dr. Luisa Camagay, an eminent historian, reminded us that “there is only one past, but many histories.” There is only one set of established facts of the past, but many ways to experience and interpret it. Let’s think of a basketball game, where one team wins and the other loses. No one can contest who was handed the win, but you will probably remember and experience the game differently based on whose side you were cheering for. Perhaps you felt triumphant and proud and felt the win was deserved. The other side might feel robbed of a win, if only because they could not accept the loss. Just as likely, maybe you’ve accepted the defeat but still feel despondent. Everyone watching, even neutral spectators, would have their own experience of the game. What one cannot contest, however, is what exactly happened in the game: the passes, the throws, the fouls. Imagine, if later on, we find out what happened behind the scenes in the locker room, which may change how we understand why the players performed the way they did.

Incorporating this new insight or information can be considered historical revisionism, which Dr. Camagay explains is actually an important process in enlarging and enriching perspectives of history. History is not stagnant, just like any science. With new information and perspectives, we can develop a richer, more accurate history. Illegitimate forms of historical revisionism, however, are historical negationism, denialism, and distortion, where facts are recklessly interpreted or where false facts are presented as true, even without legitimate evidence and corroboration.

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Using the basketball game analogy, this is akin to insisting that someone scored a three-pointer, even though it never happened, and insisting that all other spectators in the arena were actors paid to say otherwise. Think about the case of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in the US, where some personalities propagated falsehoods that it was all staged and nobody died despite overwhelming evidence and footage. Close to its 10th-year anniversary, families of the victims finally got justice when Alex Jones, who promoted the conspiracy, was held liable for defamation.

Listening to a historian’s clarification of the misuse of historical revisionism in our current political landscape made me realize how much I missed out in my formative education. Back in college, I considered myself lucky that my curriculum didn’t require me to take history, having equated it to merely memorizing names, dates, and places. I see now how much that cost me, and how much it will cost our children. In the age of fake news, it is the scholarly study of history that will equip us with the ability to discern the truth. Its methods of triangulation and corroboration, as well as investigating the context and veracity of its sources, give us a glimpse on how we, as lay folks, can use these same tools to sift through the overwhelming barrage of “information.”

First, know the source. Sometimes, I wish we can just delete the “forward” button in our social media and chat clients. When we forward quotes and messages, the source usually disappears, and we lose the ability to scrutinize whether it is true. Forward things sparingly, if you really must, and first verify and declare your source so that you yourself can be a reliable source for others.

Second, know the context. Even in my own articles, quotes get pulled without context of the whole piece. This can lead to misunderstanding of my message (and most likely to generate aggressive reactions). Context also includes where the writer or speaker is coming from, as well as their intended audience. Something written for Americans may not apply for us.

Last, embrace discourse. It is not always about who’s wrong and who’s right. Richer, complex narratives are better than thin, black and white perspectives. Allow for the possibility that your own views can widen and change. Discourse allows for new synthesis of ideas to come through, bringing us closer to a shared truth.

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