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Bias in Historical Literature

Updated on February 4, 2018
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

In a perfect world, historical pieces would be unbiased. History books, biographies, and other non-fiction works would not be slanted in the direction of any particular opinion. Yet we do not live in a perfect world. Bias words can be found in anything including fictional and nonfictional historical works.

I’ve heard it said that history is written by the winners. They are the ones left standing so it is their account we are most familiar with. Whether you are reading fiction or nonfiction, keep in mind that the historical aspects can be greatly slanted. That is why in research, you should always read more than one source and read from all different angles.

Perspective

Everything is viewed through different perspectives. When I say ‘everything’, I really mean everything. Let me give you an example. Someone in my house came in after work and saw dishes in the sink. Later she complained to my husband, “Oh, my! I had to put up all the dishes that were left in the sink.” Okay. From just their words, you’d think I had left it overflowing with dishes. So hearing that one statement, you’d have formed an opinion of me that probably isn’t very flattering. My husband couldn’t understand why I would do that and not take care of them as I usually do. I had to show my perspective. I put in an empty sink a plate, a fork and a knife before lying down with a bad headache. Now how did your opinion change? Probably experienced mercy toward me and irritation at the woman who made it appear worse than it was.

Yes that example is a bit small in comparison to historical events, but if we can create feelings and opinions in you based on something so small how much stronger can it be with bigger events and people? Perspective can change everything.

Look at politics. Politicians and their employees are the king of spin to take any situation and give it a pathetic look, underhanded or crooked appearance. They can do it from the same event and none of them quite tell the truth. So what is picked up by the media? The most scandalous. Doesn’t matter if it is true or not. The spin given to it supports what is seen and heard, therefore it is accepted as fact. Really?

Take the politics out of politics and you can agree that any scenario can be staged and spun to be interpreted anyway they want. Again, whoever has the biggest mouth and more connections with the media will have their tale accepted whether it is true or not.

Compassion

Many times biases will appear in historical writings because of the writer’s compassion toward the subject. Personal feelings can trump ‘fact’ in almost any writing. The more passionate you are, the more biased it can become.

Here’s an example:

When it comes to the topic of the Holocaust, you can find people on both sides of the fence. For me that is hard to believe, but I’ve met many. If, as a writer, I’m passionate on the stance that it didn’t happen or to the degree it has been portrayed, how do you think my writings on the topic will be? If you only read about the Holocaust in my writings, then you’d take it as fact that it never happened or at least lean in that direction. Put the shoe on the other foot, and you’d accept it as fact from the passion I write on the horrible acts and the evil men who implemented them. Historical fiction or nonfiction pieces can create a lot of bias.

How about Civil Rights or Human Rights? The people who stand on each side of these issues can be very passionate. Reading their material will instill biases within your own mind. When we think of historical literature involving slavery, most of us think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Most don’t realize that this book is not the only one written against slavery. And even more don’t realize that there were huge literary successes for slavery. In a class I read one pro-slavery novel. From that book, all was rosy and the whole slavery issue was blown completely out of proportion. Very powerful means to sway people.

The danger of bias history is very real.

Overcoming

It doesn’t matter if it is historical fiction or nonfiction. Any of the works can be very biased. So what do you do about it? Well, you can’t force an author to write in a completely unbiased manner. It might go against the soul of the story. In fact, sometimes writing from a biased stance helps a reader challenge their thoughts. The danger comes in swallowing it hook, line, and sinker no matter which side of the coin you are on.

Remember that each side can be too biased. Looking back at my Holocaust example and even my slavery, when looking at the cold facts they occurred. But in writing about literature about them from the stance of how evil they were, I can still present a bias stance that is just as dangerous as presenting them as lies or as something good. Were all slaveowners evil and treated their slaves horrifically? No. Many were glad to free their slaves or saw them more as family. That doesn’t mean all were like that or the majority. But to describe them all as evil demons is too far the other direction. Were there Germans who opposed the Holocaust? Yes. To say if a person was German they supported it would be a sign of bias writing in the opposite extreme.

A middle ground has to be found.

The best plan of action as a reader to pull yourself up out of the bias frenzy is to read more than one source and also more than one perspective. Read the extreme pros and the extreme cons. Read the ones that are more moderate. If you really want to rise above it all, do your own primary research.

But remember that any historical work will be biased in nature.



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    • heidithorne profile image

      Heidi Thorne 

      20 months ago from Chicago Area

      I read a book on Zen philosophy which encouraged us to read without bias when looking at history. We tend to look at history through the lens of our current state of affairs. Great reminder!

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