Calling Things Truly

I’m not sure any writer stimulates me like Rebecca Solnit. Her dead-aim truth telling and her exquisite control of language serves up so many reminders and inspirations.

In “Silence Is Broken,” an early essay in The Mother of All Questions, Solnit writes:

The task of calling things by their true names, of telling the truth to the best of our abilities, of knowing how we got here, of listening particularly to those who have been silenced in the past, of seeing how the myriad stories fit together and break apart, of using any privilege we may have been handed to undo privilege or expand its scope is each of our tasks. It’s how we make the world.

She concluded the weighty essay about silence and women with this passage, an exquisite sentence containing a plea and plan. In the main, the essay catalogs the ways silencing works to oppress, how it protects patriarchy. Silence is a verb, not a quality of quiet. The essay–and the book flowing out of it–is worth reading and learning from. But I want to consider specifically the ways Solnit’s charge here might guide historians’ work.

  1. Calling things by their true name. Using “patriarchy” rather than “human nature” or some other formulation makes impacts. As I’m teaching Native American history now, I’m reminded often of choosing true names. Calling out colonialism as cause rather than fingering (mostly) blameless pathogens, for instance, recalibrates truth. As does characterizing processes as settler colonialism rather than settlement, invasions not migrations. Part of calling things truly means grappling with agency. In reading about Californian genocide (truth telling in names again) in Benjamin Madley’s excellent An American Genocide, I’m struck by the ways Californians deflected moral choice by assuming the inevitable disappearance of California Indians. Of course, the deflection made it (nearly) inevitable.
  2. Tell the truth to the best of our abilities. We must hone our honesty and model integrity. We adjust when we learn more; we correct when we are wrong. Our polestar draws facts, not ideology or even flawless narrative. Our telling rests on truth, but we face hostile recipients. So we practice our words, making them truer and clearer. And more urgent.
  3. Knowing how we got here. Everything holds its history within its very structure. Another way of saying this is that choices produce the world where we live. And so we must examine those choices, see their results and consequences intended and otherwise. Accepting the world as it appears today as some inevitable outcome misunderstands the heartbeat of history. (A recent novel that plays with inevitability–and its reversals–is the magnificent The Power by Naomi Alderman.) When we understand historical forces as accumulating human agency, we can pry and leverage change. What seemed like historical bedrock yesterday can be eroded tomorrow.
  4. Listen to those silenced in the past. Finding voices previously silenced and listening to them, privileging them, seems the right work for historians. Some will object, no doubt, claiming distortion. We’ve heard the unsilenced for so long, so loudly. Their case has been made. Their records enshrined in State of the Union addresses, military orders, Pulitzers, Oscar-winning films. When we see in the shadows, we will see lives lived truly.
  5. How stories fit together or break apart. When we have all the puzzle pieces rather than half or a third, the picture is not only clearer, it is different. Gathering all the stories is not a means for increasing quantity, not more of the same. Instead, we will have stories that change The Story, rendering the old order confused. The story of our nation won’t include women who be also became doctors, African Americans who also became presidents. It becomes more complicated, nuanced; more facets appear bending the past’s light. The story of expanding democracy, a favorite fable, does not work because it has always excluded those for whom the story is a lie. And when you exclude people in a democratic story, you fail to call things by their true name. The outer edge and the inner core can no longer orient because the world has always been multi-centered, dynamic. Old truths die hard in the full face stories.
  6. Use our privilege to undo privilege. My privilege compounds. White. Male. Heterosexual (and married and a parent). Educated. Jobbed. Able-bodied. Citizen. Etc. Virtually every privilege my society grants, I have. I earned none (although I did homework when education was available). To be privileged, one needs to acknowledge it. Then use it to undo it. This seems to some to undermine self-interest. But self-interest seems always to weaken the greater good, which cycles back on itself to tear the self and its interests apart. Awareness of privilege, and calling it such, is a prelude to the real work of weakening the pillars that hold up the facade of Meritocracy.

It’s how we make the world, says Solnit. The world is constituted by stories, with stories. Our stories are our truth. Truths require information, as much as we can hear and sometimes more than we want to bear, especially those who benefit from privilege. How we make the world begins with our choices, so how we choose should be high in our awareness. Take conscious steps. Take heed. Tell true stories fiercely.

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