“History is like chismis (gossip).” This was what a Filipina actress recently said in an interview about her role in an upcoming film that reimagines the events of the 1986 EDSA People Power Revolution, which ultimately ended the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., in the Philippines.

The actress’s remark earned the ire of netizens and responses from historians.

The discipline of history has long been under attack and became even more sensitive following the result of the May 2022 elections in the Philippines. The polarizing campaign period and election resulted in Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr., the son of the late dictator, being elected as president.

The legacy of his father’s authoritarian rule from 1972 to 1986 has been the subject of historical distortion by supporters of the current elected president especially in social media. A look into politically motivated attacks on the discipline of history or historical distortion is a problematic affair as these can have consequences in the long run.

History as Practice

History is not just about trivia, but a field of study that studies past events and their narratives. It is taught from primary to tertiary education and is necessary as it introduces a society’s past, culture, and identity to its students. Taught properly, it usually hones research, analysis, and critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, the subject gained a terrible reputation as boring, as memorization of names, places, and dates directs the teaching.

The practice of history also deals with understanding narratives about a society’s past and present. Military historian Peter Gray noted that history “can go beyond the entertaining, inspirational, descriptive and informative. It can also be critical, educational and prescriptive.” It means that more than its entertainment value, the practice of history can provide lessons that guide present policies seeking to address current problems.

As a practice of analyzing narratives, history deals with investigating historical questions, narrating the development of events and issues, and establishing the identity of a society or country. Like any other discipline, its quest to answer questions raises more.

History has a method; it establishes facts by verifying evidence and cross-referencing accounts, documented or remembered. Historical accounts are not just ‘written by victors’ as narratives come from many witnesses whose accounts vary in allegiances, interests, and identities.

A historian practices the historical method of analyzing sources, cross-referencing accounts, and explaining context when writing a narrative, which is the historian’s interpretation of the past. Historians may vary in interpretation, but this rigor should never be invalidated as chismis.

Old woman reading newspaper in the street. How much of our history do we understand, read, and remember?
Photo from Unsplash.com (Chitto Cancio)

History vs Distortion

Efforts to undermine narratives, particularly in the history of the Marcos dictatorship started as early as 2011, when YouTube videos questioning facts on the EDSA People Power Revolution surfaced and went viral over social media. Ever since, certain Facebook pages and groups as well as YouTube channels have continued to produce content that fosters historical distortion, subverts established or verified narratives on the Marcos dictatorship, and caters to the unsuspecting of the 76 million internet users in the Philippines.

Historical distortion in the Philippines happened with the denial that atrocities and plunder during Martial Law never happened. Historical denialism means denying certain events didn’t happen despite the numerous verified evidence that prove the event happened.

Distortion also happens by spreading myths and fake narratives to confuse those who would encounter and believe them, as well as devaluing historical narratives as merely opinions. Though opinions are granted protection under free speech, not all opinions are valid especially if some are not rooted in facts or is heavily tainted with bias. A critical study of history disproves myths and other misconceptions as well as establishes facts that should be the basis of further historical study.

Historical distortion distorts facts and established narratives, which leads to confusion in the time of online disinformation. It has become a political tool to influence the decisions and behavior of those whom it reaches. Political and social consequences of such distortion lead to and is manifested in anti-intellectualism (smart shaming), attack on human rights workers, democratic institutions, and the media. These are detrimental to a democratic society.

History and Morality

History has a moral dimension. Despite the historian’s attempts to objectively interpret historical facts, documents, and context, moral decisions will be made and reflected upon the interpretation and narrative the historian would make.

Distortion of facts and established histories carries with it other moral consequences. It normalizes and defends wrongdoings, like plunder and human rights abuses. It disenfranchises people, especially minorities victimized and still being victimized by societies. Historical distortion ultimately invalidates human suffering and legitimizes regimes as well as their abuses.

History is political as its narratives are also products of exercises of political power as well as pushbacks in societal struggles. This is because the discipline of history also investigates silences and gaps in the narratives usually of minorities and the oppressed whose voices and narratives usually clash with those in power.

Narratives, both legitimate and distorted, will always clash especially in dark and controversial events in the past like authoritarian regimes, genocide, and conflict. And in today’s world, social media is an important and far-reaching battleground in the clash of narratives.

Last May 2022, the Philippine Historical Association has issued a statement that calls for historians and practitioners of history to “commit to uphold the truth in whatever perspective as long as it is based on facts ascertained from the methodology of the historical discipline.”

The discipline and study of history will remain more relevant than ever. History as a subject of study in schools in the 21st century is key in teaching critical thinking skill, which is essential in living in a connected world with historical distortion, online disinformation, and unchecked algorithms. And in the end, the discipline of history at its core is storytelling, of peering into the past to understand the present, of finding meaning in the face of the online void of meaninglessness. History is and never was meaningless nor simply gossip.

By John Ray Ramos

He is a historian, educator, cultural worker, and children's book author.

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