Reframing History

Deconstruction And Discussion Not Destruction

Reframing History - Deconstruction And Discussion Not Destruction. Graphic

For those of us fortunate enough to live within western democracies, we are living in an age where a vociferous and intolerant minority have an uneasy relationship with their own country's history over the past 300 years.

This has led to what has been framed as the ‘culture wars’ that are being actively pursued in our media, public spaces, museums, universities, schools, civil services, local government, business corporations and all other public institutions.

This vociferous and intolerant minority claim that ‘facing up’ to a past which they present as overwhelmingly and permanently shameful is the route to "a more inclusive future". 

Terrified of adverse criticism or, more disgracefully, to gain advantage  these public institutions have shown their enthusiasm to take on board and embrace the most negative interpretations of their own countries’ histories and to judge those histories through the lens of present day mores.

But as historian Zareer Masani has noted:

    History is always about context, not imposing our own moral values on the past.

Reframing History - Monarchy

King Charles Coronation. Pic

Here in the UK we recently had the coronation of King Charles with all the ceremony, ritual and tradition that surrounds such an event.

For many these events are seen as a positive celebration of our constitutional monarchy not only as an important aspect of British history, which has developed over one thousand years, but also as a very present focus for national identity, unity and pride; thus providing a sense of stability and continuity.

For many others, a constitutional monarchy is seen as an irrelevance and an institution comprising an extremely privileged family who cost the nation a vast amount of money and who should be consigned to the shadows, taxed to the hilt, and who should be replaced with elected representatives of the people. In short, tear in down get rid of it and replace it!

To the traditionalists it increasingly seems as if the modern justice warrior confuses positive disruption and change with chaos and destruction.  

Reframing History - Statues

Colston Statue Removed.Pic

Nowhere is this chaos and destruction more typifed than with the current focus on tearing down statues.

In my home city of Bristol in the UK, in June 2020, "Black Lives Matter" protesters pulled down a statue of celebrated 18th century philanthropist Edward Colston and rolled it through the streets before dumping it unceremoniously into the harbour.

Edward Colston was born in Bristol in 1636, to a wealthy merchant family who were involved with Bristol’s Society of Merchant Venturers.

Colston gave away approximately half of his fortune on establishing and financially supporting schools, hospitals and other public institutions in Bristol, London and elsewhere. His name was widely commemorated in Bristol landmarks, and the statue of him was erected in 1895.

His crime? In 1680, Colston became involved in the slave trade as a senior executive of the Royal African Company, which held a monopoly on the English trade in African slaves at that time.

There is a coalition of people in Bristol who feel very strongly about this and feel that this man should not be celebrated because of his involvement in slavery. Their mission is to remove all traces of Colston's memory and focus on the full, true history of transatlantic slavery, colonialism and exploitation and the suffering it caused so many people.

Colston lived and behaved according to the values and mores of his age when slavery was common and as we have discussed elsewhere regarded as an acceptable practice.

However, this man and his behaviour is seen and judged through the prism of contemporary values. His virtues do not outweigh his sins and he has to be expunged from commemoration and public consciousness.

For the record, my view is that slavery of any people anywhere, at any time from the past to the present is abhorrent and a crime against humanity.

Furthermore, the feelings and sensitivities of the black community in Bristol need to be acknowledged and all those of us living in the present need to fully understand the horrors of the slave trade it's impact and its legacy. These issues need to be acknowleged and all perspectives discussed and shared.

But I am not persuaded that this objective is fully achieved by the destruction of a statue and the obliteration of the memory of a significant historical figure.

In this article I am seeking to build the case for reframing history via a process of deconstruction and discussion rather than destruction.

    We all live according to the mores of our times. That is life. We know no better.

    To future generations:

    "Forgive us for we know not what we do."

A similar bout of statue destruction has been happening in the US with the removal of Confederate statues in the Southern United States.

Confederate Monument Removed.Pic

This includes the statues of Confederate Gen. Albert Pike in Washington, D.C.; Francis Scott Key, the author of the U.S. national anthem and a slave owner, in San Francisco; Christopher Columbus in Boston; the 18th-century Franciscan friar Junípero Serra in Los Angeles.

Here in the UK the statue of the British Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Oxford has met a similar fate.

The biggest problem with statues is that they are a public, tangible expression of the politics at the moment in which they were created and statues define heroes, instill narratives, and project power. But of course the politics change, the values change and the statues remain - until they are destroyed or removed.

But as Justin Jampol argues:

"When physical remnants of a difficult past are erased, it doesn’t make the underlying problem just go away. In fact, it’s often the opposite—erasure of such public reminders of repression makes it even more difficult to keep the discussion in the spotlight, scoring points for symbolic victory while preventing more lasting systemic change.

The irony is that if all statues fall or are destroyed, the most public reminders of systemic brutality could disappear."

    Erasing sculptures does not start a conversation, but it usually ends one.

Reframing History - The History Wars

The History Wars.Pic

From a UK perspective the "history wars" are best illustrated by looking at the work of two significant academic antagonists.

In the blue corner we have Professor Nigel Biggar, Emeritus Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology Oxford University who is part of a group of scholars who have formed the History Reclaimed Project.

"The movement to 'decolonise' that is sweeping feverishly through our schools, universities and cultural institutions is propelled by three axioms.

The first is that British colonialism was essentially racist; the second, that British society today is structurally racist; and the third, that the latter is caused by the former.

That is why we have to topple statues and erase street names that celebrate colonial heroes, since only by so doing can we repudiate the colonial roots of contemporary racism and liberate ourselves from its persistently, systemically poisonous influence. Or so it is claimed."

Biggar says that this movement views Britain's colonial past through the contemporary lens of critical race theory, white privilege, and institutionalised anti-black racism and that modern white Britain's need to face this past and own their shame as a foundation to building a more inclusive society.

In the red corner we have Professor Alan Lester, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex in the UK and Adjunct Professor of History at La Trobe University in Australia and he challenges Nigel Biggar's project with History Reclaimed – But From What?:

"... the history that this group defends is far from 'shared'. It is the history created by White Britons over many decades to justify their denial of sovereignty to others.

The millions of people of colour around the world who were made British subjects whether they liked it or not, tended to endure a very different historical experience from these White Britons – as subjects rather than citizens, as enslaved, indentured or otherwise coerced labourers rather than employers, as servants rather than masters and mistresses, and as dispossessed rather than landed.

... what 'History Reclaimed' gets so wrong, is the bigger picture: the British Empire was, above all else, a vehicle of white supremacy.

Whatever its liberal adherents at home in Britain desired and said, it rested upon people of colour being violently subjugated, their land taken and their being put to work for White Britons.

Lester argues that:

"...history has become one of the major battlegrounds in the culture wars not because of colonial historians’ efforts but because members of History Reclaimed along with allies in the Conservative Party and the right wing press have become determined, especially in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, to stake a defence of a racially unequal status quo on the ground of history."

Dr Rakib Ehsan.Pic

Dr Rakib Ehsan,  a British citizen of Bangladeshi heritage, is a research analyst and writer, specialising in matters of social cohesion, race relations, and public security.

In a recent combative article published in the mid-market right-wing Daily Mail he sets out his view that everything the liberal Left believe about Britain and race is patronising and wrong.

In his view: "the grievance-fuelled liberal Left would have us believe... Britain is fundamentally racist, a country with a brutal imperialistic past which continues to do more harm than good."

Whereas, he states: "I, a British citizen of Bangladeshi heritage, totally disagree. In my opinion, ours is one of the most successful examples of a multi-racial democracy and arguably the leading model for white-majority, multi-ethnic societies."

He argues that the liberal left "...continues to pursue a narrative of innate prejudice, of a reactionary society blighted by ‘systemic racism’ and ‘structural discrimination’ in which ethnic minorities need far greater rights and protections."

This he sees as " a grossly unfair caricature. It infantilises and patronises generations of non-white people who have established themselves in Britain, taken advantage of the opportunities it offers and are making a success of their lives and their communities."

He also argues that there are very real historical, cultural, and political differences between the US and the UK and that it is "brainless" to import the Black Lives Matter campaign that "...insists on judging everything through the prism of Critical Race Theory and so-called ‘white privilege’."

Reframing History - My Personal History

My Family.Pic

My History

My father came from an affluent middle class business family. I was raised in the early 1950's and 1960's.

One of my earliest memories was of my father showing me a map of the world and me asking why so may countries were marked in red.

He told me: "This my son is - or was - the British Empire. It used to be said that the sun never sets on the British Empire."

My father was a colonialist and had spent time in what was then known as Rhodesia. His father, my grandfather, was an industrialist based in Rhodesia and was the country manager of a UK owned series of steel manufacturing plants.

My father's attitude was that of a colonialist and by present day standards he was a racist with a benignly paternalistic attitude to their staff.

My father was a chauvinist, with a patronising attitude to women.

His attitude to gay rights and mental health issues would put him in prison in the present age!

He was by present day standards a moral dinosaur.

He was also a good man, a kind man and a practising Christian.

My father was a man of his age and no worse, and possibly better, than most in the way he treated people.

I was raised with these values and held them until I left home to go to college and then to work.

Over the ensuing 50 years and with exposure to many very different people and influences my views changed radically - in all areas.

My present life and values are very, very different to how I was raised, and I was fortunate to acquire the language and the tools to make these adjustments.

Stephen Warrilow.Profile Pic

This is my current perspective on the culture wars and the need for reframing history:


What is very clear from our very brief and cursory look at some of the key elements of the culture wars that we are currently experiencing is how polarised views are, and how the tendency veers towards destruction rather than towards deconstruction and discussion.

As you will have gathered from my comments in this article I do not share the anti-colonial perspective.

I do not see Britain's history over the past 300 years as any more or less shameful than any other period over the past 2,000 years.

The "Sins Of The Fathers" vs The Statutes of Limitation

I am of course referring to the current prevailing doctrine of "inherited guilt" meaning that the present generations carry the moral burden of the behaviour of their ancestors.

The direct consequence of this deeply flawed ideology is the soul searching that countless large companies and public institutions are currently undertaking to ascertain the extent to which their forebears were involved in the slave trade and thus by default they are now in some degree the beneficiaries of this trade.

The follow on from this is the expiation of their inherited guilt by making some form of reparations to the descendants of those slaves who were traded by their ancestors.

In any other context the laws of our countries impose a statute of limitations which specifies a time limit after which no charges can be brought in civil or criminal law. But seemingly not when it comes to matter of race and white supremacy.

To stretch the point to incredulity, is the current Italian government responsible for the actions of the Romans in this country 2,000 years ago? Should we be seeking reparations from various Scandinavian governments for the appalling behaviour of their ancestors in this country 1,200 years ago, or the French government for the invasion and conquest of this country by the Norman conquerors in 1066?

Let me be blunt and personalise this. I am not in any way liable or culpable for the misdeeds of my father let alone his father or previous generations in my personal history.

To exaggerate to make the point: I carry no guilt nor requirement to make reparations if my father [or any of his forbears] had been a mass-murdering multiple rapist. I have nothing to seek expiation for as I carry no guilt.

In the same way, my son is not responsible for any of my misdeeds.

This doctrine of inherited guilt has nothing to do with race or white supremacy, and everything to do with ideology. To suggest otherwise is illogical and frankly ludicrous.

Moral Values

It is my view that people live by the mores and values of their age and we can only view them and their behaviour through that lens.

Modern historians would embarrass themselves and be laughed out of court if they critiqued any other empire at any other point in history through the lens of race, white privilege, and racism.

Can you imagine present day evaluations of Alexander The Great's conquests of most of the known world at that time as a vehicle of white supremacy? Or the conquests of Genghis Khan as he built the Mongol Empire evaluated through the lens of his declared racism against the chinese?

So I fail to see why they make a special case of our Victorian ancestors except that it aligns with a prevailing ideology.

Whilst as a layman I defer to Professor Alan Lester's academic credentials and experience in the field of history, I really find it hard to imagine that he - or indeed any of the other scores of historians who share his view - would evaluate any other empire at any other point in history as "a vehicle of white supremacy".

To my untutored, non academic, line of vision this narrows the perspective of an empire to the thickness of a rizla cigarette paper!

The Fundamental Fault Line In Logical Empiricism

Over time, ideologies becomes subject to confirmation bias and proponents neither see nor include information that does not support their position which leads to the belief that "if we find enough supporting evidence for our theory that verifies it."

Unless empirical evidence is tested against all known facts, and all currently available research data, and wherever possible tested against future predictions and thus proven to be true, it will reinforce the prevailing ideological group think and thus perpetuate a misdirection.

I am not persuaded that ideology espoused in Critical Race Theory passes these tests.

The Passage Of Time and The Process Of Transition

Societies change and people change by focusing on mutual interests and common ground supported by constructive discussion all of which leads to adjustment and assimilation, and all of this takes place through the passage of time.

The UK has been on the receiving of several major incursions and invasions from other civilisations all of which - seen through the eyes of present day mores were brutal, vicious and involved the slaughter and enslavement of countless people, rape, pillage and wanton destruction of people and property.

Notable examples were the Romans, The Scandinavians and the French.

Painful as it is for those living through the transition process, given the passage of enough time people adjust and assimilate.

The evidence of this can be seen in all long standing cultures and societies i.e. societies that have been around for 1,000+ years.

The US does not fall into this category of a long standing culture and society, as from the perspective of the broad sweep of history it is a young society still in transition.

This is why, in my view, it is serious mistake for this country to import ideologies from what in practical terms [and with no disrespect to US readers] is still a developing nation.

The Lag Of Ideologies

There is usually a lagging factor with ideologies. It can take the passage of decades or longer for an ideology to be shown to be flawed, irrelevant and ultimately redundant.

Take Marxism for example, which emerged as reaction to the political and economic repression of the many by the privileged few.

Whilst Marxism has shown itself to be a catalyst for change and has offered a route map to a fairer and more just world, over time is has shown that, beyond the accretion of power to an alternative privileged minority, it does not work.

I understand from those far better informed than me that it is likely that current ideologies will be around for some considerable time. But over the passage of enough time future generations will look back on all this in as much amazement and bemusement as we now do on the Salem witch trials and the McCarthyism of the 1940s and 1950s in the US.

But of course, those future generations will by then be in the grip of their own ideological obsessions, c'est la vie.

Towards Inclusivity - Reframing History

It seems to me that as a modern society that seeks to be inclusive those of us who comprise the majority do need to exercise sensitivity towards minority groups who feel marginalised or excluded as an actual or perceived result of our country's relatively recent history.

In this context we do need to be able to review, deconstruct and discuss history and explore all perspectives and what those perspectives mean for those who hold them. This is a holistic process of inclusivity. This is what is meant by the process of reframing history

In order to be able to do this, and to move beyond the current polarisation and to get beyond these culture wars we need to have the tools and a language to be able to do this.

Reframing History - Laying The Foundations



To deconstruct something is to take it apart, to "unpack" it, to establish the constituent parts of the whole and in relation to ideas, to attempt to uncover the true meaning of something.

Looking at the conditions of creation

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida (1930–2004) is regarded as the founder of “deconstruction” as a way of interpreting literary and philosophical texts by looking at the conditions of their production, such as their context, the historical circumstances and traditions from which they arose, the conventions and nuances of the language in which they were written, and also and context, background and circumstances of the authors' lives.

Dropping the idea of "the true meaning"

The process of deconstruction has no certain fixed point or expected endpoint or map, but is rather an ongoing process of discovery as further underlying complexities and hidden contradictions are revealed.

Deconstruction is always an on-going process because the constantly shifting nature of language means that no final meaning or interpretation of a text is possible. 

Moving away from literature and applying deconstruction to history it rapidly becomes apparent that there is no "true meaning" of history beyond the hard circumstantial facts of events.

Subsequent ages, grounded in a different language, with different values and different ways of life, will always see something different in their interpretation of historical events.

It is always and entirely subjective.

First Principles Thinking

First Principles Thinking.Graphic

First principles thinking is the act of reducing something down to the most basic parts that you know are demonstrably true, and using that as your foundation for building up from there.

It involves digging deeper and deeper until you are left with only the foundation truth of a situation, the indisputable hard facts.

Aristotle described a first principle as: "...the first basis from which a thing is known."

Testing beliefs, assumptions and group think

First principles thinking removes all assumptions and asks: "What are we absolutely sure is true, what has been proven?"

We live in a world based on beliefs, assumptions and group think.

First principles thinking means testing assumptions, taking things apart and reconstructing them so that we can cut through the dogma, the group think, and see things as they are and see what is possible.

Applying Socratic questioning

Socratic questioning can be used to draw out first principles in a systematic manner via rigorous analysis.

The late Dr. Richard Paul founder of The Foundation For Critical Thinking, has classified Socratic questions into 6 basic types:

  1. Questions for clarification - Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?
  2. Questions that probe assumptions - How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?
  3. Questions that probe reasons and evidence - How can I back this up? What are the sources?
  4. Questions about viewpoints and perspectives - What might others think? How do I know I am correct?
  5. Questions that probe implications and consequences - What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?
  6. Questions about the question - Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?

Determining Partial Truth From The Whole Truth

Determining Partial Truth From The Whole Truth. Graphic

In the culture wars that are currently taking place in many arenas of public life we are challenged and confronted with interpretations of history that are presented as facts, that is to say "the whole truth".

Where as in most instances these are partial truths - that is facts that are true but that are an aspect of the whole truth.

These interpretations are based on the ideology of Critical Race Theory brought to public consciousness by Black Lives Matter and now adopted and promulgated by many academics and organisational and institutional leaders.

We discussed this in detail in What Is Truth? and especially how to apply Karl Popper's "testability criteria" and I represent the summary here as I believe this is a useful approach to establishing the veracity of prevailing ideology.

The checklist present below is based on the premise that rather than looking for confirmatory evidence for verification of a truth - test it to see if there is contradictory evidence that refutes it - test its claims to prove it wrong.

Checklist: Is it a partial truth or the whole truth?

A partial truth:

  • Will be backwards looking and using past data to explain the present.
  • Will appear to be able to explain practically everything that happens within the field to which it refers.
  • Will cite all encompassing confirmatory evidence to prove it right.
  • Can't be tested, refuted and no objections can be raised which will prove it wrong.

The whole known truth:

  • Is forward looking and predicts future results and outcomes, and if these do not occur it can be refuted.
  • Can be tested against all available research and known data and if found wanting it can be refuted.
  • Is tested to prove it wrong.
  • Is always contingent on the data that supports it.

Reframing History

American Assocation for State and Local History. Graphic

A significant feature of the culture wars is how views are polarised and how the analysis is binary.

I want to close this article with what I trust readers will feel is a positive contribution to defusing these tensions.

But firstly, let me share three observations based on direct personal experience

[1] More In Common

Having lived, worked and travelled extensively for many years in South East Asia I noticed very quickly that despite our ethnic, cultural and other differences at root, we all want the same things.

We value the same things. We see many things in the same way.  We have more in common than that which divides us.

We all want to be loved, to be respected, we all want the best for our children, we all want to good health, at the most basic level we all want food, sex, shelter and money.

Anyone who has traveled extensively in other countries and cultures will have observed this.

[2] Point Of Focus

Based on these and other life experience I have come to realise that perhaps the key point in all this is point of focus:

  • A focus on difference is a focus on negativity and its effect is to divide.
  • A focus on common interest is holistic and its effect is to unite.

The corollary to this is that what you focus on grows:

  • A focus on difference magnifies division.
  • A focus on common interest magnifies unity.

So my question to all those who are championing any cause or point of view is this: Are you focused on the positives, on what you DO want to happen and thus on unity?

Or, are you focused on the negative, on what you DON'T want to see happen and thus on division?

[3] Framework Template And Language For Discussion

In my business career I used to do a lot of work with organisations on leading and managing change.

Organisational change often involves significant culture change, and this in turn can easily degenerate into polarised, binary discussions and arguments between the different groups involved.

To counter this, my colleagues and I devised a "Cultural Framework Template" which we used with groups to create a cultural framework for their group that clearly and accurately describes "Where we are now".

Having completed this exercise with a range of different groups within the organisation we plotted the relative positions of all the groups

We then undertook a series of facilitated sessions with all those who were going to be impacted by the proposed changes to reach a shared understanding of what was going to be involved.

The point and purpose of a framework template is:

  • To create a visual framework and a language
  • Supported with tangible evidence 
  • To enable all involved to communicate in an unemotional and non-confrontational manner

A Proposed Solution For Reframing History

The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), is a national nonprofit association, it provides leadership and resources to help the history community thrive and make the past more meaningful for all people.

AASLH,  funded by the Mellon Foundation, has partnered with  FrameWorks Institute, National Council on Public History, and Organization of American Historians to create an initiative called "Reframing History".

The purpose of this initiative is to provide a new set of evidence-backed recommendations for communicating about history through a report, toolkit, and forthcoming training resources, with the objective of:

  • Providing specific, flexible strategies for achieving a shift
  • Overcoming major communication challenges
  • Building a more widely shared understanding of the importance of learning from the past.

Key themes include:

  1. Talking about critical thinking to shift perceptions about what history involves
  2. Comparing historical interpretation to detective work to deepen understanding of historical practice
  3. Emphasizing how history helps us make progress toward a just world to increase recognition of history’s importance.
  4. Using concrete, location-specific, solutions-focused examples to build support for inclusive history.

I commend this to you as a powerful resource for cognition, communication and change.

Making History Matter: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement

Making History Matter: Toolkit for Communicators

    If I were to hold just one wish for humanity, it is that we remember our innate capacity to see each other beyond all differences. Such a shift in awareness might resolve many of the towering predicaments of this age and of our own lives.

    Nic Askew

Supporting Articles

The Failure Of Cancel Culture - Suppression Not Engagement

What Is Truth - How To Tell A Partial Truth From The Whole Truth?

More In Common And The Narcissism of Minor Differences

Return from "Reframing History" to: Walking The Talk

Contact me

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    Being aware is the first stage of being prepared. The conscious mind is limited in so many ways. There are some who would argue that there is no such thing as conscious thought and that it is represen…

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  26. Your Inner Map Of Reality - Here's Why You Think The Way You Do

    The big picture of how your inner map of reality creates your feelings, thoughts, and behaviours. Your inner map of reality is based on the filters of your own ethnic, national, social, family and rel…

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  27. The Failure Of Cancel Culture - Suppression Not Engagement

    Why we need to wear our beliefs lightly and develop negative capability. Throughout history people have campaigned to fight beliefs, ideologies, and injustices that they perceived to be oppressive, di…

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  28. 4 Big Reasons Why We Get Stuck In Our Attempts At Personal Change

    Most People Spend Their Entire Life Imprisoned Within The Confines Of Their Own Thoughts. This first of the 4 big reasons why we get stuck is, in my view, the most important. The "self-help industry…

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  29. How Do I Change And Why Is It So Hard?

    We Would Rather Die Than Change, And We Usually Do In my experience, the vast majority of people who say they want to change don’t change. Most people reading this won’t change because they don’t real…

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  30. The Illusion Of A Separate Self - Windows 11 With Self Awareness!

    Beyond the content of your mind you are so much more than you think you are. When we talk of "myself" this is the conventional way of referring to our self image which is in fact the ego's constructio…

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