Ever played the ice-breaker game “Two Truths & A Lie?” The concept is that everyone makes three statements (usually about themselves) and the others have to guess which are true and which is a lie. Now, let’s be clear, I believe honesty is one of the best character qualities and would never condone lying. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’m frustrated now. Why I’ve been frustrated for a while.
I feel like “Two Truths & A Lie” is played in history interpretation with terrible consequences. Please let me explain, sharing from my own experiences and concluding with some thoughts on how this unfortunate game seems to be perpetuating the conflicts, hatred, and un-cordial feelings surrounding the monuments.
I was eight years old when I first discovered history of the American Civil War. Looking back, my introduction to the subject was moderately balanced, but it wasn’t long before I met someone convinced the South was right and I made childish arguments strongly in favor of Lincoln and abolition. In the course of reading lots of Civil War books for kiddos, I learned about Confederate generals – Lee, Jackson, Stuart, and others. Their lives – not their politics or their society – fascinated me (come on, there just aren’t tons of details in children’s books), and there just weren’t a lot of kid’s books about Union generals. (That would be another topic worth exploring someday.)
A few years went by. My high school years were all about forming ideas, principles, and trying to figure things out, and the U.S. Constitution sure made interesting reading material alongside my ever-increasing library of Civil War books. I started looking at the Civil War politics, leaders, and situations through a more judgmental view. Who was right? Who was wrong? When I was eight, the answer had been simple: the Union troops fought to free the slaves and Lincoln favored equality for all. The Confederates wanted to keep slaves. End of subject – ah, childhood and simplicity.
As I continued studying the Civil War and dug deeper into primary sources, I became angry. I felt like hadn’t been told the whole story. Not all Union troops fought to end slavery.[i] And – unlike those ever so helpful picture books – not all Confederates lived on big plantations and owned slaves. Wait – my story gets better (or worse)…
Around age eighteen, I started participating in Civil War living history. Now, out here on the West Coast, we don’t have major battlefields or a lot of Civil War sites (comparatively); re-enactments are a way to engage the public and teach them about history. Through this educational hobby, I’ve met many fine researchers and folks who know their history. However, at times I also encountered the same game played by those children’s picture books. Telling only half the story. Or, more blatantly, telling two historical truths, followed by a lie. Or two truths followed by silence.
Perhaps I’m being too vague. I’ll try to briefly elaborate. I’ve heard an individual rattle on for a good twenty minutes about states rights and economic factors being the causes of the Civil War and use every argument from the 1860’s and Lost Cause-ism to defend the Confederacy…and never once acknowledge slavery. And when I tried to bring it up as a cause of the war – that might have been linked inseparably to the others – I was ignored. Then I’ve heard speeches about how Union soldiers all favored abolition. And I feel sick… Truths and lies – so neatly mixed, served up, and imbibed by listeners who may or may not ever touch a history book.
Now, I’m not advocating history education only within school walls. But I am begging others to be careful in what is said and what it might imply. I suppose I may have been guilty of not telling the full history at times, but I am working to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m willing to talk about what folks from the Civil War Era really said and did, using historical context and followed by the question, “and was this morally/ethically right?”
There are parts of arguments that are morally and ethically right or wrong. Racism is wrong. Violence is wrong. Bullying is wrong. And then there are parts of arguments that are based on opinion – passionate, dedicated opinion, no doubt. Let me try to illustrate the two types of arguments. Morally and ethically: slavery was wrong – no further argument there in my mind. However for opinion’s argument, set slavery aside to make a simple political question: did states have a Constitutional right to secede? That becomes a matter of opinion with arguments going back to the Founding Fathers. (Please don’t argue in the comments over that. It’s just my example! And, yes, believe me, I know secession and slavery had ties in the 1860’s, and, no, I’m not advocating secession in the modern era.)
As historians, researchers, history buffs, or concerned citizens, it is important to find accurate information, share it in proper context, and realize that the answers to some questions may not be easy. America has been a land of individualism; that individualism created companies of soldiers during the Civil War who didn’t necessarily have the same reasons for fighting, and it’s created plenty of views, emotions, and opinions that continue to the modern era as we squabble over the past.
I realize there are challenges. Facts can be presented accurately, and folks will still refuse to understand. (“The sky is blue.” “No, the sky is really gray.” “Take your sunglasses off?”) But it’s better to kindly speak the truth, perhaps listen and try to understand their point of view, so we can do a better job educating.
Another challenge comes from shorter attention spans and 140 character answers on Twitter. Routinely, on my Twitter or Facebook newsfeeds, I’ll see messages that make me wonder. “Robert E. Lee didn’t own slaves.” “Lincoln would have [insert some opinion on modern politics.]” Can you see how a culture of Two Truths & A Lie is escalating when it comes to history? Whether true or not, a history fact is merely spit into social media with no context or interpretation. Does that mean Lee (representing the Confederacy) had absolutely nothing to do with slavery? (Lie…) Does that mean Lincoln would’ve hated Donald Trump? (How can we know? Lincoln is dead and a lot has changed in the last hundred and fifty years.)
Here’s an example of something that happened on my own Facebook account. I’d done a birthday post, or something for “Stonewall” Jackson a couple years ago. Just a basic photo post, if I recall correctly. Someone decided it would fun to comment: “Jackson never owned slaves.” I choked when I saw that. Now, I’m not the type of girl to go looking for a fight or verbal battle, but this was blatantly wrong history, and it wasn’t going to live on my homestead. First, I considered just deleting the post, but that eliminated an educational opportunity. So, I responded firmly, with a cited source, and that was the end. But it makes me wonder what will happen the next time that myth is shared?
Who will believe it? Someone looking to build up their marble-man hero? A child who doesn’t know better than to believe what her trusted friend tells her?
Two truths and a lie. That’s what happens when history is politicized for use in the modern era. That’s what happens when groups or individuals have an agenda or historical viewpoint to push forward. We are human, fallible. But please commit to telling the truth. Not distorting that truth. Not making blanket statements that are misleading.
Please – three truths, no lies.
A girl who was confused too many times
[i] Gary Gallagher, The Union War. (Read the whole book for a full study on why Union soldiers fought.)