Imaginary Islamophobic strawman: Everything’s worse than it was!

Well, since there wasn’t roaring disappointment over my use of an imaginary Islamophobic strawman, I figured I’d carry on, footloose and fancy free.  (Seriously, my feet are so loose.  Dangerously loose.  Does anyone know where I can get some new bolts for my feet?)

The other strawman argument I run into the most often isn’t actually anything unique to Islam, or even to the study of religion – it’s the tendency of people to associate “history” as we can read it in books with “an exact record of what happened in the past” and not “an extremely limited view produced predominantly by the educated elite who didn’t care much about the vast majority of the population.”

Examples of this phenomenon include the ever popular “women in the workplace/homosexuality/variety of sexualities/non-nuclear families/insert thing someone doesn’t like here is just such a recent invention” or “there’s so much more drug addiction/depression/mental illness than there used to be.”

The problem with any social institution or trends, particularly minority ones like mental illness (which affects roughly 1 in 4 in the US) or non-heterosexual orientations (on which there is very poor reporting even today, but let’s go with the old figures and say 1 in 10 in the US), you need a decent sample size to be able to track them.

It’s just like when you learned about statistics in school – statistically, a flipped coin should land 50/50 heads and tails[1].  However, it’s a totally reasonable outcome to flip a coin several times and have it land the same way.  You need to flip it roughly a hundred times before you start to see a consistent pattern.  In the same way, you need to study a large pool of people in order to get an idea of what is and isn’t common behavior.

But you can’t do that with historical sources, because even histories that claim to tell a universal history of their own times or the preceding centuries aren’t doing that.  They’re inevitably telling a little bit of that history that seems relevant to that particular historian.

Case in point: The Muslim armies, during the Muslim expansion, besieged Constantinople twice.  The first time was around 674 CE, when they managed to maintain a siege more or less continuously for several years.  The second was in 717, when the siege lasted for one year and most of the Muslim army starved to death.  We have historical records from the period of the 674 discussing the first siege, but it is often left out of later histories.

So what?  Well, if the earlier records haven’t survived (and remember, books are rather perishable and, in particular, very flammable.  Also very inflammable.), we’d never know the earlier siege happened.  It did happen, but it just wasn’t relevant to the later authors.  It was longer than the 717 siege, but it was ultimately just as unsuccessful.  And the 717 siege happened to coincide with a major change in rule in the Muslim caliphate, and marked the last significant incursion by the Muslims into Byzantine territory.  So it felt more important to later generations.

And in general, historians care way more about military and political history than they do about social history.

Take, for example, the case of depression.  There is definitely more diagnosed depression than there was two hundred years ago.  This is, at least in part, because there was only a clinical definition of depression in the mid-20th century.  But even if we could read a definition into history, how exactly are we going to judge depression against the general horribleness of life for millions of people in the last two centuries?  I would go out on a limb and guess that many people living in the US in the mid-19th century displayed signs of depression, but I’m not sure it counts if millions of them were being forcibly held as slaves.  Hundreds of thousands more were living in poverty, working long hours under grueling work conditions, suffering in war, slowly dying of infection, cholera, or influenza, or scraping together a bare existence on the frontier.

So in order to speak accurately to whether there is more depression now than a hundred years ago, we would need a historian who was running around, interviewing a large and varied section of society about their personal experiences and problems, in such a way that we, as modern readers, could effectively analyze their responses for signs of depression, and weigh those responses against the often terrifying realities of that person’s life to decide if their feelings of hopelessness or emptiness weren’t simply common sense.

So why does any of this matter?  Well, our oversimplified view of history is often used to make the current day look worse than it is.  These arguments are also often highly dependent on post hoc, ergo proctor hoc – there was no homosexuality in the 50s, and everyone was happy, as proven by things like Howdy Doody and Leave It to Beaver, so clearly all of these gay people are making people unhappy.  Well, no.  Firstly, there were gay people in the 50s, and for centuries and centuries before that.  And secondly, loads of people were unhappy in the 50s, due to things like racism, civil unrest, tyrannical government practices, and Howdy Doody (that puppet is evil).

It’s also possible that the opposite was true – maybe the majority of people 100 years ago were really contented and comfortable with their lives (honestly, seems unlikely, but then again, I’ve never had cholera).  The point is that we don’t know, and trying to draw social lessons from the past about anything except the really big events implies a whole bunch of knowledge that we just don’t possess.

[1] Actually a flipped coin has a slight preference for the facing side when flipped, but whatever.

About askanislamicist

I'm an academic who specializes in early Islamic history and the history of religious interactions, who, in her free time, enjoys shouting into the internet.
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