Without getting into who is right and who is wrong, the recent story referred to as the “Covington Catholic Story” is fascinating because with videos (some an hour and a half long) and numerous eye witnesses, the stories, the narratives, that explain and report what happened, have been so dramatically different.

To quote The Atlantic:

On Friday, January 18, a group of white teenage boys wearing maga hats mobbed an elderly Native American man on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, chanting “Make America great again,” menacing him, and taunting him in racially motivated ways. It is the kind of thing that happens every day—possibly every hour—in Donald Trump’s America. But this time there was proof: a video. Was it problematic that it offered no evidence that these things had happened? No. What mattered was that it had happened, and that there was video to prove it. The fact of there being a video became stronger than the video itself.

File:Female Figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa) by Velazquez, Spanish, c. 1648, oil on canvas - Meadows Museum - Southern Methodist University - DSC05312.jpg
The oracular sybil (with her slate that she is reading from actually just a blank tabula rasa).

Think back about what you believed about this incident, what you believe about this incident, what people you deal with believe about the incident.

Now, imagine no video.

Imagine all of the accounts of what happened are second hand accounts (stories written not by witnesses, but by those who heard about the event from witnesses or others).

Imagine that all of the accounts are written years after the event.

And you have history.

Most history is a reconstruction of a story, or stories, from facts a great deal less clear, repeated by people in simplified fashion, sometimes very simplified, sometimes mercifully simplified (does anyone really care what variety of Tuberculosis Doc Holliday suffered from at the time of the shootout at the Ok Corral?).

It becomes starker when you realize that people are unable to clearly think or argue things that do not agree with their politics.

To quote the British Psychological Society:

In fact the cacophonous online argument about what happened only seemed to explode in volume when the longer video was released — more information didn’t resolve things. At all.

As the Georgetown University professor Jonathan Ladd put it so well on Twitter: “Regarding the incident at the Lincoln Memorial,” he wrote, “it’s fascinating to see motivated reasoning play out in real time over a 24 hr period … Despite lots of video, all interpretations now match people’s partisanship.”

Having facts often doesn’t change the way people interpret what happened or the narratives they tell.

Just keep that in mind the next time you read a history that relies on facts and tells you what to conclude.