9/11 Interpreted: Discovering Culture Through History’s Depiction in World Textbooks

From the North and South’s view of the Civil War to those of China versus Japan of WWII, interpretations of history differ wildly across the world.

When you enter your host country, knowing their historical perspective can help you better understand myriad aspects of their culture.

It can also help you avoid stepping on any landmines that might lead to a Monkey Moment.

History is in the eye of the beholder, and everyone wants to be the hero of their own story.

So, what “truth” do we choose to believe?

And what does it say about us?

Recent History in Textbooks

While distant history can still smart a bit, recent history often stings more.

9/11 is but one of those events.

The case of how 9/11 is presented in various textbooks across the globe shows how history isn’t necessarily skewed with time; it’s biased even in the moment, as originally reported by historical textbooks.

Graduate student, Elizabeth Herman, returned to her old high school about a decade after the tragic event had unfolded and discovered the school’s new history textbooks already detailed 9/11 and its aftermath.

She was curious how these events appeared in other school history textbooks around the world.

Interpreting 9/11

For her university thesis project, and later for research under a Fulbright scholarship, Herman analyzed textbooks from thirteen different countries to examine the differences in how this attack was being taught.

What she found:

  • American textbooks highlight the tragedy using volatile language and emphasize how the country came together after the attack
  • Pakistani textbooks call the assailants “unidentified terrorists,” omitting their identity
  • Turkish textbooks omit their extremist Islamic faith
  • Chinese, Brazilian, and Indian textbooks emphasize the “reckless” actions taken by the U.S. post-9/11 in their illegal war in Iraq
  • Chinese textbooks also interpret 9/11 as a sign of the decline of American authority on the world stage

So, considering all these selective details and interpretations of history, what exactly is “the truth”?

The Truth

As we’ve previously discussed, from a cultural context, there is no One Truth – at least none that we’ll ever know, as bias will always exist, in the writing of history and in the reading of it.

But what these interpretations can teach us is how different cultures view the world, how they view themselves, and how they hope to shape future readers’ perceptions of it all.

You might say, “If no one’s telling The Truth, then history is useless.”

But that’s not the case. A country’s interpretation of history allows us to understand their rationale, to seek the “why,” and that’s the whole point when you’re trying to accept and adapt to a foreign culture.

As Herman said on the results of her thesis:

“If you hand a student thirteen different ways of looking at 9/11 from thirteen different countries and ask them, […] Why do you think it’s different? Why do you think that Pakistan tells this story one way and Brazil speaks about it a different way? I think that that’s the only way that we can actually reach a new understanding of this event.”

History is in the Eye of the Beholder: Why There Is No “One Truth” When It Comes to Culture

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” – or so the saying goes.

And so is history.

History may be “written by the victors,” but in most cases, the “victors” don’t permanently wipe out all other perspectives (thankfully).

Opposing views of history co-exist and, if you’re doing business in a new culture – or living in it – an awareness of that culture’s perspective of history, particularly its own, will help you succeed…and avoid some serious cultural faux pas.

How?

UPS in Germany

Consider this: when UPS tried to introduce new business in West Germany in 1976, the company didn’t consider the historical roots of brown uniforms there.

UPS’s recognizable “brown shirts” were reminiscent of Hitler Youth uniforms to locals.

Tensions arose due to this serious oversight, and UPS was forced to introduce green employee uniforms instead. 

But cultural insensitivity was their first impression.

This could have all been avoided with a little bit of historical knowledge and common sense.

Moreover, another important thing to remember about history is that, when it comes to cultural understanding, it’s open to interpretation.

Interpreting History

Although there may be one truth, no one will ever know it.

Historical events can be perceived differently by opposing cultures and are subject to interpretation.

Knowing that, when introduced to your host culture, look at their history not only through the lens of your own culture, but through their own.

If you look at another’s history only through the framework of your culture’s historical perspective of it, that singular interpretation of the facts likely won’t provide the same view.

In the sense that you’re trying to understand the perspective of another culture, that interpretation is pretty useless to you.

While we hope for objectivity in history-telling, the reality is that subjectivity colors history writing a great deal.

Historians often write within the biased framework of their culture’s own national and political interests.

Cultural bias is difficult to recognize, particularly coming from academics or historians, whom we’d like to believe are “above” bias.

But nationalist tradition often enters into historical interpretation, and cultural preconceptions and stereotypes are extremely resistant to facts.

Only when faced with foreign opposition of said facts may any sort of bias be detected.

We’ll illustrate this contrast of opposing historical views next week.