Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Monday, June 3, 2013

On the Rhetorical Power of Counterfactuals

Here is more evidence of rhetorical power of counterfactuals:

The website, Listverse, recently submitted a list of "Ten Forgotten Events That Shaped The Modern World," which derives much of its evocative power from its "what if?" reasoning. 


The introduction reads:

History is full of twists and turns that ultimately shaped the world we live in today. Sheer coincidences, forgotten heroics, and unforeseen consequences have—for better or for worse—created the modern world as we know it. Below are ten instances of “forgotten” events that would have altered our current society—and possibly our very existence—had they not occurred.

The list goes on evoke provocative "what ifs" in several key events:

#10: Norwegian Heavy Water Sabotage (1944)

"When developing nuclear weapons, one must acquire a large quantity of “heavy water,” or Deuterium Oxide.  It is used to produce isotopes for nuclear weapons, namely Plutonium-239.  A fertilizer production plant in Norway had been producing heavy water since 1934, at the rate of twelve tons per year.  Recognizing that German scientists were trying to create a nuclear weapon, Allied special forces alerted Norwegian resistance groups in 1940, encouraging them to destroy the facilities.

Despite a number of failures, saboteurs managed to destroy the German supply of heavy water in 1943.  In 1944, a single Norwegian commando managed to sneak onto a ferry carrying heavy water and sink it, finally undermining Germany’s plan to acquire nuclear weapons.  Germany had the scientific ability to generate a nuclear weapon; they simply lacked the materials.  Had it not been for the Norwegian resistance, Germany may well have been able to create an atomic bomb—altering the war, and changing world history."

#8 Expulsion of Christians from Japan (1639)

"In the early 1600s, Catholic Missionaries in Japan were successful in converting a number of powerful feudal lords to Catholicism—thereby garnering a surprising number of followers in the largely Confucian nation.  In 1639, Shogun Tokugawa Lemitsu expelled all Christians from the island, in fear of the growing Catholic population and the rebellions that these groups were causing.  Had Tokugawa not expelled the Christians, it is likely that, with time, a Catholic Shogun would have risen to power.

An allegiance to the Pope may also have fostered an alliance with France and Spain; and had Japan been on the side of France and Spain during the Seven Years’ War against England, it is likely that the British would have been defeated.  Such a defeat would have made the colonization of America by the British unlikely—reshaping the world as we know it."

#1 The Death of Ogedei Khan (1241)

"In 1241, Ogedei Khan—the Emperor of the Mongol Empire and son of Genghis Khan—passed away.  Shortly before his passing, he had approved of a plan to invade Western Europe, aiming initially for Vienna, Austria, and continuing towards Germany, Italy, France, and Spain. This operation was to be carried out by Batu Khan.

Upon Ogadei’s death, a number of Mongol princes held an election, and chose Guyuk Khan to lead the Empire—but not before five years had passed.  By the time Guyuk was in power, Batu felt too old and weak to invade Western Europe, and the Mongol Empire would never again come close to conquering the region. At around the same time, the basic ideas of “modern” banking and the concepts of capitalism were being developed in Austria.  A Mongol invasion at such a time could very well have ended these early forays into what is currently the most prominent economic system in the world."

It is certainly questionable whether any of these events is “forgotten.”  What is undeniable, however, is that the list emphasizes the events’ historical significance in counterfactual fashion – in terms what they prevented from happening, rather than what they caused.  

Each of these scenarios plays on our nightmares about events that were “near misses” or “close calls.”   In appealing to our emotions, counterfactuals rhetorically heighten the significance of historical events that would be more difficult to appreciate in conventional historical terms.

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