Those are the two long-lasting lessons I learned from my history teacher in middle school. They're pretty simple, but important.
Don't just say they were stupid
This relates to explaining actions. She used it in the context of history. Looking back, humanity seems to have done a lot of really stupid things. Maybe now we can accurately say they were bad decisions, but at the time they didn't just make sense, they were smart decisions given what they knew and valued.
Look at old models of disease: thinking it was spread by swamp gasses or the idea of phlogiston: think oxygen, but the thought was that it was a property of the object rather than the surrounding air. Very wrong both of them. But before we had isolated oxygen or bacteria and viruses, they made sense. We know better now. Does that make us better? Not really. We only know it because we were told it. I doubt you or I would have been the ones discovering oxygen. Think about that next time you get a sense of historical elitism.
This is relevant now as well. People do not make poor decisions just because they are stupid. They may be ignorant, but that is a common problem: no one knows all the relevant facts except in pre-written word problems in school. We all must make assumptions and fill in gaps. This doesn't mean people are always making the best decision possible given what they know. They may use poor logic or leave out factors. All people do this, even you. Yes you too, you're nowhere near as brilliant as you believe; your inability to accept this reality is only a demonstration of your own mental flaws.
It's easy to just say people are stupid. Why is someone else in a lesser position? They must be stupid. Why are you in a greater position? You must be smart. Right? Wrong. I can't remember the exact phrasing, but in a book called Our America (it's about a couple black kids in Chicago projects) one of them says something like "A lot of those kids think they hit a triple. They're wrong, they were born on third base but they go around telling everyone they hit a triple." It's tempting to attribute everything to innate capabilities or individual choice, to simple dislike, or even hate, others just because of where they are in life. Don't give in to temptation.
Are you better than some people? Possibly. After all, there are smarter and stupider people; more and less creative; stronger and faster and weak and slow. However these things are not easily measured. Remember the social darwinists? I'd call them stupid, but based on my post I'm not allowed to. But let's just say they have a poor concept of evolution or superiority. At the very least the elitist asses like them are greatly outnumbered. Ultimately the only advantage they hold is the willingness of the rest of the world to let them live. Look at the French Revolutions and ask if that's something you want to press your luck on.
Historical facts don't say much. Think about the phrase and "The numbers speak for themselves." It's false. Numbers say nothing. If you can't speak for them, you are either inarticulate or don't understand them well enough. I've experienced this problem myself, so don't think I'm up on a high horse floating in the clouds above a world carried by an even higher horse. In fact I've never even ridden a horse.
History only means something when given meaning. The War of 1812 means nothing except if we learn something from it: why it happened, what we could have done better (that applies to either side), what it affected. When we give meaning to history we gain not just knowledge of the past, we see the trends which can predict, or allow us to alter, the future.
The US killed hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of natives. So what? That fact only matters if it can teach us something. Perhaps empathy for the victims, perhaps seeing why it happened so it doesn't happen again, or perhaps we learn more efficient ways to settle and dominate a region.
I have a blog laying around that I'm thinking of starting up again to put these sort of posts. That way I can keep a more 'pure' WoW/gaming blog. I've been toying with the idea for a few weeks, I'll try to decide over this weekend. As a warning though, it would be intended to provoke thought, not always to advocate ideas which I believe, so there would be some posts which I disagree with but post anyway. Besides, it seems rather pointless to make a blog just to advocate a position. Who is going to read it except people who already agree? I'd much rather get people who disagree and maybe if they think enough they come to my side. After all, just because someone disagrees doesn't mean they're stupid.