November 25, 2009

I had an interesting talk with a classmate today after seminar today. She’s from a psychology background, and I’m from the historical black arts.We thus have differing opinions about language and objectivity. Helen very much wants to hold onto the idea that objectivity is possible and desirable; I have my doubts about both. What I wish to present here is a defense of my position without in any way attacking hers, which I respect. Understand that all of this is coming from a person whose background is the telling of stories.

I came to understand fairly early on that the “bare historical fact” is a fiction. Everything a historian does is reconstruction from the best materials available, this allows us to be more or less accurate to the truth of the story we’re telling, but in no way are things evident on their face. Even a recording on audio or film can be misleading, as it is only a section of time bereft of context. We can’t see or hear or read what happens before or after our sources finish telling us things. We fill in gaps all the time with our best guess. In some cases an allegiance to “facts” can prevent a historian from presenting the “truth” of the matter. There come moments when loaded language (At least, more loaded than ordinary language) has to be used to describe events in history, because without that language the reader will not understand the importance of the event.

Today in seminar we were asked to choose how best to describe the Holocaust. Would we say
1. The country was depopulated
2. Millions lost their lives
3. Millions were killed
4. Millions were massacred

An exclusively “fact-based” method of history would lean toward option 1 or 2, as they don’t prejudice a reader. I think to not prejudice the reader in this case betrays the story. Option 3 or 4 must be chosen, because the reader must understand, on an emphatic level, what occurred. This is a frightening responsibility. People read historical accounts trusting that the historians will be telling them a true story, and at no point should a historian betray that trust. I think the same applies to science. More and more we scientists (natural and social) are being made aware that our perceptions and our measurements are contingent things, not inescapable truths. But the people we speak to are trusting us to tell a true story; this makes our choice of language necessarily interpretive, too.

It is no bad thing to be biased; it is a great responsibility to use that bias to tell the truth.


5 Responses to “History”

  1. Evan said

    AS a fellow graduate of the “school of black arts” I felt the need weigh in on what you say here. I completely understand what you mean about “bare historical fact.” If there was one thing that was drilled into my head, ad nauseum, by the professors at Dordt, it was the fact that bias permeates all historical work, no matter how objective one may claim to be. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. As you point out, it’s really impossible for any self-respecting historian to present the facts of the Holocaust without resorting to words such as “genocide” and “atrocities,” among a host of other words.

    Having said all that, I would have to disagree slightly though with your assertion,though. Even though I just admitted to the knowledge that historical work is rife with bias, as is any work, I would have to say there are “bare historical facts.” For instance, the Nazi’s invaded Poland the 1st of September 1939. I hold this to be a bare historical fact. Thus, I think it is not the historians’ duty to be as accurate as possible to the verifiable facts, not to use their historical biases to act as some sort of moral “barometer” for society. If the average citizen, without the aid of historians doing their best to impress upon them the horrors of the Holocaust, isn’t completely mortified by the sheer numbers alone (6+ million killed), I can’t help but feel that part of our essential humanity has been lost forever

    (Whew, well I don’t know if any of that rambling, nonsensical diatribe made any sense whatsoever, but I felt the need to comment, seeing as how I was a history major once upon a time.)

    • christophermahlon said

      On the one hand, I want to be with you 100 percent here, Evan, but on the other…

      Let’s go back to what you hold up as a bare historical fact: September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. So much of this is contingent linguistically. You could say the actual event is a factual, unchangeable thing, but our description of it, even the initial description of it becomes problematic. 1000 years from now, how much sense will that statement make? September 1, 1939 Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Will Germany exist? will people still have an awareness of the Nazi’s? Will Poland exist? Will we still be using this dating system? Will invasion carry the same meaning? Does the meaning of invasion sync up with the words used then? Will people still have an understanding of World War II, or will the conflict be seen as a quaint old fight that really didn’t mean much? What will people’s understanding of fascism be?

      Everything we know about WWII is built on our knowledge of the context and the background of Europe leading up to the actual fighting, *and* our knowledge, which we cannot un-know, of the aftermath; Nuremburg, the publication of survivor memoirs, etc. All of this knowledge is perfectly factual and concrete to us, but it isn’t necessarily so. In thousands of years the events of September 1, 1939 might not be nearly as self-evident.

      I guess what I’m trying to say is that reporting a historical event accurately is easier the closer a historian is to the event, but that at every stage even that reportage is subject to interpretation. The farther an event is from immediacy the more difficult it is to convey accurately. For seminal events, a World War for example, the cultural memory keeps events mostly straight for long periods of time, but just think: how many people do you know that have a decent working knowledge of World War I? That was only 25 years before WWII. As an event fades from cultural memory, that facts of that event will also fade and change. That’s why I think it is so important for historians to do their job well and choose their language carefully.

  2. Evan said

    Whoops, I meant to say that is the historian’s duty to be as accurate as possible to the facts. Not quite sure why I added the first “not” in there.

  3. Evan said

    Ahh yes, I see what you’re driving at now. I probably should’ve been thinking in broader terms. Acutally, this reminds me of a quote from “1984,” that I think displays perfectly what you’re describing here “He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future.” That is to say, of course, that those who control the writing of our history dictate the direction that our future is heading by dictating the lessons we learn. We can’t strain the comparison too much. Orwell was quite overt with his warnings against the influence of totalitarian regimes who would rewrite history to maintain their own power, whereas what you discuss here has far less ominous overtones. Nevertheless, I think it helps to underscore your point about the mutability of language and the responsibility of those who would right history.

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