June 25, 2024

Historical studies and truth to power

 I dislike histories where the author assumes their personal moral commitments are on the plane of the universal and metaphysical, and then spreads those assumptions all over their historical topic, a style that used to be called "whig history". One aspect that grates me is the egoism--the subtle need to communicate to the reader how much better the author understands things in hindsight than did the people who lived through the events. But there are deeper problems.

For it is surely of much greater benefit to our present to understand the specific rationale of actions later understood to be evil or harmful, then it is to make clear to a reader that they are "beyond the pale" to you in the present. This is bad historical method and is not very useful beyond demonstrating that one holds the current "right" ideas on the subject.
Detaching from snap moral judgements doesn't mean evacuating your moral commitments altogether, it means presenting them in way that respects the sensitivities of multiple readers, including those that disagree with you. For example, a western feminist scholar might disapprove ethically of "polygamy" for example. But instead of condemning it directly or negatively psychologizing those who engaged in it, that scholar could demonstrate some of its negative unintended effects and their larger social implications, without demonizing the institution and everyone part of it, as a whole.
It used to be that critical reviews could hold the tendency to whiggish moralization partially in abeyance, but anymore I wonder. I just completed an otherwise excellent book infused with this sort of moralistic rhetoric. Why do some scholars choose to write this way?
I speculate, but I think it might because I and many progressive scholars embrace an ethos of our work as "speaking truth to power", which was a concept coined in 1942 by Bayard Rustin in a pamphlet on nonviolent resistance to describe the role of a religious group. Applying it to historical studies is an inherently "whiggish idea", for it assumes that truth is out there among the masses or in the archives, merely suppressed by a powerful minority, and can simply be picked up and made visible by the scholar who tells their audience which group was right and which group was wrong.
At the same time, this imagination of "truth" must contend with a social backdrop of the loss of societal-level meta-narratives, the dissolution of truth into multiple perspective-bound truths. In the context of postmodernism, perhaps the whig style helps to broadcast and define communal boundaries within a larger community of scholars, demonstrating who is in, and who is out of a particular moral community.
Beyond speculations as to motivations, I think there are excellent and interesting ways to do morally committed history, that are more effective than placing your hand on the scale of the winners or the scale of the losers and saying, "I'm with them".


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