Tuesday, March 12, 2013

History as Moral Science

Did you know that hippies in the 1960s were smelly Satan worshipers, the Ku Klux Klan were avid community service workers, or slaver owners were nice people (aside from the whole slavery thing)?

I didn't. Or, more precisely, I would have doubted these arbitrary descriptors got at anything essential about the demographics they characterized.

And now I do, all thanks to a Grade 8 textbook on American history titled America: Land I Love, published in Louisiana. This delightful addition to curious and quaint examples of Americana also informs me that hippies wore ragged unconventional clothing, fell under the influence of rock music, and belonged to Eastern religious cults.

On the balance of probabilities, and all other things being equal, the textbook is probably not lying outright. Some hippie probably thought the Devil a pretty groovy guy, some Klan members probably did do community service, and (perhaps a little more controversially) a few slave owners, according to the times in which they lived, probably weren't all that bad. As regards the hippies, some of them did no doubt smell, did listen to rock music, and did follow exotic spiritualities. The Salon report linked to above may not be wrong that this stuff 'doesn't belong in a history book', but it doesn't do a good job explaining why.

All of the focus on historical details misses the point. The sort of judgments being foisted on unsuspecting youngsters are the problem, specifically because they judgments of moral condemnation and exoneration. This type of history is written with an eye to the way the author wants to see the world, not to the way things actually were. (Yes, that was me, channeling Leopold von Ranke.) The opposition between what we want things to be and what things actually were may be a little simplistic, I grant you, but it remains a valid one.

The middle of the 20th century was a forum for some pretty interesting debates about whether a historian should also pass moral judgments on the people they were studying. Some historians held that the study of human history should aspire to strictly scientific standards of factual accuracy and impartiality. Others were willing to grant that pure objectivity was a pipe dream, considering the subject matter: the thoughts and actions of other human beings. It was hardly possible, for example, to talk about Adolf Hilter and the Nazi Party without passing some sort of moral judgment. And even if one doesn't pass judgement explicitly, there is always the question of what motivates persons to take up the study of Hilter et al. in droves instead say, of cathedral communities in 11th century Santiago de Compostella (a topic which I personally happen to find fascinating). Moral concerns also exert themselves in indirect ways and some account must be made of them. The better way, the second group of historians said, was to distance one's personal judgments from the history one tells as much as possible.

Valid points are made by many participants in these intellectual debates. It seems to me, however, most participants misunderstand the essential nature of a moral imperative. For example, if historians ought to aspire to the strict standards of scientific accuracy or ought to hold their personal judgments apart from the historical judgment, a moral imperative sneaks back into the study of history through a backdoor.

The question is why moral judgments always seem to be encroaching upon the study of history. The answer is fairly simple and straightforward: historians are human being talking about other human beings. Never escaping the circle of humanity reflecting upon itself and upon the nature of its existence, like natural scientists do when they study the natural world, things personal, things subjective, things moral, etc., etc., never actually drop out of the historians equation.

Where does this leave us with respect to the Louisiana textbook? If, as I am claiming here, the study of human history is a thoroughly moral enterprise, then we have to think about the nature of the person passing judgment and the nature of the person that gets judged. As usually happens in the study of human history, the former person is alive and the latter persons are long dead. And, we know the dead don't speak for themselves--which is just a part of what being dead means. (The hippies, of course, aren't dead yet, but the point still stands.)

Now, the person who accuses someone long dead of morally abhorrent behavior had better be sure that their condemnation of the dead is not itself morally abhorrent. The dead are dead and gone. In a certain respect, they have already paid for their sins by dying. So if we are going to disinter their memories, to hold them up to make a moral point that the dead, because they are dead, cannot themselves take to heart, we better have a damn good reason for doing so. Because if what we are really doing is fighting contemporary moral battles in the pages of human history, we are being both cowardly and duplicitous by talking away from ourselves and refusing to own our own beliefs.

Which is why professional historians tend to eschew passing moral judgment, and prefer instead to understand what people actually thought and did. Calling slave owners nice people doesn't actually get at what being a slave owner was about. Nor does calling hippies smelly Satan-worshippers get at what hippies actually thought about life. Though these things may very well reflect contemporary attitudes towards of a wealthy white population towards a perceived troublesome African-American population. They may also reflect contemporary attitudes towards the perceived excesses of disgruntled youth.

What cheap moralisms do not do is allow persons reading the Louisiana textbook to encounter persons as persons. If the only thing the textbook ever does is present persons as moral exemplars of what to do and not to do, it has violated perhaps the most universal moral statement humanity has ever possessed: the Golden Rule, which St. Augustine systematized by distinguishing human action from human nature--hating the sin and not the sinner--and is still enshrined in legal principles like due process, habeus corpus, and being innocent until proven guilty.

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