When historians gossip about history

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Turns out, even the Father of History isn’t above a bit of gossip himself.

Writing of Herodotus, culture writer Charlotte Higgins (“The rest is history,” January 2009) lists down some of the more fantastical accounts in The Histories: “… we have a bearded priestess; a description of the embalming techniques of the Egyptians; a great number of mouthy women (including Atossa, the wife of Darius, whose pillow talk is supposed to have convinced the Persian king to turn his attention towards a Greek conquest); and the curious giant ants of India, bigger than foxes but smaller than dogs, who tunnel deep underground to harvest gold. That’s not to mention the steppe-dwelling Scythians, who wear coats made from human scalps; the musician Arion, whose life is saved by a dolphin; and the sheep of Arabia, whose tails are so long they drag them on little carts.”

FALSIFY FALSIFYIndeed. And the foregoing makes a greater point about “history” and historians: Anything a historian says is fundamentally hearsay because practically most of the time he was never there when the events he is reporting on occurred. Most of the time, he was never in the room when a “historic” decision was made or action taken.

Instead, historians report on evidence they gathered: testimonies, documents, photographs, etc. But witnesses can lie or spout hearsay, documents may contain lies or be faked, photographs can be taken out of context or be doctored. That is why this evidence, those things historians say they “hold true,” need to be constantly questioned (in court trial, the process is called “direct or cross examine”).

This effectively makes any historical “truth” — including particularly scientific facts — as so only for the present moment. In Popperian terms, they can only be disproved or “falsified” but never be proven as “true.”

ALWAYS ROOM FOR DOUBTPut another way, except for moral truths and mathematical laws which can be held as true for eternity, nothing else can be absolutely proven as true.

Because if historical “truths,” including scientific facts, are based on empirical observations, then there’s no way one can know everything. Everything historical or scientific always has that possibility of later being proven untrue. Admittedly, some facts like gravity, differences between men and women, earth is round, etc., experience (i.e., constant and continuous testing and experimentation), common sense, and logic will tell you it’s 99.9% true but that’s as far as it could go. There’s always that 0.1%.

“Historical ‘truth’ is subject to so many sieves: 1. The motives and the bias of the historian, 2. The evidence available, 3. The evidence selected as relevant and the material excluded as irrelevant, 4. One’s own historical standpoint, 5. One’s theory of history, 6. The soundness (or unsoundness) of inferences one draws from the present (relics, documents, artifacts, monuments, etc.) about the past. And others. Unlike perception, what is lacking is immediacy. This is the particular contribution of historians: to offer us constructs that should never be foisted as absolute truths but as tentative interpretations of data.” (Fr. Ranhilio Aquino, social media comment, July 19, 2022)

“Historians recognize that individual facts and stories only give us part of the picture. Drawing on their existing knowledge of a time period and on previous scholarship about it, they continually reevaluate the facts and weigh them in relation to other kinds of information, questions and sources. This is inescapably a task of interpreting rather than simply collecting data. Just as with any important shared body of knowledge, then, history is always undergoing reexamination and reconsideration.” (“Why do historians’ accounts of the past keep changing?,” National Council on Public History, https://ncph.org)

REVISIONISMThis does not mean that a past event has changed but rather the telling or appreciation of that past event is logically adjusted as more facts come in: “People who are not professional historians sometimes assume that historical research is a once-and-for-all process that will eventually produce a single, final version of what happened in the past. We often hear charges of ‘revisionism’ when a familiar history seems to be challenged or changed. But revisiting and often revising earlier interpretations is actually at the very core of what historians do. And that’s because the present is continually changing.” 

Hence why “revisionism” should not be considered a dirty word. Revisionism, done honestly and with humility, going beyond narrow ideological and partisan mindsets, laying openly old and newly discovered facts set in proper contexts, would be really good for our people in knowing the actual truth about past events.

WHY FREE SPEECH IS IMPORTANTThat is why it is inane for anyone to claim exemption from being questioned, particularly when that person vociferously imposes on others so-called “truths,” because the only way we can arrive at a “truth” is to continually question and test it, over and over again. That is precisely why we have the right to free expression. That right exists not for people to indulge in narcissistic displays of “self-expression” but rather because free speech is the mechanism with which we continuously test “facts” rather than have what we think or believe be dictated to us by “experts.”

To have the questions come from the “experts” alone is self-defeating. Every “expert” inherently comes with a bias, professional or personal. They can consciously or unconsciously be selective of the evidence they accept or reject (as we’ve clearly seen in the recent election campaign). Pride of authorship can also come in. Experts are also prone to human error. There’s this legal dictum that goes: “constitutional law is too important to be left to lawyers alone.” Well apparently, the same goes for history, it’s too important to be left to historians alone.

Absent that right of the people to unrelentingly question history and the “experts,” then so-called “history” is indeed just “tsismis” (gossip).

WHAT WRONG SIDE OF HISTORY?Finally, there’s that vacuously vapid threat so beloved by those that love dictating what others think: disagree with us and you’ll be on the “wrong side of history.”

The question is: who decides what is right or wrong? The historians? Many individuals have been labeled numerous times as being on the “wrong side of history,” including those with public positions in favor of international trade, in defense of Philippine territorial rights, or against lockdowns, mandatory vaccination, abortion, contraception, divorce, same sex “marriage,” transgenderism, and LGBT “rights.” So far, those positions have been proven right every single time. So far. Thus, as to whether anyone is on the wrong or right side of history, that is better left to being decided by one’s conscience and ultimately God rather than by some historian.

Jemy Gatdula is a senior fellow of the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations and a Philippine Judicial Academy law lecturer for constitutional philosophy and jurisprudence


Twitter @jemygatdula