Musings of the Day: Mob Narrative vs. Historians. How Can Truth Survive?
Updated: Apr 15, 2019
“One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” ― Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.
What do we know of history?
More pertinent perhaps is how do we know of history?
The traditional answer has been as a transmission from a source of authority, be it village elder in generations past, to modern scholar. The medium was either by rote memorization, be it in person, books, or knowledgeable examination of artifacts. But now, a growing number will say the internet, and increasingly this means Facebook, YouTube, Pintrest, or other crowdsourced social media.
I shudder each time I remember someone stating they learned of some historical narrative from Wikipedia, which prominently states itself that it is not a reliable source.
Yet day after day many blindly cut and paste an article directly from Wikipedia without knowing the sources from which it was derived, the censorship imposed on it by the crowd or random editors, or the discussions as to what was omitted and included and the merits of each.
Sadly, few outside academic circles will discern the difference between peer reviewed, primary and secondary sources, history vs. historiography, or the different approaches various schools of history can take. Yet increasingly today the plebes have the power to magnify their voice and influence well above the audience a professional historian held a few decades ago.
How much does this “mob narrative” of history shape the public’s view of history, and in turn how much does public attitude and pressure effect the bias of a historian coming from, writing in, and producing works for that community? Few historians are immune from public pressure, and all too frequently the halls of academia have become chambers that seal out open academic investigation and discourse in order to placate disruptive factions fed on a steady diet of “clickbait”.
“More people can see a YouTube video made without any professional filter than are exposed to the works of some of the most disciplined and prolific historians of all time. How this shapes society, and in turn how that society will then influence historians, will need to be examined and debated for some time.”
There is already a disturbing reversal of academic rigor and discipline taking place in many parts of what had briefly emerged as a more tolerant global environment. Where 20 years ago we were seeing increased access to information, robust and varied academic discourse, free range of research, and ingrained Socratic methods, today in places like Russia, South Korea, Turkey, China, even the United Kingdom we see a stifling of all of these by various legal, economic, and social means.
While restrictions on academic inquiry and discussion of history in places such as China and Russia are somewhat expected to occur in parallel with a general to former totalitarian controls, what was not expected was employment of these repressions against academic inquiry in other nations that espouse liberal democratic values such as South Korea, the United Kingdom, and some would argue Turkey. This presents a number of interesting problems. One; what is the driving force behind the regressive dictatorial policies in these nations? Is it the need to build a new ethnic based ultra-nationalist identity devoid of the pesky counterweight of the historical record as in South Korea? Or is the political need to transform the public discourse on “tripwire” current event topics by transforming and restricting the narrative of the past in order to reshape the discussions about current policies and cultural transformations without the political ramifications as appears to be at work in the United Kingdom? Of is both of these similar issues driven by a general “crisis of confidence” as has recently been opined and will be discussed further below?
The second problem is far more reaching. How can scholars in the remaining free academic realms judge material without understanding the potential biases that are encased within it? While this is supposed to be par for the course in any examination of primary and secondary sources, the lack of openness about academic repression and influence in purportedly liberal democratic nations bears with it the potential to slip by this filter undetected. If one were to pick up a book published from a University in China or Saudi Arabia for example, the reader would know that there were biases and censorship upon the works and adjust accordingly. However, less well-known today are the extreme biases and pressures the South Korean government imposes upon it’s academics (and recently even journalists) who fail to follow the state sanctioned “party line” in history. So the question arises are American academics aware that when they research a publication from Sejong, Seoul, or Ewha professors that there are the same potential influences that exist in Russia, Saudi Arabia, or China for information biased to conform to a false or misleading narrative?
Crisis of confidence?
We expect the Taliban and ISIS to destroy history and artifacts that go against the grain of their perceived history. We don't expect it from purported democracies like South Korea, the UK, and arguably Turkey. As Victor Davis Hansen noted recently, these nihilistic attacks on history could really be about a deeper crisis of confidence in that society, where the insecurity drives a deranged need to attack the past, any past, that conflicts with a created self-image divorced from reality. In the recent past, democracies would have a spirited debate on the issues, sometimes finding common ground, but sometimes not. However, the populous was left better educated on the relevant facts and could decide for themselves. Lately, historical discourse has been more about a single "approved" narrative that all too frequently attempts to obscure the real historical records. Placing one’s head in the sand and hoping the issues will go away seems to be the current fad. However, creating a false historical narrative means that eventually the sand will blow away, and the damage in delaying the inevitable debates will be much greater.
The first key of course, is to keep one’s head out of the sand, clearly recognize the problem and discuss it in the open, as painful as it might be. Realizing that one has been "bamboozled" is a step towards breaking free. But even then, that might not be possible. Carl Sagan, though not a historian, was very perceptive when he observed the following in his book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, about people who have been caught up in a false narrative: “One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.” Especially if this bamboozle appeals to emotional concepts of self or group.
John Martin Vincent succinctly noted that these myths, when enshrouded in a national need to create a history, can be compelling and tend to take on a growth of their own in each generation, perpetuating an evolving narrative that meets the needs of the time. “The stories of St Ursula and William Tell illustrate very clearly the constructive process of tradition-making when the matter appeals to popular sentiment. The expansion was not due to more recently discovered facts, but to the desire for more detail and more explanation. In the one case pious deception came in at intervals to stimulate devotion and served to accelerate the growth of details. In the other, patriotism and admiration of heroism called out deviations from the first anecdote.” - Historical Research: An Outline of Theory and Practice.
History as religion. Hobsbawm noted the same functions but believed it was in the absence of real traditions and history that new ones were formed in a void. Vincent seems to state that rather than filling a large vacuum, that the codification of invented or embellished narrative serves the evolving needs of society to fill emotional and identification details as time progresses. As cathartic as this might be it is not history, it is fiction. Which brings us to another point that contributes to the “mob history” that develops false or misleading narratives.
The title of “nonfiction novel” is really a euphemism. As the novel format and its inherent lack of checks and balances places it clearly in the opinion or fiction column. From Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood , Randall Wallace's Braveheart, to the horrendously obvious inacuracies injected into Unbroken by Laura Hillebrand, the genesis of sensationalism of history to mass market it, but at the expense of facts, perhaps got it's start in this genre. Unbroken for example, was oddly selected for adaptation into a movie over Louis Zamperelli’s very own book on the subject matter co written by a screen writer (Devil at My Heels). This potentially illustrates in the most obvious and grotesque fashion that it isn’t the adherence to the truth, but a desired emotional narrative that was important. The nonfictional novel genre feeds the desire for a largely fantasized narrative that provides grist for either an individual or national narrative need, rather than a clear presentation of facts. As a case in point, Unbroken was not only selected for the movie adaptation above Zamperelli’s own book, but clearly proven errors in Hillebrand’s work were cut / pasted by millions in the social media realm despite the fact they were demonstrably false. Hillebrand herself was reported to avoid answering questions regarding these errors when they were discovered. An avoidance that would not go unanswered in a more responsible academic setting.
Without the clear peer review, without a firm foundation within the public of not only the historical record, but more importantly how to question the information being presented, errors like this magnify andto the horrendously obvious inaccuracies injected into these errors were being picked up and cut/pasted in other published works. Hillebrand may have begun the bamboozle, but few wanted to stop it. Which is odd considering the minor points that were in question did not take away from the overall theme of the narrative, nor the other historical points that did agree with the historical record.
Once this kind of bamboozle is recognized, if one stands any chance of breaking the trap, the ignorance must be dispelled. This requires learning history and the process of historical inquiry. But too often today that comes from social media of dubious origins. Many professional YouTube videos are convincing on an emotional level, but fall far short on a factual basis. Is shaking the “bamboozle” possible when emotional appeals on Facebook and YouTube are so effective at breaking through reason and more experienced voices?
What happens when those emotional appeals begin to affect the better judgement of historians and biases their craft? How much more difficult in dispelling false narratives is it when historians have been “bamboozled” and are now lending the weight of authority into the mix?
And that brings the discussion full circle. Frequently within even the peer reviewed academic circles, there is a tendency to follow the single narrative groupthink approach to history vs. researching the facts and coming to an original conclusion. Mob rule in the halls of historical publishing has sadly crept in. Too many times shortcuts and cut/paste writing has demonstrated clear gaps in the research. Especially in certain subject areas, historians need to collaborate with specialists in order to correctly process and interpret the data. Yes, frequently this does not occur. Specialist studies groups research conflict sans a military expert, science history is written without scientists input or review, etc. This process is exacerbated by the twin factors of the increase in politicization of history and in some cases, a canonization that borders on religion.
These topics need to be discussed in detail and specific subjects where this occurs brought out. However, this blog post will only raise the questions and set the specific topics for another time. It should be enough to highlight the need to emphasize a greater skill in presenting professionally developed history in a manner that can at least compete with the mob produced, mass consumed, narratives. In addition, to shake free of so many “bamboozles” in history that currently are ensconced in the collective consciousness, a renewed focus on academic freedom, debate, and Socratic discourse should be inculcated into everyone’s ethic. Will the “mob” process prevail, or will historical discipline make a comeback? History only knows.
These topics need to be discussed in detail and specific subjects where this occurs brought out. However, this blog post will only raise the questions and set the specific topics for another time. It should be enough to highlight the need to emphasize a greater skill in presenting professionally developed history in a manner that can at least compete with the mob produced, mass consumed, narratives. In addition, to shake free of so many “bamboozles” in history that currently are ensconced in the collective consciousness, a renewed focus on academic freedom, debate, and Socratic discourse should be inculcated into everyone’s ethic.