Cognitive Dissidents

This week the Modern British Studies program at Birmingham launched their first paper towards a discussion of #MBS2017.

It included the question “As we enter a moment of genuine crisis, are some kinds of history more important than others?”

The question is more controversial among historians than I would have assumed. This is my attempt to work out what I think about this, although I’m afraid some of the issues are intractable.

I think that history is inescapably political, and I think it is good practice to acknowledge and explore the politics that shape the histories we do. Others on Twitter this week disagreed, and with good reason. Emily Rutherford pointed out three problems that arise when historians treat their discussions in a way that explicitly evokes a political position, often assumed (among academic historians) to be left-wing. She wrote on Twitter:

  • I don’t think study of history must/should be pegged to present political/social circumstances
  • We don’t know what current PhD theses will turn out to be SUPER relevant in 20 years’ time, even if they don’t seem so now
  • At ‪#MBS2015 I saw a preference not just for pol/econ hist, but pol/econ hist from one partisan perspective

The dangers are manifest: the kinds of question MBS have asked are at risk of producing a homogenous, and self-congratulatory type of history, where dissident voices are excluded, and where approach is dictated by political correctness.

How some participants experienced the first MBS conference in 2015 confirms that these dangers are real. Most importantly, do we really want to talk in terms of a hierarchy of histories, where some types are better than others, where some topics or approaches are considered inherently superior? I think historians are right to worry about where this leads.

But I want to speak in defense of history that is explicitly political.

The two questions I would ask of any history (in order of declining importance) are 1. Is it true? 2. Why do it?

I don’t think I’ve ever met a historian, academic or otherwise, who thinks you can bend the rules significantly on 1: within the best of our ability we write true things about the past. But things get stickier when you start discussing 2.

Most historians (and the people who read them!) would agree that you have to have a good answer for 2: what is the point of doing what you do? And what I find hard is the idea that – however deep down – the answer always comes back to personal decisions that I would consider ‘political’.

This is a view of politics that extends beyond the question of ‘how you vote in elections’, which is one way Emily Rutherford put it in the Twitter discussion. It’s politics in the sense of: who (or what) gets to have a history, what factors do we consider when writing history, what do we owe to the people we write about, and similar questions.

The obvious objection, and a good one, is that how our histories are ‘political’ in this sense is beyond our power: as historians we do not have such a capability to instrumentalize our materials. Once we write our articles, books, or blog posts, the words escape us, take on a life their own, and recirculate in ways we may not like.

But surely we write them with an intention for how we hope they are used and understood? That’s the sense in which I think history cannot help but be explicitly political.

And in response to the criticisms of the effects this can have on a conference such as #MBS I would suggest that there are equally worrying consequences of not asking the political question.

The obvious one, and one that I have as yet to see convincingly deconstructed, is that there is no such thing as ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ history, and to pretend so is intellectually dishonest. We all bring specific questions to the history we study, and yes, those questions are informed by our politics. I have always felt that explicit reflection and exploration of those positions makes for clearer and more coherent work.

What goes along with the myth of objectivity is a willful blindness to shared assumptions: if we do not have conversations about the politics that inform our histories, they will go undiscussed. And much as dissenters like to question the political homogeneity of academic historians, I think the evidence suggests fairly strongly that most of us do align along similar political lines.

Do I think my politics are ‘right’? Most of the time. Do I doubt them? Always. Will our conversations about the purposes of history be better if we shy away from the hard questions of what our political commitments encourage us to do? I do not believe so. Better to openly discuss political difference, I think.

I also worry that academia, and left-wing politics for that matter, have a fetish for critique which undercuts the value of what we do. (I am conscious the same thing could be said of the desire to ‘politicise’ MBS, but I’ll leave that to someone else). The critiques of MBS concern me, because (even though I am not a British historian) I went in 2015 and I thought it was bloody amazing: there were a huge number of stimulating discussions, and to be entirely honest, they did not feel like discussions where political positions were ‘policing’ what people could say. They were heartfelt, hot, and difficult.

So why the upset about the question one year later?

I am concerned that sometimes academics are too good at critique. Where is the love for what was (I felt) an amazing and impressive conference?.

Could it have been more inclusive (in terms of disciplines, time periods, without discussing participation)? Yes. But the organisers are clearly thinking about that for next year. Were there opinions I disagreed with? Many. But it seems to me a sign of the health of the conference that such diversity was on display. It’s evidence that the conference already was ecumenical.

Finally, I want to raise a specter: is the problem with #MBS ‘political correctness gone maaaaaad’? To complain that the explicitly political appeals in the working papers and at the conference itself are damaging to a broad view of what history can be sounds (to me) worryingly like a claim that certain opinions are not acceptable.

To which I would say: they aren’t.

I don’t want to see racism, anti-semitism, homophobia, transphobia, or sexism at a conference, and the fact of the matter is that in the current political climate in the UK, all three have been worryingly permissible.

I’m not saying that if you felt your politics was excluded from MBS you must be a racist, or sexist etc. What I am interrogating is why some voices so clearly feel policed by the left-wing, when my own (admittedly extremely privileged) experience suggests an openness among most academics to a variety of political opinions.

So let me finish with some positivity in this time of ‘crisis’.

I felt #MBS2015 already included a diverse range of opinions, and I suspect (as I have said many times) that I don’t disagree with the historians who I have debated these questions with online, and in person. I also strongly suspect that much comes down to the definition of politics, which I clearly see in broad terms, as a child of the feminists and the New Left.

With this sense of politics, I am left wondering, how can history NOT be political, without a profound personal and collective sense of cognitive dissonance?


10 thoughts on “Cognitive Dissidents

  1. This is more than just a very interesting post – it’s an important one. Your words have certainly taken on a life of their own, so forgive me if my response is actually quite far removed from what you intended (I did not, for a start, attend MBS, and so am unable to comprehend fully the context here). There are so many threads to pick up, but I will limit myself to just three:

    On ‘policing by the left wing’, it’s partly a numbers game. Academic history in the UK is presently a left wing pursuit. The number of people who identify as being some variety of conservative, on my own hunch, is very small indeed: meanwhile, a THE poll before the 2015 General Election revealed that the number of academics in the Arts and Humanities planning to vote for the Conservative Party was about 2% – a statistical error away from zero. When the numbers are so stacked, it’s probably understandable for some to feel that their views will not be taken seriously – indeed, cannot be taken seriously – even when the experience is often so, well, as you say, ecumenical in spirit. If all history is political, and virtually all historians are a shade of red, then many who are not will simply choose to keep their heads below the parapet.

    The stacking of the numbers for so long a time has resulted in an environment where the language historians speak can frequently not even be comprehended by epistemological conservatives. Virtually all the theory we regularly use emerged from the continental Left, becoming, in time, the language of the ‘New Left’: Foucault, Sartre, Habermas, Adorno, Anderson, and so on. As Michael Howard (the historian MH, not the Tory MH) once observed, their experience was one of defeat; and as Roger Scruton would say, not just from the ruins of WW2, but also the grim reality of Communism in action. To a critic of it, all this theory really amounts to is an attempt to insulate and defend Marxist philosophy from exposure to the senses. It would be threatening if not so baffling, but to many people who simply do not accept some of the philosophical and political premises on which it is based, our reliance upon it as historians can simply leave the impression that ‘history isn’t for people like me’, that is, people who make judgments based on what they see, hear, or feel. It’s not just c/Conservatives who are left on the outside – it’s the ‘Old Left’ too.

    You’ll be waiting a very long time for someone to disprove the claim that objectivity is a ‘myth’, or that history can be ‘unpolitical’ or ‘objective’! No evidence can be produced that would satisfy a person who believes such a thing, and as an epistemological dilemma it’s therefore been kicking around for millennia. Similarly, though, no evidence can be produced to substantiate it: all an opponent would have to say is something like “well, by your own logic, what’s your motivation for making this claim?”, and so attempt to discredit it. To satisfy your critic, you would have to provide evidence; by providing evidence you would be suggesting a truth external to yourself, and so on. As a philosophical tussle it’s likely to be very unsatisfying, since all either side really does is try to shift the burden of proof onto their opponents.

    I’m hugely positive about the state of our discipline, though, and about the people who work on this extremely noble endeavour to make sense of the past. You’re right, I think, that a bit more confidence from those who are currently in the minority would not be punished in any sense. But excuse me now while I go and kick a few rocks…

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    1. I knew you’d have things to say about this, John! Let me echo the positive things I feel about our discipline, but also clarify the point about objectivity: to call it a myth is (I think) relatively uncontroversial among many historians today. In fact, I think it is relatively hard to find any defence of history that is ‘objective’: if this were the case, why bother with ‘new’ histories of 1789, or 1688, or indeed 376 or 1644, or whatever dates we choose… But that is not the end of the story: the question is with what do we replace it? I think there are plenty of answers to be found in how people have written histories since the 1970s.


      1. This implies to me a different set of issues, specifically, on the difference between the past and history, and what we mean when we say ‘history’. The historian’s finished product – ‘the history’ – cannot ever be complete and authoritative, and the process of sifting the ‘important’ material from the ‘unimportant’ will often reveal their prejudices – we all have ’em. I know well enough that when I see ‘1688’, I think ‘Glorious Revolution’ for a reason, guiltily ignoring the infinitesimal other things that happened that year around the globe. I don’t take issue here.

        But history as a mode of inquiry is a rather broader category – the question is: can we know things about the past which are true regardless of our own particularities? I do not want to live on Airstrip One, where my right to say ‘It is true that I went for a walk, with my dogs, between 11.31am and 12.06pm earlier today’ is taken from me. That to me is a truth that, while it cannot be relived, can be remembered, documented, proven, accepted. Historians will know that my testimony may be blurred, or part of the tale misremembered, and they might need to check for corroborating sources, but they don’t need to know my political preferences to make sense of the statement and to believe it – I’d like to think that all shades of political opinion would, if I can prove it, accept that it actually happened. The New Left view of me would, of course, be that I am somehow a spokesman for the bourgeoise, a capitalist, whatever that is, for making this statement and establishing a ‘truth claim’.

        It is hard to find a defence of objective history, and it is uncontroversial to say that objectivity is a myth. But that *is* a controversial statement – to make it, one needs to be fully immersed in a particular strand of post-war leftist theory – a group of theorists who were entirely committed to turning all cognitive processes into abstractions because they couldn’t deal with the fact that Marxism does not work once introduced to real people and real lives. To paraphrase Perry Anderson, these theorists circle around an absent centre – a total theory of themselves – where empiricism should be!

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      2. What you have said is very interesting: the Marxists and the New Left are attached to the critique of objectivity, because of their historical situation. You, on the other hand, have the privilege of being able to write the objective truth!

        But the point about the History MA 101 ‘postmodernists’-vs-’empiricists’-and-all-that-jazz disagreement, is that it is widely misunderstood.

        The claim that ‘all history is political’ or that ‘all history is subjective’ does not mean that all historians go around making things up, nor that there are no standards of truth to which they are accountable. It means that those standards are themselves shifting.

        What I object to in the idea that any of us sets out to simply write an account of ‘how things happened’ is not that the past itself has no existence outside how we imagine it, it is that history has no existence outside of the questions we ask through it. And to deny our own motivations in choosing questions and assessing methodology and sources, that is what I object to.

        Why? Because when we pretend there is an ‘objective’ truth we should all be striving to simply accurately uncover, we fall into the trap of privileging ‘authoritative’ discourses on the past, which you as well as I know are but dim reflections of past realities. What more ‘objective’ history than counting rioters, or measuring grain prices? Where, in ‘objective history’ would you put the space to imagine the known unknowns, the voices of groups that have been lost?

        There is more to be said, and the ideas are difficult to summon at 5pm, but I think there is something important here about reminding people that the critique of objectivity is neither a call for ‘anything goes’ nor a denial that there were real things that happened in the past. It’s all about the constraints we face writing about it in the present.

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      3. I recognise the old ‘existence before essence’ critique. The problem here is that the questions we ask of the past are not fabricated in isolation from reality itself. Our minds are conditioned by the realities around us, by the engagements we make the objects and personalities we encounter. So the questions we ask of them are reflections of the object as much as they are creations of the free will. In this sense, the artificial separation between the past and present, which raises past events to the status of the metaphysical ether, is, to my mind, erroneous. In short, the point of difference appears to be that I am willing to defer to authority: a person who engages with the past on a regular basis, through the sources that remain in the present, and who knows from encounters with those sources the questions that need to be asked of them, does have authority to speak about the past. And that authority is not the authority of ‘the capitalist’, but simply the authority of someone who has seen with their own eyes.


  2. Thanks for the post, Will. I’ll just reiterate something that Emily alluded to her post and which John also noted above. I said much the same as a comment on Emily’s post, but thought it would be worth restating here: We have a profession that is shockingly monocultural in its (formal) politics. (One might also add the lack of racial diversity, but that’s another post.) There are plenty of historians who are not especially ‘radical’ leftists and even a handful of old fashioned Tories, but well over 90% are leftist in their political partisanship. As any good social historian would tell you, such a deep professional ‘consensus’ – intentionally or not – imposes limits on the nature of our historiographical conversations.

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  3. I entirely agree that the homogeneity of academic political opinion is a problem.

    (A problem for whom is another question: what external validation do we need to prove that academia would be ‘representative’? Is the problem one for academics to address, or should we be trying to convince other publics that actually the spectrum of opinion we represent is preferable? UKIP academics, maybe even BNP, must exist (?!), do we want more to match support for those organisations among the electorate? Worst case scenario: BBC style ‘inclusivity’ which gives a platform to the 1% of climate scientists who deny climate change, or gives Farage disproportionate airtime…).

    But what is at stake is what we do about this (relative) political homogeneity.

    One answer is to explicitly acknowledge our political biases and make them part of our discussions with one another, and that is what I favour, because I think it is the best way to acknowledge our assumptions and starting points, and to engage in fruitful conversations.

    The other answer (which I would argue against) is to effectively ‘bracket’ our politics from our history. I think this is 1. impossible 2. misleading, and leads to 3. the concern about ‘[semi]silent policing’ that seems to have sparked these discussions.

    So I think one of the main disagreements here comes down to the effect we think that explicit politics has on debate: does it stifle and create arid partisanship, or does it reinvigorate and encourage flexibility and openness? I’m still with the optimists.


    1. Yes, I know there aren’t any simple or obvious solutions. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I suspect that increasing the number of people in the profession from working-class or racial minority backgrounds would actually widen the range of political opinions. Not that the WC or BME are especially right-wing, but I think some people who weren’t brought up in standard white, middle-class environments might be more empathetic to culturally and/or economically conservative views that are currently outside the mainstream of the profession.


  4. I wonder if the slightly-homogeneous political environment of History as a discipline is self-perpetuating? If, as a conservative undergraduate, you were confronted with a first-year History offering comprised primarily of protest history, I suspect you’d quite quickly find your way to the economics department.*

    * (At least in my New Zealand context, economics departments seem to be a fortress of conservative-minded social scientists. I suppose they have to go somewhere.)

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