Why the Truth Is an Insufficient Ideal

The Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins is very upset that the latest Hollywood take on Winston Churchill has him chatting to Londoners on the Tube. This is frustrating, Jenkins suggests, because it is an unnecessary falsification of the past. Jenkins is not a complete purist: he recognises the value of clearly fictionalised historical fictions, preferring television and films where the protagonists are fictional, even if the setting is historical.

What gets him is the pretence to historicity in shows like The Crown or the recent Churchill film. They pretend to be true representations of history, but actually they are full of falsehoods. They claim to be something more than mere entertainment, but they fall short of the factual rigour of histories.

I am suspicious of this argument, not because I subscribe to some kind of bogeyman postmodernist belief that truth and fiction cannot be separated. My suspicion has to do with two aspects of current discussions of historical (in)accuracy: the simplification of the problem, and the emotion and anxiety it arouses.

Before I explain the key simplifications, let me first suggest that Jenkin’s attitude to ‘truth’ is widely shared.

You need only pick up one of the many books that have appeared in the last 20 years about ‘creative non-fiction’ to get a sense of how rigid, and how defensive the declarations of truthfulness are in this growing field. With good cause: the field of non-fiction is essentially defined by authenticity debates. Considering how many authoritative writing guides warn aspiring authors that the only sin is a sin against the Truth, is it possible that the emotional tension of the entire genre derives from that lingering uncertainty? Is it too good to be True?

Consider another example: the outlets and voices that are most likely to vocally oppose the ‘fake news’ are hardly above suspicion themselves. Unsubstantiated claims, distortions, and outright lies thrive in the same discourses that thunder for the simplicity of Truth.

I am not asking historians to lie. I am asking them to think about the company they keep.

There are no simple criteria for Truth.

The facts alone cannot be our crutch.

For all of the nit-picking of a journalist like Jenkins, or the historical wallpaper research of a Hilary Mantel, we lack the apparatus to agree what a historical fact is, which ones matter, and how as historians we assemble the bric-a-brac of shoe sizes and weather patterns into a web of Truth. I am thinking of the effect of reading Mary Poovey’s A History of the Modern Fact. And I am thinking of the insight that comes early to every student of history: the bits we care about are not only different to the bits others do, they do not add up to a coherent picture.

And ‘we’ are not building coherence together: truths built on consensus are not the answer. I am reminded of first reading Judith Butler’s account of her struggle for recognition in the patriarchal and heteronormative field of academic philosophy. Butler had a growing sense that the consensus that she was questioning was based on the unexamined identities of philosophers themselves. Her arguments were unhearable, because they were excluded before consideration. The relativism of truth identified by postcolonial and feminist critics is a fragile treasure, a call to constantly reexamine whose truths we are building, and on the shoulders of whose silences.

Nor is there much solace to be found in the answer offered by many non-fiction writing guides: self-authenticity cannot be the measure of truth. If the only way to assess what is true and what is false in historical writings is an appeal to the conscience of the author, this makes the crime of inaccuracy a crime of intent. What will we do with ‘honest’ mistakes? How will we account for self-deception, or the puzzling beliefs that some people hold about the past?

The problem with any of these attempts to rescue Truth is that they are built on an impossible binary. They assume that all truths are alike, all falsehoods are alike, and the two do not overlap. Is a crime statistic more or less ‘true’ than an artistic representation of criminal psychology in a contemporary novel? The question is a nonsense, even though both belong fairly squarely to the realms of what many historians would accept as true. And, despite what historians often claim, there are ‘acceptable’ falsehoods in historical nonfiction, such as anonymization or the use of pseudonyms to protect the identities of living people, or preserve the memories of those who have no right of reply. Some historians liberally employ metaphor, most obviously by talking about non-human entities as if they behaved with a human will, while others would consider this downright wrong.

I know the stakes are high.

Even before the epistemological and moral drawbridge was raised by Breitbart, or even the Daily Mail, Brexit, Trump, and the Canary, historians have had a vivid sense of what relativist attitudes to historical truth mean. Holocaust-denialism is just the most powerful and obvious example of a wider historiographical problem: the truth about the past is not just an academic debate, it is a matter of life and death, and the survival of entire populations. Choosing to lie about any aspect of the past seems quite simply contrary to the fundamental aims of academic history.

And yet.

There are problems with the status of historical truth that cannot be wished away.



The question – I think – is not so much whether lying is ever acceptable in historical nonfiction, but why so much effort is constantly exerted to police uncertain boundaries of fiction and truthfulness.

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