Cheryl Morgan, ‘The Objectivity Trap’

In the wrap up session for Creative Histories we talked quite a lot about the question, “Who gets to be creative?”, writes Cheryl Morgan.

That is obviously a major issue for the conference, but from my point of view a more pressing question is, “Who gets to do history?” That’s important because it can determine who gets to have a history. Interestingly all of these questions revolve around the same assumption about how history should be done.

The “Who gets to do history?” question raised its head in Ronald Hutton’s lecture. He spoke about how even the suspicion of having pagan sympathies was enough to damage his career. Apparently in some people’s eyes being a pagan makes you an inappropriate person to do history, particularly the history of paganism. There is a suggestion of bias, and perhaps even mental instability.

Similar issues were raised in Sonja Boon’s paper. Autoethnography is a practice that wears authorial bias on its sleeve, but is it history? Boon asked whether being a descendent of slaves meant that she would be deemed an inappropriate person to write a history of slavery.

These issues impact directly on my own work.

As a transgender person doing transgender history, I too am vulnerable to accusations of bias. Given that trans people are widely accused of being mentally unstable (most recently by Donald Trump), our ability to undertake any sort of academic inquiry is often called into question. Personally, I’m not happy with the idea that the history of people like me might get written by people who think that we are lunatics. I think their attitude might be biased.

Some of this, of course, seems rather strange. All other things being equal, who do we think might write a better history of Japan: a white man from Boston, or someone born and bred in Japan with a deep immersion in Japanese culture? Would we dismiss the Japanese historian as biased?

This sort of discussion is seen a lot in fiction circles. There is a Twitter tag, #OwnVoices, that is all about the fact that people with specific experiences can write more authentically from those experiences. All other things being equal, someone of Somali descent is likely to write a more authentic novel about Somalis than someone born and bred in London, even if the latter has a few Somali friends. Someone who lives with a physical disability is more likely to be able write about it authentically than someone who does not.

When such issues are raised we often see responses complaining about “political correctness” and stating that “free speech” means that people have the right to write any characters they want. Hopefully I don’t have to explain that this entirely misses the point. There is nothing stopping me writing a novel about gay men in Pakistan, but if my book is turned down by a publisher in favour of one written by an actual gay man from Pakistan I don’t think I have much cause to complain. To do otherwise would, I think, be an attempt at gatekeeping.

On the morning of the final day of Creative Histories, this blog post appeared on my Twitter feed. Conveniently it addressed many of the issues I had been thinking about during the conference. The author, who admits to experience of mental illness, is doing an MA, apparently in this history of mental illness. She is concerned about being seen to be too emotionally involved with her subjects. She writes:

However, some ways of interacting with sources appear to remain preferable: the ideal of the detached, objective, and supremely rational historian who surveys the whole of human history as his kingdom, ripe for the picking. It’s no mistake that I said ‘his’ because, in my view, this construction of the historian as fundamentally disinterested, merely questing after historical truth, correlates to a particular ideal of the historian: white, male, straight, cis, non-disabled and upper class. Arguably, part of the valuing of this ‘ideal historian’ lies in the idea that historians must be detached and above the material and sources, to gaze down upon it from some lofty height and explain it to the rest of us. The reason this ideal historian can do this is precisely because he is not considered to have a stake in the game. The ideal of the detached observer can serve to maintain the ideal of a particular type of historian as the ultimate arbiter of historical truth, their insights derived simply from cold study of the facts. What this actually does is cloud the ideal historian’s stake, which is exactly as historically positioned as everyone else’s.

To put it simply, we are being sold a story, and we are being told it specifically in an attempt to control who gets to do history, how they get to do it, and inevitably whose histories get told.

The truth is that all history is story. The clue is in the name. What should matter is the quality of the research, the insight, the analysis and the explanation.

Creativity, of course, often involves a certain level of dramatization in telling the story. In such cases we can see more easily that the writer is attempting to play on our emotions. We are naturally suspicious of such things.

However, we should probably be more suspicious of someone who attempts to hide their biases beneath a veneer of objectivity and detachment.

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