bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Biggar Issue: the duty of the academic in public debate

Posted in Academic Practices, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 15 January, 2018

It is not often I am kept awake at night by something an academic has written. At the start of this year, I have found my sleep interrupted on consecutive nights by disquiet about a brief article. It appeared last week in the Oxford Magazine and is by Nigel Biggar.

The Magazine is, as it explains, ‘not an official publication of the University of Oxford’ and the presence of a piece in its pages does not imply the support of the editors, let alone any official endorsement by the University, for its position. The author in question may, as the saying goes, need no introduction, as his name appeared in headlines late last year. Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, he is the lead investigator in a project established last June to study ‘Ethics and Empire’. The views he has publicly expressed on the issue of morality of imperial actions have created a controversy and the article just printed takes the opportunity to reflect on that. It is in a manner that will not close down the debate but, instead, ensure it continues. It may be that should be welcomed, as deeper reflection on the legacy of empire could be salutary. My purpose in writing is not to engage directly in that important discussion but to consider the style in which the discussion is occurring. What has disturbed me and what makes me feel I cannot stay silent is that this most recent article displays the ‘rhetorical indiscipline’ its author finds unwelcome in others — or, rather, in its deployment of certain rhetorical techniques, it seems to me to be guilty of intellectual dishonesty.

This is not a claim that I wish to level against anyone but the printed text makes it difficult to avoid that conclusion. If one were to believe Prof. Biggar’s description, the controversy was created by an unwarranted attack on him and his research by an open letter, signed by fifty-eight Oxford academics. We have here an attempt to appropriate victimhood to himself, but this is no more convincing than the assertion of Cabinet Ministers during the 2016 Leave Campaign that they were ‘the people’ versus ‘the establishment’. He calls the open letter ‘a declaration of war’ but its immediate casus belli is not mentioned: that was a comment piece in Prof. Biggar’s name which appeared in The Times on 30th November 2017. It ran under the strapline ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’. Prof. Biggar himself would obviously not have been responsible for that title but he has at no point disavowed it. Many a casual observer would have assumed from those words that the article saw positive value in the British Empire, a position which is already a stock-in-trade of reactionary politics. It cannot sit well, then, with the University of Oxford’s efforts to emphasise that it is not, by its nature, a reactionary institution but, on the contrary, an inclusive place for all, whatever their ethnic or social background. The timing, appearing just before the Oxford admissions process was taking place, when those efforts have an especial importance, could not be more damaging. In that context, it is unsurprising that many responded to an article with exasperation or even anger.

Reviewing the fracas that followed, Prof. Biggar complains: ‘none of the signatories had take the trouble to raise their objections with me directly, face-to-face.’ This would have some traction, if it had been shown how Prof. Biggar had attempted to engage with these colleagues in the preceding months or if he had described how he had solicited opinions of his article for The Times before publication. That he has not provided any such evidence leaves open the worry that this is another rhetorical manoeuvre.

The deployment of these argumentative techniques is disappointing because it distracts from the valid points that Prof. Biggar has to make. For instance, he notes that the lead author of the open letter, Prof. James McDougall, has stated that moral assessments are ‘for most historians, irrelevant as well as inadequate’. Prof. Biggar responds by rightly points out how difficult it is for any scholar not to approach a subject with their own moral assumptions. In fact, if the study of the past requires dispassionate analysis, we might say that some topics are so laden with present resonance — are so unavoidably political — that the defy the distance and perspective that historical assessment requires. Those areas of study cannot, though, be sealed off from research and, of course, it is on those very issues that there is a public thirst for intellectual reflection. As a result, we have a duty to investigate, as conscious as possible of our own presuppositions, making them explicit and helping our readers appreciate the thought-processes which move us beyond prejudice to informed and rational assessment. It seems to me that such a method has been sadly absent in this debate.

This leads me back to the article which originally sparked the controversy, that in last November’s Times. It is perhaps in the nature of a comment piece which a newspaper is willing to publish that it is expected to be stronger in asserting a position rather than building up a tentative argument — and there possibly lies a fundamental difficulty for any academic in the public eye. The necessary caveats, the reservations, the expression of probabilities rather than certainties — these are too rarely what public discourse want to hear. The fourth estate turns to ‘experts’ so that they provide ex-cathedra statements which then can be waved as if they were piece of evidence or, equally as often, derided as merely the opinion of an expert. This obviously has become the fate of Prof. Biggar’s piece, but how it is written did little to protect against that fate.

As with its title, it may be that the text of the article has been mauled out of recognition from its first draft by the work of sub-editors and the demands of being confined to column inches. Even taking that into account, there are two elements to it which are so fundamental that they must come from Prof. Biggar’s pen. One is the certainty with which a position is asserted. The article is written less than six months in to the five-year project on ‘Ethics and Empire’ but it sounds as if the major conclusion of that project has already been reached. The article reads as post-rationalisation of an attitude already engrained, rather than a raising of questions for further investigation through the course of the project.

The second element involves the sense of the present use of the conclusion. Prof. Biggar suggests that shame at Britain’s imperial history is a negative emotion which should be counter-balanced by the positive quality of pride. ‘We British’, it is said, can take ‘pride at the Royal Navy’s century-long suppression of the Atlantic slave trade, for example’. Leaving aside the debate this claim has created about a ‘balance-sheet’ of good and evil acts of empire, my concern is the concept of ‘we British’. We are a nation enriched by the influx of Irish after the Potato Famine, Jews fleeing oppression from the end of the nineteenth century to the 1930s, passengers on the Windrush, post-War émigrés from the Indian subcontinent, Eastern Europeans who have taken up citizenship since 2000, as well as recent refugees from oppressive regimes. For a substantial proportion of ‘us British’, an imperial past has little relevance or, if it does, it is as the colonised rather than the coloniser. For them, the imposition of an identity that focuses on empire will alienate rather than embrace. To talk of ‘we British’ in a manner which assumes a monocultural tradition is, at best, woefully outdated.

Prof. Biggar, in response to the controversy, has stressed his right to freedom of speech. It is the case that academics should ask difficult questions and should not shy from saying what is not popular. There is, at the same time, for an intellectual who is trained in standards of evidential and logical reasoning, a responsibility to display those skills in debate, whatever the provocation to do otherwise. My fear is that this has not occurred in this case, that point-scoring has taken precedence over careful development of a valid point. Perhaps this is difficult to avoid when the quality of public debate at the moment is too often woeful. Academics have a duty to improve that, rather than to coarsen it further. We must suggest a solution, not be part of the problem.

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What is private history?

Posted in Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 27 October, 2013

In my new university, the department has a tradition of interest in public history in which it is justifiably proud. There is a Masters course coming on stream on the topic, and some of the research seminars which I am organising will engage with issues of interest in the subject area. Less ‘public’ has been the stimulating e-mail discussion between colleagues in the past few days over what definition of ‘public history’ we can share. I found myself sounding a little – a very little – like Raphael Samuel and urging that ‘public history’ is the construction of pasts by communities beyond academe, in response to a friend who had proposed that it was ‘the dissemination of research to constituencies beyond that of scholars in forms that allow non-specialists to benefit from, engage with and participate’ in it. Another colleague – who is director of the new MA – took time off from his research leave to suggest we need to combine both of those definitions. He quite rightly pointed out that histories are continually being constructed in public with the engagement of university lecturers. I would accept that and find attractive the sense of a dynamic process it provides, though my riposte is to remind ourselves how limited an academic’s success may be in moulding the construction. As I put it, using the example of the sixteenth century, ‘I would guess that David Starkey is less influential than Hilary Mantel or Philippa Gregory who are less influential than Justin Pollard, the historical consultant to ‘The Tudors’ series’. While there is much agreement among colleagues in Essex, I sense there is a tension in the literature on the subject which is unavoidable and reflected in the two central terms – public history and public historians. No one would suggest that the latter alone create the former, but the question becomes how central those trained historians (academics or curators or guides) are to the process of construction. The contrast, at base, is between ‘user-led’ and ‘practitioner-led’ definitions.

As I think through these issues, it is another brief intervention in the conversation which echoes in my mind. One colleague asked the fundamental question: what history is not public? What, in other words, is private history? There is, of course, an immediate answer: implicit in some discussions is the idea that writing from the ivory tower or the campus tends to be closed or inaccessible – or, to push this point further, useless in the ‘real world’. This might constitute the revanche of the ‘media don’, the reaction against the tradition – fuelled by the media – of disdain for those academics who stepped out of the tower and spoke to ‘the people’. That disdain seems itself to have withered, so much so that we may fail now to comprehend why it occurred (to that I will return in a moment). The attitude with which it has been replaced, though, is similarly problematic: it may be bien-pensant but it is also in danger of being patronising, assuming that a ‘public’ could not grapple with the presentation of a footnoted page and the high-falutin’ lexicon of academic prose. Most outside higher education might not care to spend their time reading so-called learned articles but that does not mean that they are incapable of engaging with them. Indeed, if the agenda of Open Access – both in its original radical intentions and its sanitised publisher-defined Author Pays version – has any plausible rationale, it is that a public can be interested in research that would otherwise hide behind firewalls and high subscription rates.

There is, however, another answer to the question which might provide a more fruitful line of thought, even though it queries the position of one activity often seen as part of public history. We take the private to be what happens away from the glare of others, in the home, say. That being so, the interest in the story of one’s close relatives is surely fundamentally a private pastime. It may be that investigation of it takes place among public records, and it may also be that the results become available to others, by posting on-line or through one of those television programmes that cash in on the ‘family history craze’. I am also conscious that Raphael Samuel saw this as a form of public history but what he seems to have had in mind was that accumulation of several family histories as a collective process. That is surely not the impulse for many of those who spend days of their retirement in The National Archives. Instead, it is about deepening the sense of their private identity by relating their own lives to their long-dead relatives. It reminds me of a Roman household’s populating of the niche by their front door with their lates and penates, their household deities who include ancestors.

This is not to deny that the understanding of a family’s story necessarily associates itself with wider narratives of, say, the experience of World War or the impact of industrialisation. Those larger tales, though, act as a backdrop to the more personal investigation; they tend themselves not to be a subject of interrogation but are, rather, accepted truths, partially understood. I emphasise this point because it seems to me that it may hold a wider significance for how each of us, as individuals, negotiate the multiple pasts of which we are part.

I return to the short-hand definition of public history which I began by giving – the construction of pasts by communities – and now wonder how often that actually happens. I mean that in two senses. As individuals, each of us makes use of pasts either from what we have been taught or we have experienced. How does that individual action turn into community past-building? An obvious response might be the development of national identity through recourse to history and via the invention of tradition, but that is often an imposition by an establishment on people who may have little interest in defining themselves in such terms. Equally obvious is the tradition of public history giving voice to those who have lost and whose memories might be suppressed, like the oral histories of the miners’ strike of 1984-85. This may involve existing communities bound by that memory or it may mould a community by privileging a shared experience which marks them out and makes them in some way exceptional. What, though, of communities not defined by a struggle or a trauma? A community as defined by geographical location, say? My impression, particularly for a defined area within a city, is that factors like population movement makes a shared identity weak. In the area I know best – Headington in Oxford – there is one person who, in effect, acts as guardian of its history – she has an excellent website to visit – but that, for most who live there, that past is little-known. In such a context, public history would not be a description of what is happening as much as an agenda for what should happen to heighten a sense of community.

Yet, as an historian, perhaps I am inclined to assume too much significance to placing ourselves in a context of time as well as space. How many people actually need to construct pasts for themselves? Do most of us, in our daily routine, live in a continual present, without a need to freight our actions with historical justification? Or, when we do make use of a past, how far is it partial, involving a reference to a single event rather than to a narrative? What is more, it may be that the arts of forgetting are as necessary for living as the art of memory. I sometimes wonder how we could walk down a street if we remembered all the people now dead who lived there, every act of violence or inhumanity that occurred there. We construct our blindness so that we avoid the curse of Funes the Memorious. Is this, I wonder, the identity of history in its public contexts, the jettisoning of pasts so frightening that they are worse than useless?

If, though, a natural tendency as private individuals is not to construct a history but to select elements from a construction, is the selection confined to ‘true’ history? We certainly blend what we know with what we believe to be the case or wish to be so; we make our choice from a range of ‘facts’, legends and downright lies. An extreme case would be the fashion – now thankfully passed – for ‘revisionist’ writing on the Holocaust, an activity that happened outside academe, had a depressingly high profile and end up in court: can we deny it the designation of ‘public history’? If we do, it is surely on the basis of its wilful mendacity, its failure to accept the evidence. That would mean that we are expecting something of scholarly standards to apply to all approaches to history, or that we would be expecting interpretations about the past presented in public to be reality-checked by academic historians. That, though, would lead us back to a place not far from that period in the professionalization of history as a university discipline when many academics considered themselves to be the past’s gate-keepers, where they believed their task was to come to an understanding of a complex of developments but insisted that such an understanding could not be simplified without doing violence to its integrity – the period, that is to say, when many historians wanted not to be popular and when the ‘media don’ was an exception and, to some colleagues, a figure of suspicion. It may be taken as part of that wider history that Stefan Collini has given to us in Absent Minds.

The reason why, in previous generations, the media wanted a tame don is little different from the impetus for the BBC contacting one of us nowadays – they want us to perform as an ‘expert’, with all the implications that has for there being some acknowledgement of authority. That authority, at the same time, is rather undermined by the frequent expectation of what the ‘expert’ should say, where the process of control lies with the producer not the interviewer, let alone the interviewee; the dynamic, then, is likely to reinforce established interpretations, rather than to revise them. This is far from the more radical intentions of public history, for which some have had the aspiration that it would do away with the need for experts and would challenge narratives written by the élite. As ‘public historians’, then, we are in danger of being made to deny the radical spirit of ‘public history’. We have to be aware of how limited is our own supposed authority but also how limited the purchase of history itself may be. This is far from saying that public history is a hopeless cause: on the contrary, it makes our involvement all the more challenging, exciting and necessary.