"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth"
(Karl Popper, "The Open Society and Its Enemies" (1952))
One of the most uncomfortable things about researching recent history is when you step on people's toes because they have a vested interest in a particular narrative of events. But researching the history of recent events is like researching the ancient world; you have to look at where the evidence can take you. You cannot be selective in choosing to omit.
But that is not to say you might not omit something which may later come to light; that is as true of ancient history as modern. The only question is, do you do justice to all the facts at your disposal, and is your interpretation of events coherent, and taking in them all, regardless of your personal likes and dislikes.
The Daily Mail article on Ed Milliband's father, for instance was very poor history writing. Like many articles in the Daily Mail, it sidestepped context. If you can't establish a chronology, to see the order of events, and just pluck particular ones to suit, as they did, you are not writing history. A young man's diary entry is taken out of context as reflecting the views of the older man.
As Stephen Fry pointed out in QI last week, "facts" suffer quite alarmingly from a degree of decay, and what you look into may be overtaken by fresh evidence. Again, we can see a case in point - Hillsborough - where evidence buried away has only just come to light. But probably the most notable case is where new records come into the open through the 30 years rule, and events can be reassessed.
When new facts come to light, should we blame those who did the best job they could with their histories? I had a friend, Ken Webb, who had a very jaundiced view of Patrick Moore. "He's always writing a book telling you things, and then three years later another book comes out and it is different". Just as with astronomy, historical narrative can alter through fresh evidence, but without that evidence, the historian is at a loss.
History is the best you can do for the time. It is not perfect, and it is not static. It should aim to be, as far as possible, impartial, even where, or especially where one's own sympathies are concerned. The Daily Mail, with its lurid headlines about Ralph Milliband - "The Man Who Hated Britain" - is a case in point. It is not an impartial headline, any more than one criticising me could be called "Bellowing with Hate", the title of this blog. Lurid headlines, after all, sell papers, and invite people to read.
Hate is one of the great problems of our time, especially online, when people are not meeting and speaking face to face. This is something which the internet has encouraged, because it distances and alienates people from each other. All the nuances, the shakes of the head, the humour, can disappear out of the window.
I've always been open to meet people I disagree with and talk in a civilised manner, over a cup of coffee or tea. The face to face encounter is important, because it allows us to see the whole person, and not just the tip that appears on the internet. We are losing that ability to communicate. People prefer to shout at each other in Cyberspace than communicate. They need to meet.
And with that loss of communication goes name calling. That's been around for some time. Newspapers like the Daily Mail were here long before. Ed Milliband is branded "Red Ed". Already he is given an adjective which is intended to predispose the reader to pigeon hole him. Remember the Sun with the Falkland's war, demonising "The Argies"? Once we start calling people names, the opportunities for reasonable debate are lost.
Why I really hate name calling is after seeing the film "Hotel Rwanda" about the massacre in Rwanda. The use of nicknames, calling opponents "cockroaches" may have seemed like mere name calling, but it ended with violence. To call someone names like that is to dehumanise them, to make them non-people, and it seems something particularly common today. We label people at our peril.
I was reading an article today about how this has poisoned debate in America. Here's an extract:
"In poll after poll, Americans have voiced concern over the erosion of civility in modern life and human interactions, in government, business, media and online. According to a poll released in June by Weber Shandwick, 65 percent of Americans say the lack of civility is a major problem in the country and feel the negative tenor has worsened during the financial crisis and recession. Nearly half those surveyed said they were tuning out from the most fundamental elements of democracy-government and politics-because of the incivility and bullying behaviour.
Pier M. Forni, author of "The Civility Solution: What to Do When People are Rude" and director of The Civility Initiative at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore has this to say:
"In today's America, incivility is on prominent display: in the schools, where bullying is pervasive; in the workplace, where an increasing number are more stressed out by co-workers than their jobs; on the roads, where road rage maims and kills; in politics, where strident intolerance takes the place of earnest dialogue; and on the web, where many check their inhibitions at the digital door"
I'm sure that all of us, from time to time, say things online that we may regret. No one is perfect, but calling names, and getting into disputes where words are hurled back and forth is precisely the worst way to further any causes, let alone that of the truth. It becomes a vicious spiral.
Critical rationalism is an attitude espoused by the philosopher Karl Popper, which assumes that no individual has a monopoly on the truth. This is what he has to say about that attitude:
"We could then say that rationalism is an attitude of readiness to listen to critical arguments and to learn from experience. It is fundamentally an attitude of admitting that 'I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth.' It is an attitude which does not lightly give up hope that by such means as argument and careful observation, people may reach some kind of agreement on many problems of importance; and that, even where their demands and their interests clash, it is often possible to argue about the various demands and proposals, and to reach-perhaps by arbitration-a compromise which, because of its equity, is acceptable to most, if not to all."
But all of that is just an abstraction, unless we are prepared to meet people whose views differ from our own face to face, and talk and listen to other points of view. And that means, where possible, meeting face to face, otherwise all the mutual respect in personal encounter may disappear, as it does so easily in cyberspace. And then all we will hear is someone bellowing with hate.
And (if I can paraphrase Mark Forskitt) remember that this island faces immense challenges both immediate and long term, local and global, including unemployment, housing, justice, the balance of our economy, food security, resource depletion, population growth and climate change. A descent to name calling and pigeonholing individuals does nothing, not a single iota, to progress or promote any sort of solution to any of those. Those of us who take an interest, from whatever side, must act responsibly in a way that encourages and engages the wider public on these immense issues. There are no easy solutions and difficult answers need to have the understanding of and consent by the populace who will be affected.
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