The other month I had an interesting discussion about historians and history. The issue came up of enthusiasts who style themselves ‘historians’ – but whose qualifications are in a totally unrelated area.
What was the difference between their stuff and what I’m doing?
There is a huge difference, I explained. Anybody with an enthusiasm for the past can proclaim themselves ‘an historian’ and be taken seriously as such by public and media, even if unqualified in the field. There was an instance of that the other week here in New Zealand, involving an idiot theory about pre-Maori Europeans. The problem is that being ‘an historian’ involves a lot more than collecting data and transcribing it – which is what enthusiast history usually boils down to. In fact, history is a field of intellectual endeavour that has to be learned – and the skill-set is just as hard to acquire as any other. However, those without training in the techniques don’t know this. It’s the Dunning-Kruger problem.
I explained that my work focuses on social trends and vectors: it’s a way of understanding how the societies and thinking of the past changed through time – shaping the present we know today. It’s about the human condition, a way of understanding our own present, and of what that says about our potential future.
The analytical techniques required for the purpose are shared to a large extent with other social sciences – sociology, particularly; but also anthropology and similar fields. But in contrast to other ‘social sciences’, history-as-discipline has a self-critical side and, indeed, is one of the few endeavours in the humanities that analyses its own approach. Needless to say, this ‘philosophy of history’ itself provokes academic arguments.
There is, in short, a world of difference between what a historian like me is doing, and what enthusiasts do. Alas, I explained, the problem comes when enthusiasts don’t understand the issue and instead regard me as an intruder into a territory that they feel they own exclusively, and which they must defend at all cost.
I still remember the way I was relentlessly abused in the media, way back when, by a cabal of enthusiasts in Hawke’s Bay. Their crusade began after I wrote several interpretative books on my home district and began writing regular history columns for the local newspapers. This triggered a systematic effort to damage my good name with a succession of increasingly derogatory fantasies about what they imagined my character and professional integrity to be, which they managed to publish in those papers.
None of them had met me, nor did they make any effort to do so, and their allegations made it obvious they knew nothing about either historical technique, my work, or my character. Then I discovered one of them had approached my employers of the day and repeated his fantasy rubbish directly to them. His allegations were so obviously ignorant and so obviously intended to do damage that he was laughed at. A little later my publishers got hold of me – he’d done the same thing with them.
It looked like this history enthusiast was actively and systematically trying to damage my ability to earn an income on the basis of an ignorant fabrication about my character that was trivial to dismiss. But that didn’t reduce the obvious intent. The guy either had balls of steel or was an idiot. I suspect the latter; he’d handed me an easy-win defamation case – he was so ignorant of me, yet so blatant in his anger and malice, it wouldn’t even have got to court. But what was the point in dignifying his brand of gutlessness by engaging it that way? All I could have done was bankrupt him and made this total stranger hate me even more.
Still, it wasn’t a great experience, and it left me wondering about how far people can be led away from moral compass by their own insecurities.
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2017