Shot by both sides – a historical experience

Does anybody remember the old ‘Magazine’ number from 1978 – ‘Shot By Both Sides’? That phrase, to me, sums up one of today’s major problems. In this world of polemic, where debate is so often reduced to two simplistic positions, somebody who doesn’t agree with either risks being attacked by both sides.

I’ve run into this in my historical work. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, so-called ‘post-colonial’ thinking burst upon New Zealand’s historians, overturning older understanding of how and why society had evolved its particular characteristics. Here in New Zealand the first expressions of post-colonialism – like any novelty – lacked nuance by later standards. In particular, they fell into the trap of reversing older approaches, which meant that those older approaches still defined the new. However, the first post-colonial works were also hugely influential. I can think of at least two academics whose 1980s-era PhD theses became best-selling books, after which any other historian either had to do obeisance to their specific claims, or be declared both wrong, and – usually – condemned as advocating whatever the post-colonial approach demonised, whether the historian had or not. The effect was to snap-freeze thinking in its mid-1980s incarnation for most of a generation, making it difficult to fully explore the important historical paradigm that had been unlocked.

My experience of this was salutary. Back in 2006 I wrote a book on the New Zealand Wars of 1845-72. This drew attention from New Zealand’s academic book review quarterly – a magazine that often appeared to me as little more than an exercise in academic onanism by a little in-crowd of intellectual snobs. Not all reviews were pretentious, but many were – and all passed through the one editorial desk. From their review of my New Zealand wars book I discovered that anybody who wrote on that topic had to be judged against the all-powerful historian who had written the PhD and book outlining the first ‘revisionist/post-colonial’ view of those events in the 1980s. New work either did obeisance, or was wrong. And, of course, anybody who dared openly challenge him was automatically a heretic. So you can imagine how I was treated for daring to question the guy’s military claims (which were flat out wrong, right down to the empirical facts).

There was a kicker. The author of that book got angry and swore – live on national radio, merely when my name was mentioned. Now, I was at university with that guy. Did he contact me for a discussion? Uh…no. Just bottled his anger up until it exploded on radio to the nation. This was his problem, not mine.

Actual photograph of an academic debate over history.

So where does ‘shot by both sides’ come in? Despite the unassailable position of the first post-colonial historians, more nuanced thinking eventually emerged as time has gone on. This later analysis doesn’t dispute the over-arching approach, but does add depth and, at times, poses new questions. In short, there has been a shift away from the more extreme ‘reverse the old’ approach into a broader perspective. This is to be expected; thinking matures as time goes on. That doesn’t mean the broad premise was wrong: it means that the study has had time to unfold. And at this level, history must be a discussion.

In some public circles, though, that 1980s thinking with its breathless and indignant reversal of what had gone before, and its re-framing of concepts in period monetarist terms – notably via buzzwords such as ‘agency’ – still defines what ‘historians’ apparently say. And that has fuelled a backlash in New Zealand, mainly from non-historians angry at the social change of the past generation. These people have responded to it by (a) hating on qualified historians, who by some bizarre logic they blame for the social change; and (b) restating discredited colonial-era assertions about the past. Ignorantly.

I discovered this when I wrote a book on the Treaty of Waitangi – the founding document of the New Zealand state, which remains crucially important today. It is a living document. In this book I discussed aspects of the way the earliest post-colonial historians had simply reversed the mid-twentieth century view, before thinking took on more nuanced approaches. The backlash loons – who had no concept of nuance – took this as support for their own ravings. Ouch. Actually, I disagreed with the ‘backlash’ crowd, wholly and completely, at every level and in every respect.

You see the difference? In terms of academic history I was interested in exploring and stretching post-colonial territory in ways that went beyond the earliest reversal of the older views – to give the approach a depth and complexity of analysis that would also give it lasting credibility. I didn’t reject the whole approach: on the contrary, I was looking for ways to enhance it. This is how historiography works. Theoretically. I wasn’t the only one doing it, either.

Alas, this was too subtle for the backlash brigade. Once they found out I didn’t agree with them they focused the whole of their hate at modern society on to me personally – this to the point where I came close to making a police complaint relative to harassment.

So – when I wrote on the New Zealand Wars I had academics lining up to tear at me for daring to tip their latest sacred cow. And when I wrote on the Treaty I had lunatics tearing at me for daring to side with the new historical understanding. In short, I’d been shot by both sides. The possibility that I might view history as an analytical exercise, and not an emotional possession, did not seem to occur to either of them.

If you want to see what this is all about in practical terms, check out the book. Click to buy.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

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