Telling the Truth About the Past

July 13, 2009 | no comments
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Once upon a time — long enough ago that the specific issue and personality no longer matter — I took exception to an opinion-piece-qua-historical-article in the Salt Lake Tribune that, I believed, resorted to unethical manipulation of the historical record, distorting the past for humor in a way that also cast living people in a dangerously false light.

Every historian is going to have a personal view of past events and will occasionally take exception to someone else’s interpretation. Those honest disagreements are not of great concern. Neither are the inevitable errors that creep in despite all our best efforts at accuracy. Rather, I object to the manufacture of false history by putting lying words into the mouths or twisted behaviors into the biographies of people of the past.

The principles outlined here are equally valid for blogging about history. (I anticipate an objection to that from one or two people who have been barred from commenting at Keepa. Their unwelcome, however, arises not from their differing views of Mormon history, but from the unrelenting sarcasm of earlier comments.)

“Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” is one of the oldest tenets of Judeo-Christian civilization. Ancient secular wisdom requires witnesses to make an oath to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

Historians testify of the past and speak for men and women who can no longer explain their words and defend their actions. At the risk of taking ourselves too seriously, historians have a duty to those men and women – and to you, as readers – to tell the truth about the past to the best of our ability.

You have the right to demand that we honor the values of responsible historians. As expressed by the American Historical Association’s standards of professional conduct, those values include these points:

“Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities.” Especially in Utah, where the notorious “divide” causes such trouble, the past is important. Many of us have hair-trigger sensitivities to how our own stories are told, and it is a short-sighted and callous historian who does not take those sensitivities into account.

“The trust and respect both of one’s peers and of the public at large are among the greatest and most hard-won achievements that any historian can attain. It is foolish indeed to put them at risk.” I spend my days sifting through the records of Utah’s past more intimately than most Tribune readers will ever have the opportunity to do. The value of that effort gradually increases as I build a reputation for fairness and honesty. Its value would be destroyed overnight if I betrayed your trust for cheap laughs or religious partisanship.

“All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence. Forgery and fraud violate the most basic foundations [of our craft].” Forgery includes rewriting the words and misstating the beliefs of past Utahns, thus making them appear to say and believe ideas that were abhorrent to them. Fraud includes skipping lightly through generations of history, picking a fact here and a fact there, creating a twisted picture that misrepresents past lives and societies.

“Practicing history with integrity does not mean being neutral or having no point of view.” None of us pretends to be objective – an impossible standard – and each of us interprets the past through our own experience. Realizing that other perspectives exist, however, and that our own knowledge is imperfect, historians have a duty to be generous toward ideas that are cherished by others but which we ourselves do not fully comprehend. Anything else belongs on the editorial page and not in a history column.

“Doing justice to [others’] views means … to see their worlds through their eyes.” My greatest pleasures as a historian have come when readers whose worlds differ from mine have told me that I got it right. My bus driver thanked me for a story about a Catholic priest because he so seldom saw his own people depicted in Utah history. Following a column on Utah’s black history, a woman exchanged half a dozen messages with me before she realized that I was not black. My goal is to write charitably about all Utahns, celebrating what it means to be a Utahn regardless of whether the story reflects my individual past.

It is not possible in the space of 650 words to tell “the whole truth” about any event. But it is possible – it is obligatory – to tell “nothing but the truth,” to represent the past fairly even when events are condensed and people’s words are abbreviated. Out of respect to you whose backgrounds differ from mine, it is also obligatory for me to treat your stories as sympathetically and as courteously as my own.

If I ever do less than that, hold me accountable. Start with a protest to my editor.

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Cross-posted from Keepapitchinin — click here for comments

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