I don’t do politics on social media, mainly because it’s such a minefield. I love politics and have my views, of course, but I choose to keep them firmly to myself. It’s hard sometimes, I don’t mind admitting, but it strikes me that the way the world is at the moment, the study of history has never been more important to the political world emerging around us all.
Article 50, beginning Britain’s exit from the EU, is triggered on 29 March 2017, the 556th anniversary of the Battle of Towton in 1461, the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil in which heralds reported 28,000 dead, as well as uncounted injured. Families were torn apart between two rival ideologies and leaderships as those at the top of society fought for supremacy. If that doesn’t offer a direct parallel from history, I’m not sure what does. Towton was apocalyptic, but it was also the culmination of years of trouble and it was a watershed in ending problems that had dogged the nation for a decade.
A perfect example can also be found at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, where a poster lists the early warning signs of fascism for all to see. When they begin to ring bells, alarms should sound loudly. It’s also important to remember that hitting one or more of these criteria doesn’t necessarily require immediate panic. The other point to consider is whether the sign at the U.S. Holocaust Museum, which recently went viral, really exists. In an age increasingly dominated by fake news, we need more than ever to question what we read, and that is why the skills that are integral to the study of history are so vital.
It isn’t a question of needing to study a particular period or adopt a certain viewpoint, political, ethical or otherwise. History as a subject requires a set of skills invaluable to the navigation of the increasingly murky world of multi-media; instant news thrust in front of our eyes on every screen we look at, often unbidden. News breaks on Twitter in real time, provided by real people with no filter. In some ways, it’s attractive, but in many more ways it’s dangerous. Visceral images and unregulated, often unchecked, information can be more unwelcome than useful in moments of crisis and can prove dangerous if it hampers the efforts or investigations of the emergency services. Opinion is a dangerous and incendiary weapon in the hands of those with unpleasant agendas, particularly when it is masked as fact.
Part of the problem with the abundance of news and the proliferation of fake news is that it’s hard to decipher the truth. Studying the past might seem like a dead, useless subject, but the skills involved, even more than the lessons of comparison, are increasingly something every consumer of news today should arm themselves with to combat the waning influence of a fixed bank of ‘reliable’ news providers (because there isn’t, and never has been, any without an agenda of their own). There is more information than ever before, and that brings with it the need to question it more closely.
The study of history is the dissection of fake news. It really isn’t the new phenomenon many think it is. Many medieval sources are chronicles written by monks who had their own agenda for recording and reporting the things they selected, often noting outlandish weather events to mark years with political events the Church didn’t approve of. Ralph of Coggeshall discusses the discovery of a giant’s teeth and skull, Warkworth describes a headless man roaming the countryside moaning ‘bowes, bowes, bowes’. Roger of Howden recorded blood falling from the sky on the Isle of Wight, staining washing that was hung out to dry. The Melrose Chronicle describes comets as portents of doom, recording that ‘a comet is a star which is not always visible but which appears most frequently upon the death of a king; but if it has a streaming hair, and throws it off, as it were, then it betokens the ruin of a country’.
We might think these things bizarre and laughable now, suspicions from an age before science dispelled such ideas. Strange discoveries, weather phenomena and apparitions were portents of doom linked to political upheaval or social disaster. I’m left wondering, as we sneer at the belief of our forebears in the supernatural as a portent of evil, just how different we are as politicians make apocalyptic predictions to fill the vacuum of their knowledge of a matter. If they can’t fathom the end, they can paint a picture that fits their agenda and promise milk and honey if we follow their line and doom and destruction if we stray. They are becoming modern parallels of medieval monkish chroniclers.
The study of history teaches us to evaluate sources, to seek corroboration, to establish the difference between fact and opinion and to weigh the evidence based on our examination. It is a fact the William the Conqueror became King of England in 1066. It is a matter of opinion that his claim was the strongest or was rightful. It is a fact that Edward II was deposed as king, but an opinion that he was murdered by the insertion of a red-hot iron as punishment for his homosexuality. Many of the things we believe are historical fact are actually reported opinion or rumour with a political motivation that have simply been absorbed into a narrative. The same is happening at the moment as we question less and less and accept more and more.
Empathy is another key part of the study of history that the world could use a little more of. Understanding the position of others, trying to fathom their real motivations, not the ones they offer openly to the world, is vital to understanding why people act as they do. This aim is achieved by the evaluation of a range of sources and is a careful process of weighing and measuring to reach a view, not accepting at face value the version provided by the person trying to influence you. Empathy is also the only rout to understanding the position of those without a voice, or whose voice is drowned out too easily. We should question why we don’t hear these voices and try to understand the needs and problems fuelling silence as well as noise.
Another crucial element of history is the understanding that the weighing of evidence results in an opinion, not a fact. Historians take a view, based on their evaluation, but historians cannot create facts, only uncover them. Thus, many historians hold the opinion, based on their study and measuring of the evidence available, that Richard III ordered the murders of his nephews, the Princes in the Tower. Others, with the same evidence, reach the opposite view. If an historian tells you they know the truth of the disappearance of those two boys, they aren’t telling you the truth because the facts are unclear and can only lead to the forming of a view that cannot be proven or disproven. When you buy a non-fiction history book, you are buying an historian’s assessment and opinion on a topic or a person. There will be facts that are used to formulate a view and politicians do the same thing, yet we accept their assertions as fact all too easily.
The ability to form polar opposite assessments of the same evidence means that the study of history is also the art of disagreeing constructively, responsibly and politely. I want to say dispassionately, but that might not be entirely accurate. Raise almost any topic on social media and an onslaught of opinion will follow that is none of these things. Trolls are cowards who hide behind a profile, there is no doubt about that. Plenty of trolls operate behind an agenda too that requires the bullying or inflaming of others.
I also think that the wider world, who are in no way trolls, has also lost the art of polite disagreement. Displaying passion is all well and good, but it is no excuse for being impolite, belittling the opinions of others or shouting down those with a newly sprouting interest that might require more information to build upon a foundation. No flower was ever grown by stamping it down. A flower requires nurturing with care and it needs feeding. We, as a wider society, seem to have lost the art of disagreeing with each other politely. We don’t debate, we try to shout down. We don’t freely give our view to be used as a building block in the construction of another’s opinion or even a wider understanding. Instead, we jealously guard and defend it.
The United Kingdom is entering a new phase, or more correctly, taking a step back forty years and returning to an old state of being. Some will see that as a retrograde move, a withdrawal from engagement beyond our own shores. Others will believe it is the undoing of forty years of a wrong direction or stepping away from an organisation teetering on the brink of collapse or a step forward to engage with the whole world instead of just the EU.
The truth is that no one knows what will happen. Those sounding portents of doom may be proven correct, but the delight some seem to take in that prospect is a self-destructive narcissism that risks real people’s futures in a desire to be proven right and to be able to say ‘I told you so’. Equally, those who paint a rosy future are guessing and hoping, which might at least be a positive position to take. The truth is that predicting doom or glory is pointless. The effort now needs to be focussed on achieving the best possible result because whether this is a direction you wanted or not, all of our futures rely on making it a success.
So, for what my opinion is worth, I think the skills involved in the study of history are more important now than ever before. We need to learn to question what we consume, to seek out corroboration, to look for agendas, to weigh and measure what we are exposed to and to build our views based on as wide an understanding as possible. Always ask who is showing you something and why they want you to see and believe it. We also need to understand that our opinion is just that. It’s not necessarily correct, not everyone needs to share it and it is strength, not weakness, to allow our opinion to be examined, questioned, modified and even changed. There is no need to shout. The truth is not necessarily spoken by the loudest voice. Sometimes it cowers in silence.
After the apocalyptic Battle of Towton on 29 March 1461, the new king, Edward IV, reached out to his enemies. He offered reconciliation, even making peace with Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, the military leader of the Lancastrian faction opposed to Edward. It was temporary and Henry eventually ended up back at odds with the House of York, but those we judge as less civilised than us knew the importance of unity in the building of a brighter future and saw the need to put old rivalries to bed. As Article 50 is triggered on 29 March 2017, I think it’s a lesson we need to learn again.