Saturday, November 21, 2009

False Memory and Historians' Fallacies

In an interesting article on American feminism, "Lift and Separate," Ariel Levy raises the issue of bra-burning and false memory:

Bra burning—the most famous habit of women’s libbers—caused a fair amount of consternation back in the seventies, and the smoke has lingered. Wives and mothers were torching the most intimate accessory of control; what might they put a match to next? “Often today those who cherish family life feel, even in their own homes, under constant assault,” the cultural critic Michael Novak wrote in 1979. The goals of the women’s-liberation movement, he saw, were incompatible with the structure of the traditional family. That’s why bra burning became the most durable and unsettling image of modern feminism.

So it may be worth noting that it never actually happened. In 1968, at a protest against the Miss America pageant, in Atlantic City, feminists tossed items that they felt were symbolic of women’s oppression into a Freedom Trash Can: copies of Playboy, high-heeled shoes, corsets and girdles. Lindsy Van Gelder, a reporter for the Post, wrote a piece about the protest in which she compared the trash-can procession to the burning of draft cards at antiwar marches, and a myth was born. In her engaging tour d’horizon “When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present” (Little, Brown; $27.99), Gail Collins quotes Van Gelder’s lament: “I shudder to think that will be my epitaph—‘she invented bra burning.’”

By opening her article this way, Levy is taking a time-honoured approach to history. Historians tend to approach a topic by targetting the conventional wisdom (a term popularized by John Kenneth Galbraith, by the way) and the attendant mythology. Then they systematically debunk the myth, which Levy calls false memory, and replace it with an historical analysis. Myth-busting is a useful way for tackling large topics because it helps historians to select an entry-point through which to introduce their arguments.

Anyone who deals with the past in any way has to confront a basic reality: even if we could study everything, we couldn’t manage all of the information. A history that explains everything explains nothing. Recognizing the basic reality of selection is the easy part; the hard part is trying to make sound judgements about what to include and what to leave out. We often forget that the process of selection involves exclusion as much as inclusion: what gets left unsaid – the silence of a culture – is often the most importation part of history.

From a legal perspective, historians do not work in the realm of the criminal law, where the burden of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. On the contrary, doubt is the historian’s best friend: you can tell if you are talking with a poor historian if they never admit to having any doubts about what they’re doing. And if they start talking about the truth, chances are you're speaking with a philosopher, not an historian.

If you listen carefully to what historians say when they get together, you will hear them discuss whether they buy a particular argument. They are not referring to whether they believe that it reflects some ultimate truth, but rather whether it persuaded them. In legal terms, this means that historians speak more like lawyers in civil litigation, where the person bringing the action needs merely to prove the case on the balance of probabilities. The plaintiff must convince the court that the position they are advocating is more likely to be true than that of the defendant. The threshold in civil cases is based on the preponderance of the evidence.

In other words, historians work within the realm of probability, not certainty. They try to be as objective as possible, but no historian worth their salt would actually claim to be completely unbiased. They try to be as accurate as possible, but they acknowledge that the fragmentary nature of the surviving evidence means that they can never have a complete view of the past. They try to be as careful and cautious as possible, but they know that good history requires imagination and occasional guess-work. The trick is to be honest with yourself and your readers about what you're doing.

In setting out this rather ecumenical framework, I don't mean to suggest that the historian’s gaze is limitless. It isn't. As we've talked about in class, there are two terms that you'll hear historians use to describe bad history: one is presentism; the other is source-driven. Presentism, which is also known as the hindsight bias or the fallacy of nunc pro tunc, is used to describe history that imposes some present-day perspective, standard, or social norm on the past. It is a form of anachronism. Presentism is often used to criticize historians who fail to appreciate, as we've discussed in class, Lowenthal's dictum that the past is a foreign country. That doesn’t mean that you cannot visit it, but you need a passport of imagination: you cannot assume that the people you meet in the past will think or act like you do.

Source-driven, which is also called antiquarianism, is used to describe history without questions. It's almost the opposite of presentism, because it entails a marked disengagement with current issues and problems. It refers to studies of the past that simply describe what's in the archives without applying critical insights. It is, in other words, history drained of its analytical vitality.

There are two other popular terms that you'll hear historians use when they criticize each other. The first is determinism, which gets associated with a priori, teleological, or tautological reasoning. Determinism often gets conflated with the term Whig history, which has become something of a canard in historical scholarship. The second is essentialism, which often gets called reductionism, and refers to scholarship that imposes a falsely static and unitary explanation of historical phenomenon, or fails to be sufficiently sensitive to agency, contingency, and diversity.


Jerry Bannister said...

Here is a link to the 1962 AHA Presidential address that Michael mentioned in Monday's class.

Elspeth said...

The most interesting commentary that I found on the bra burning myth was made by Lisa Krissoff Boehm, referring to the 1968 Miss America protest:

"Did any women burn bras? yes, but not us. In Chicago, where I lived at the time, a local DJ did a publicity stunt with models paid to stand before the cameras and burn bras. Got a lot of local coverage, and the photos occasionally show up in books because uninformed photo researchers think they are the real thing. If you look at how they are dressed, and at all the men lined up there with them, you can tell this was not a women's liberation event. It's another example of how myth becomes history."
(from a 1998 H-Net discussion thread,

Shirley Tillotson said...

Picking up a thread from the history and politics week, I'd like to mention the ideology / science distinction that I try to use when I developing my own questions and interpretations. The test is this: you know you're in the presence of (social) science when what you're reading (or writing) is surprising. The reverse -- dreary predictability -- is the marker of ideology (whether Panglossian or progressive). Jerry points to the importance of doubt to our work for the same reason, I suspect. Doubt isn't bewilderment; it's the sometimes-anxious uncertainty about which of several explanations is right, and the awareness that there may be others you haven't yet imagined. (The worried thought goes through your head -- "I might get this wrong!" Not "this might get me in trouble with my political friends!") What saves the historian from bewilderment at that point is the ability to imagine tests (and the sources that will enable her to make those tests) that will help her to choose among possible explanations which one is most likely to be right. If the test she applies is "which explanation will best serve the cause of XXX?" then the political/ideological purpose of the research has just trumped the attempt to say something (most probably) true. At the same time, as beings who live within the (one hopes always broadening) limits of our particular life experience, the explanations that you can imagine (and indeed the ones that you find interesting, as touching on live questions) shape what you can see and what you want to look for. So, although we should be prepared to be disappointed by (surprised by) what we find, it's inevitable that our attempts to see truly are partial (in both senses of the word). Philosophers deal with the nature of partial and probabilistic knowledge very richly -- an interesting and lucid step into their debates is a 1994 essay by one of Dalhousie's philosophers of science, Richmand Campbell, "The virtues of feminist empiricism" (in Hypatia).