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 The Confessional

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Priscilla
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PostSubject: The Confessional   Sun 09 Mar 2014, 10:10

In truth I think this topic will quickly fade. It comes from thinking about truths and also from insights into some strong opinion that surfaces on this and other forums. Most historians would baulk at  being called bigots yet sometimes that is an impression I get on occasion. Do historians ever have a change of mind? It seems that most don't. Counter argument must be very strong to wobble my own judgment but it does happen but that is more to do with my professions than stance over historical matters. Following everything being presented about WW1 everywhere however has dislodged quite a few notions I had. Any takers like to make remark here?
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Caro
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 02:29

I was hearing something recently which said that, contrary to expectations, it is highly educated people or people high up in their field who are the least likely to change their opinions due to a good argument.  I suppose that might be because they have already studied whatever is being discussed and feel they have taken previous ideas on board before making their decisions.  And conversely people who don't feel they know everything are more likely to be convinced by other people's arguments.  Perhaps.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 11:04

How do we define a "bigot"?  

Funny how it's still seen as a weakness to be wobbly. I quite like wobbly people. I go along with Diarmaid MacCulloch's comment about Thomas Cranmer: "If there is a bias in this narrative, it is sympathy for a man who was frequently confused and who confused others: and there is also admiration for the way in which he struggled to a final gesture of certainty in his last hour."

But saying you are struggling to find certainty is not something historians - or anyone else for that matter - likes to admit to. Struggle just ain't cool.
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Islanddawn
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 11:12

big·ot  (bĭg′ət)
n.
One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.

bigot (ˈbɪɡət)
n
1. a person who is intolerant of any ideas other than his or her own, esp on religion, politics, or race
[C16: from Old French: name applied contemptuously to the Normans by the French, of obscure origin]
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 11:25

@Islanddawn wrote:
big·ot  (bĭg′ət)

One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.



The first bit of that definition is surely true of most people: it is normal and harmless to be "partial". Being "partial" does not make one a bigot. It is the second part of the sentence that is important. But there is a paradox:

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society... then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
― Karl Popper

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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 11:37

Learning history, if done by normal standards, cannot be done by bigots - or at least what they learn is rarely usable except to bolster their own previously held bigoted views. Imparting, debating or otherwise translating history on the other hand is exactly as Priscilla describes, though "bigoted" might be too extreme a description of prosecuting a particular view on history for the vast majority of historians, be they academically recognised in that role or self-appointed.

"Wobbly" people may indeed be the most likeable in that it shows an intellectual honesty at times. However I am not sure I want to be taught by a wobbly teacher. With history I prefer to be taught by several unwobbly authorities on a subject and then make my own mind up regarding their cases based on their arguments and with a hopefully better understanding of the raw data all of them used in arriving at them.

Regarding the WWI discussions now being aired I have yet to come across a view I hadn't encountered before in some form or another, and some of these views now being seen as slightly radical or revisionist were in fact often first put forward quite near the event under discussion. At the moment the focus of many of these debates is the causes of the war and this has always been something of a bugbear in terms of causality anyway since it is very open to extraneous political agendas influencing the theorists. A war seldom has a simple set of causes and a global conflict will be even less likely to lend itself to being so neatly summarised in terms of cause. For me therefore the annoyance, especially at the moment, is the tendency to over-simplify for the purpose of rendering the argument amenable to TV audiences by all sides. I look forward however to the inevitable flurry of publishing activity (that has already started in fact) and from which I hope to see these arguments pursued to a higher standard. I imagine this will lessen the inclination to dismiss the protagonists as "bigoted", or at least will identify those few who really are bigoted in their views with much more accuracy.

PS: Popper often verged on "poppercock". There can be no such thing as "unlimited tolerance" except in the realms of philosophical form, so society is quite safe from the gloomy conclusion he arrives at should it ever begin to exist. What he illustrates is a semantic trap into which philosophical theory often strays, not a practical analysis of human behaviour.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 13:29

Quote :
However I am not sure I want to be taught by a wobbly teacher.


Of course not - if by "wobbly" here you mean someone who does not know his or her stuff.

But a teacher - or lecturer - who guides students to consider different ideas about a topic, who suggests that there is no definite "right" answer - certainly in the study of history or of literature - who insists on a balanced approach to a question - that isn't a wobbly teacher: it's a good one. That was why I was surprised/shocked/appalled when I read that shivfan (on the BBC Points of View MB) had advised his students to ignore what Max Hastings had to say about the origins of WW1.

Here's another quotation about that Archwobbler, Thomas Cranmer: "All through his life, Cranmer was either blessed or cursed with the ability to see his opponents' point of view: an attribute rare enough in any age, but in particularly short supply during the Reformation."

Is the ability to see other people's point of view a blessing or a curse? It can certainly lead to one being hated - or even worse, despised - by both sides.

We admire a person who "knows his/her own mind", do we not? Ironic smile here - does anyone really know his or her own mind?

PS Wittgenstein once threatened Popper with a red-hot poker at a philosophers' meeting in Cambridge. Bertrand Russell had to pull them apart. Honestly, these clever men - they're worse than kids at times, especially at Cambridge.

http://www.theguardian.com/education/2001/may/12/artsandhumanities.highereducation


Last edited by Temperance on Mon 10 Mar 2014, 13:58; edited 1 time in total
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 13:43

I agree with you about history teachers and philosophers!

The best history teacher I had in school had a sort of party trick that delighted us (we were invited to chime along with him when it occurred). After going through the textbook version of whatever subject was on the agenda and reaching the end he would then dramatically proclaim (in Irish) "but that, of course, is NOT the whole story". He would then produce another text, or sometimes a newspaper or magazine article, or sometimes even (we were so modern) a reel-to-reel tape recording in which some other historian or similar expounded a variant of what we had just "learned". Often this was then concluded with the same refrain and another source rolled out, and so on. It was an excellent way of marshalling one's own thoughts on any historical topic, especially when one found that one was beginning to form favourites amongst the talking heads. I liked AJP Taylor I recall, but remember being absolutely astounded by Enoch powell, of all people, dismissing the simplistic notions of "the Celt" that pervaded popular history at the time and which obstructed, he said, proper historical analysis of British and European history. His view is now pretty standard - at the time however it was "proof" that he was a "bigot". He may have been with regard to immigrants in modern Britain, but he certainly wasn't when it came to Iron Age history!

"Poppercock" was what we were invited to term it as students when confronted with popperisms that gaily cavorted up their own semantic backsides - and they were legion. Our lecturer was once also asked by us what he thought of Russell. "Russell," he said, "is the sound the wind makes when lazily disturbing foliage to no worthwhile purpose." That was all we got.

I miss those days tremendously. Pipe smoking lecturers who didn't shirk their round in the local pub are extinct now, I hear. And the male lecturers were great too.


Last edited by nordmann on Mon 10 Mar 2014, 14:10; edited 1 time in total
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 14:09

@Temperance wrote:
@Islanddawn wrote:
big·ot  (bĭg′ət)

One who is strongly partial to one's own group, religion, race, or politics and is intolerant of those who differ.



The first bit of that definition is surely true of most people: it is normal and harmless to be "partial". Being "partial" does not make one a bigot. It is the second part of the sentence that is important. But there is a paradox:

“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance. If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society... then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them... We should therefore claim, in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant.”
― Karl Popper



It is not normal or harmless for historians to be 'partial', or in other words biased, though. Surely the objective where history is concerned is to be impartial?

Sorry Temp, but it sounds like Karl Popper popped something vital to his well being, that quote is a load of something smelly.
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nordmann
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 14:17

ID wrote:
It is not normal or harmless for historians to be 'partial', or in other words biased, though.

Partial isn't the same as biased, at least in the normal sense of both terms. A good historian will always be partial in terms of the context in which he or she presents facts. This in fact is a very good thing - the alternative is a mess. And while I could facetiously argue that all good historians should portray a bias towards the truth this would simply be picking hairs.

The problem with history is that the data when presented with absolute impartiality (ie. allowing or countenancing no worthwhile conclusion that cannot be contradicted by another based on a different partiality), is not actually "history" as the human activity and its motives behind that history has been removed from the lesson. We know, for example, that "war broke out" on such and such a date. But that is simply one historical fact behind a universe of things that happened and which are the "real" history, at least in my view. Examining those things requires an approach more complex than just looking at raw data, and that is where partiality must be accommodated - on the interpreter's part as much as on the part of the protagonists involved.

History asks "why" as well as "how" or "when". Only one of these can be answered completely with absolute impartiality.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 14:49

Mmm - reminds me of a time when I was called a "little bigot" by my father. He was not a professional historian, but he did hold a First Class Honours degree in the subject, awarded by Trinity College, Cambridge. I'm not doing a Minette here mentioning this, just pointing out that he was extremely clever and most definitely "knew his stuff". We were arguing about Hitler and Germany and the Holocaust and, when my father suggested that the Jews had brought down many of their "troubles" on their own heads because "World Jewry" (as he called it) - private currency speculators and international banking cartels - had caused terrible hardship in Germany after WW1, I remember being outraged. I shouted back at him at him that he was a bigot - a fascist bigot. He retorted that no -  I was the bigot because I would not consider the facts impartially.

Very uncomfortable remembering this. All those years ago - but did he actually have a point?
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 15:56

Excluding the name calling both of you had reasonable grounds on which to construct an argument based on fact. But it seems reasonable wasn't on the agenda that day.
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Mon 10 Mar 2014, 21:23

I would have actually liked to hear your father's views expanded a little. It is not the first time I have heard people who otherwise have a good grasp of historical events and social structures etc but who yet in the case of Jews assume they operate as a cohesive unit, sharing common goals, methods, destiny and guilt. The millions of ordinary citizens unaffiliated to any such organisation (evidence for which one notices can never trespass beyond the realms of speculation anyway) and who died so cruelly because this view was shared by Germany's ruling party places the onus squarely on such people's shoulders to elaborate their theory beyond such glib generalisations.

For what it's worth at this distance in time you may have been exhibiting partiality, Temp, but there was only one bigot in the room at the time, I think.
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Temperance
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PostSubject: Re: The Confessional   Tue 11 Mar 2014, 08:44

@nordmann wrote:
I would have actually liked to hear your father's views expanded a little. It is not the first time I have heard people who otherwise have a good grasp of historical events and social structures etc but who yet in the case of Jews assume they operate as a cohesive unit, sharing common goals, methods, destiny and guilt. The millions of ordinary citizens unaffiliated to any such organisation (evidence for which one notices can never trespass beyond the realms of speculation anyway) and who died so cruelly because this view was shared by Germany's ruling party places the onus squarely on such people's shoulders to elaborate their theory beyond such glib generalisations.

For what it's worth at this distance in time you may have been exhibiting partiality, Temp, but there was only one bigot in the room at the time, I think.




Well, I still feel guilty for criticising him.

Like you, I would like now to hear his views "expanded a little", would like to try to discuss these things with him calmly and rationally. Would he have mellowed, had he lived another thirty years? I doubt it. I was a young adult when he died, but it would take nearly forty years before I had grown up enough to try to understand him - and others like him.

My father was a product of his times and of his life experiences, as we all are. I cannot excuse his right-wing bigotry, but so many of his generation (and he was old enough, just, to have been my grandfather rather than my father), those men and women who had lived through the Depression and the War, held similar views. Many did not, of course, and I often wondered why, with his working-class background, he had not become a Socialist, a Communist even. I once asked him why, and he replied, with what I always called his "supreme sneer," that such systems simply did not work. When I asked what did work, we got nowhere. I wanted especially to discuss his ideas about  "benevolent dictatorship" or "enlightened absolutism" being the ideal political system, but when I asked what exactly was meant by benevolent or enlightened - and who decided (not bad questions for a seventeen-year-old) - the conversation ended.

The hatred and the rage of the bigot which, as you rightly point out, can destroy not just a family, but entire communities or nations, so often (but not always) come from humiliation, self-hatred and self-doubt - and that need not necessarily have to do with wealth or class. People learn to hate, and the lessons begin early - usually in the home. Resentment and fear grow and fester. It's acknowledging this - in oneself and in others - and trying to deal with it that is so hard. For me bigotry is a spiritual not a political matter: that's why I'm always banging on about such things. Love and tolerance of others comes from love and tolerance of oneself. Love thy neighbour as thyself and all that. Hard for us all to do that - but especially difficult for some. It's easier - far less complicated -  simply to love power instead.

This cartoon from 1939 was very perceptive for its time:


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