Friday, 29 May 2009

What Ought to be Buried (or, "Vellum Waxes Philosophical")

Vaulting's latest post ended on a note I'd like to follow from:

"But if we leave everything buried that ought to be buried, what will we put in our history books?"

The question I'd like to raise is, perhaps, one that seems obvious to many of you. Ought anything from history to remain buired? Is there any instance, any part of history that could be better left unsaid?

When it comes to the long-dead stages of history, those where all people involved (and, indeed, all the children of the children (of the children?) of those involved) have passed on, it's easy to say that yes, we ought to know about it. It hurts no-one as the dead have little care for their reputations (that is, unless you believe in the afterlife posited by Dante, where posthumous reputation remains important).

The same is true for any atrocities we know about today. It's easy to say about the holocaust that it's better that we know -- it helps us never to repeat such a horrrific and awful event in our history.

But there are still events where it remains a queston. When it comes to atrocities we don't know about, and when it comes to social issues that could negatively affect the private lives of living people, we ought to at least have the debate.

For the first, imagine that your society was a peacful one. Imagine that mutual respect was universal and poverty scarce. Now imagine that you discover that one, two hundred years earlier, your predecessors created this society by means of a near genocide, the revelation of which could cause violence today. Is that something one would really want to know? When the damage has been done, and the risk of a repeat occurence is low, is it always best to spread the truth?

I'm copping out of that one. I'm not a philosopher, and I can't begin to assess the rights and wrongs. I just thought it was worth the consideration.

The second hits a little closer to home. Imagine that someone's grandfather was a famous person -- an artist, a writer, whatever -- that your contryfolk loved, looked up to, used as a role model for good citizenship. Now imagine that you discover something controversial about that person. Imagine that despite all the good they did, they were a terrible racist, or a terrible sexist, or another as-yet-unnamed kind of bigot. Is it imperative that the world know? What if that controversial aspect is something else, something no fault of their own, something not regarded poorly today because it is actually something bad, but because of our own bigotry? Where, as historians, do we draw the line as to what "truth" to reveal to the world?

I don't know. For me, it would rely on my own conscience at the time. I hope it would rest on anyone's. As much as we think, as historians, that our work is unlikely to affect anyone alive today, I suggest that we must always consider if and how our findings will change the world we live in, here and now. Most of the time, I hope that will result in a more considerate way of releasing possibly sensistive information, rather than resulting in the witholding of said information. If nothing else, it must be said that truth generally finds its own way out, and so repressing it tends to be a pointless venture: when all is said and done, perhaps the best we could do would be to conrol the rate at which the evils of the world escape Pandora's box. If you have any thoughts on this, I'd love to hear them.

Okay, I'm done.



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