I awoke this morning to see that Cambridge Professor Mary Beard had been in an argument on Twitter with UKIP donor Arron Banks. Banks had claimed that immigration into western Europe had brought down the Roman Empire; Beard responded to challenge the argument, and what ensued was a typical Twitter onslaught in which supporters of Beard criticised Banks for not respecting the authority of one of the world’s leading classicists, and supporters of Banks criticised Beard for being an arrogant, liberal, feminist expert.
The whole exchange quickly descended into a series of ad hominem attacks, where the status of the person was being used to try to undermine the quality and truth of the argument they presented. We ended up with conclusions such as
“She would say that – she’s a liberal”
“She would say that – she’s a feminist”
“He would say that – he’s against immigration”
As with all logical fallacies, however, these ad hominem arguments add little to a debate, and instead detract away from a focus on whether or not the conclusions being reached are true. This is the grim reality of a ‘post-truth’ debate, which is most certainly not an innovation of 2016. When we decide that truth is not important, all we are left with is the status of the person making the case, and ad hominem thus becomes the principal means of debate.
And yet some commentators, particularly those who focus on ‘twenty-first-century skills’, are encouraging us to do just this in the classroom.
As I have written about before, talking about the truth of what we teach can quickly result in sharp intakes of breath through teeth, or responses that begin with “yes, but…” There are some who hold more extreme positions (and admittedly these tend not to be practising teachers) who turn round and say ‘we should not teach facts’. Yet I and I am sure many others (particularly in subjects such as history and English) have uttered the phrase “there is no right or wrong answer – it’s about your opinion”.
But all we are doing here is feeding the beast.
When we say that there are no right or wrong answers, and that our conclusions are opinions, we leave ourselves no where to go in a debate. Once truth is taken out of the equation, ad hominem responses are really the only resort we have. If our conclusions are but opinions, then all that can be challenged is the stance from which I offer my opinion, and if you agree with my stance you will agree with my conclusion, and if you disagree with my stance you will disagree with my conclusion.
A number of history teachers have written about this problem in recent years, and we have moved on some way from the days of the 1990s and 2000s where some of the more extreme versions of this problem could be found in textbooks and exam papers. History teachers these days are far more likely to talk about interpretations rather than opinions, and to teach children explicitly that, although there might legitimately be multiple interpretations of the past, not all interpretations are equal, and some have significantly more explanatory power than others.
The past has always been used as a political tool to score points about the present, and historians have a responsibility to speak truth to power.
For without truth, the only means we have of challenging the powerful are futile ad hominem arguments.