History is nonfiction: true, correct, accurate, authentic, as in it really happened, right? So, what do ethics have to do with history? What are the ethics of writing history?
History itself is ethical; otherwise, it wouldn’t be history, right?
No, sorry, not that simple. History, like life, happens. Writing about it is an entirely different thing. The writing of history is done, primarily by historians. But historians are frail and easily persuaded by those who prevailed, survived, and made history.
History is written by the winners. The losers must live with it.
But there is hope. Most history writers accept the reality of history. “The writing of history, we are told, is a political occupation—all historians have a political lens through which they work, or view the past. This viewpoint has led to historians convincing themselves that their work can almost always be justified in political terms. Justifying history as politics is doomed from the start: academic historians have very little influence on the political action and consciousness of the general population, and unavoidably political and intellectual purposes for writing history come into conflict. Historians inevitably need, at some point, to either change their politics or change their evidence.”
Dom Birch has given historical reality a good deal of thought: “Instead of constructing a history that is political in focus, we should concentrate instead on what it means to write ethical history. Our ethical framework for writing history should be based around two categories: respect for the aims of history writing (explanation and understanding) and respect for the sources and historical actors themselves (empathy and representation).”
Is that all? Respect for what history writing aims to be? Respect for the sources and historical actors? His thesis, while laudable, is grounded only in explanation, understanding, empathy for and representation of the history we’re writing about. But what about flawed history? Distorted history? Historical error? Historical fraud? Thoughtful explanation, deep understanding, empathy, and transparent representation are of little ethical value if the history itself is fictional.
What about history as moral commentary? What about ideology? Are there ethical responsibilities of remembrance? Courtney Thomas wrote a fine piece about this. “Many theorists and historians have advocated an ethical turn in scholarship within the recent past. The idea of the moral responsibilities of a historian extends back to scholars of the ancient world and early Christian writers but, until recently, had been minimized in favor of Enlightenment ideals concerning the existence of objective truth. Following upon the exposure of epistemological fragilities by many academics in the mid-twentieth century, the ethical turn has argued for a return to the attitude of the moral purposes of the historian.”
If we add Courtney Thomas’s insertion of “objective truth” to Dom Birch’s “thoughtful explanation, deep understanding, empathy, and transparent representation,” we’re closer to a set of norms for writing history. Perhaps what’s still missing is an awareness of whom you’re writing history for? Knowing your audience, when writing history, helps deliver objective truth and empathy by writing reflectively.
Give your readers a chance to reflect on ethical dilemmas faced by people in your book’s past and the decisions your characters made. Are you writing about a complex world, or a simpler one? The choices are different in each. Judgements about those choices should be made within the context of the time in which they occurred. Perhaps more can be expected in hindsight. Certainly assumptions differ over time. There is inherent value in challenging stereotypical views of human conduct. Some societies are victims, others are perpetrators. Knowing the difference in context, should be on the list of ethical norms when writing history.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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