Al Bundy has posted an amusing and lengthy shot in the History Wars at his blog. The latest skirmish started with Al posting in my comment box (to this post) a link to an account in the Oz of events at a meeting of the Australian Historical Association, which discussed various proposals including one by Cathie Clement (a fairly frequent commenter at this and other blogs) for a Code of Ethics for historians. The Oz journo (Ean Higgins) appears to have been markedly unimpressed by the code of ethics idea, seeing it as a ‘circle the wagons’ response by ‘black armband’ historians intent more on stifling open debate than encouraging it to be conducted in ethical, civil terms.
Al Bundy’s post is partly a response to this needlessly offensive comment from Rob Corr, as well as Rob’s own recent post. But Al mostly takes aim at Cathie Clement and her code of ethics idea, especially her explanation of it at Rob Corr’s blog.
I tried to post a lengthy comment at Al Bundy’s blog, but his comment box facility is a tad limited to say the least, so I’ve decided to post it here instead:
A stylish and amusing refutation. But you haven’t convinced me that Cathie Clement’s code of ethics is either malevolently intended or necessarily a bad idea (although see below). The fact that she has a disposition towards one side of the debate doesn’t mean she’s trying to stifle the opposition. I invariably have an opinion about issues I post about, but I also sometimes emphasise that I’m not an expert in that area (where that’s the case). I also try to encourage debate about my posts from all sides, and I want that debate to be robust but civil. The fact that Cathie clearly has an opinion doesn’t mean she’s being disingenuous to mention that she’s not an expert on Tasmanian indigenous history, nor does it make her a “shill” for the ‘black armband’ mob.
Cathie’s proposed rule saying that members should refrain from publicly attacking the integrity or competence of other members (not refrain from attacking their ideas) is just a more highfalutin’ way of saying you should attack the ball not the man (or not engage in ad hominem argument). A good basic principle of civil debate, in my opinion. It’s preferable to highlight errors as errors or even “consistent errors” or “riddled with errors” not “fabrications”. Attacking an opponent’s integrity in that way simply forces them to respond in a defensive and aggressive manner, rather than concentrate on the issues themselves in a more measured, thoughtful way. I seldom have a problem with being shown to be wrong (it happens often), but I would intensely resent being labelled a liar or cheat. Who wouldn’t?
For example, I concluded at the end of the discussion on my blog about “terra nullius” that Henry Reynolds had probably been very sloppy in adopting that term to describe 18th and early 19th century understandings of the juridical basis for Australian settlement (because the term may not have actually existed then), but the thought content of “terra nullius” is essentially identical to formulations by Blackstone, de Vattel and Locke that manifestly DID form the justificatory underpinning for what occurred. So it was certainly an error on Reynolds’ part, but I don’t think it’s fair to call that error a “fabrication” with all its pejorative implications (i.e. impugning integrity).
It’s a little harder to defend Ryan on that sort of basis. However, even there, the fact that she made a highly exaggerated estimate of the number of deaths, in some areas without any or any adequate evidentiary basis, doesn’t make her account a “fabrication” any more than Windschuttle’s fairly clearly seriously UNDERSTATED death toll (according to Willis, who seems to have done the hard yards on research and analysis) can reasonably be so labelled.
I think attempting to encourage civil debate is a good idea. However, it would have been better if Clement’s code had been presented as voluntary “guidelines” rather than a code enforceable by disciplinary action by the professional body. As you observe (given the evident “black armband” sympathies of the great majority of association members), the code could effectively be used to target revisionists and try to discredit their ideas, under the guise of enforcing civility. Even if that wasn’t the case, it would inevitably be seen that way in the current highly-charged atmosphere. In fact it’s already happened. So it was a dumb idea in a PR sense.
Moreover, it may be a dumb idea in a broader sense. Guidelines for civil debate are desirable, maybe even essential, in academic discourse. But Windschuttle et al are trying to shift perceptions in the broader public arena. It’s entirely reasonable for them to seek broad public attention for their ideas. Reynolds had a priceless advantage 25-30 years ago when first promulgating his “black armband” thesis. It was so sensational and challenging in itself that it was guaranteed wide coverage. Reynolds didn’t need to attack earlier historians savagely, or devise other (dodgy) tabloid attention-seeking tactics (although I suspect Reynolds was and is an accomplished self-publicist).
Windschuttle’s claims are inherently less spectacularly newsworthy: some historians were a little sloppy (and Ryan perhaps VERY sloppy), and maybe there were less Tasmanian Aborigines violently killed than some current accounts suggest. Yawn! He wouldn’t have received mainstream coverage for those ideas had he not labelled the errors “fabrications” and had his supporters not begun covering the debate in breathless terms as a war for the heart and soul of history. In reality, it’s nothing of the kind. Australia was still conquered without the consent of its inhabitants, many Aborigines were killed violently (some in cold blood and some during frontier warfare) and many more died from imported diseases. Getting the estimates of numbers right as far as possible, and getting footnoted sources correct, are certainly important for professional historians (or they should be), but that doesn’t change the broad meaning or significance of the underlying narrative.
However, it’s pretty clear that some of Windschuttle’s supporters (if not Windschuttle himself) ARE trying to shift public perceptions of the underlying significance of all this (just as some of the ‘black armband’ mob have political agendas – promoting, treaties, compensation to the ‘stolen generations’ etc). Windschuttle and his coterie of admirers are trying to move public feelings back in the direction of a latter-day version of the views of Blackstone or Locke, and see Aborigines as a bunch of ignorant, bloodthirsty, disorganised savages whose culture was quite rightly ignored and trampled by the ‘invaders’. Although I reckon some of the ‘black armband’ brigade are both precious and somewhat stalinist, I think they’re entirely justified in responding in the public arena, because the neo-Lockean view is wrong and poisonous. We DO need to accept and come to terms with the fact that our forebears violently conquered Australia without the consent of its inhabitants, and treated them appallingly for a very long time thereafter. Moreover, those events continue to resonate and still need to be addressed in a range of ways. Whether that requires treaties and the like at this late stage is another matter.
The problem is that, once a debate leaves the rarefied realms of academia and enters the mainstream media, the rhetoric will inevitably get more robust and tabloid. You’d like to hope that it could still be civil, but the reality is that some participants will inevitably cross the line from time to time in their enthusiasm to generate publicity. I really think the ‘black armband’ mob (including Cathie Clement) should be a little less precious and defensive, and a little more relaxed about it all. Despite the glare of publicity and the unaccustomed robust language, I reckon truth will still prevail. I don’t really see any sign that the broader propaganda aims of Windschuttle et al are being achieved, except among some RWDBs who never needed any persuading anyway.