Understanding is not Contamination

Most people can be understood as having lived morally grey lives; virtuous in some respects and desperately lacking in any decency in some others. These qualities tend to be especially polarized in people in powerful positions. The further one’s own society and personal opinions progress towards values that differ from whatever values were held and recognized at any given context in history, the darker the tones of grey seem to become at first glance for the modern historian.

We cannot escape the fact that the people they study were multi-layered individuals who made choices with moral implications for various reasons ranging from sociological to psychological. People have many reasons for doing the things we do, and the consequences of our actions have an even broader set of possible permutations that we may not have even considered as we act. Selfishness and altruism can and do exist within the same individuals, and people often miscalculate how their actions will reverberate in their surroundings after being set into motion.

What is important to remember is that nobody thinks of themselves as the villain.

Most people construct their life stories with themselves as the hero. Our narrative memories are built around our need to rationalize away everything that might cause cognitive dissonance. Clairvoyants do not exist, and people are notoriously bad at anticipating future consequences to present actions. Based on our own set of values, we navigate towards what we ourselves consider to be right and good. When people write down their stories, you can be sure that if they describe in detail an incident that seems to paint them in an unfavourable light, they did not think of it that way at the time. Raw honesty and confessional documents exist, but even when the intention of the document is self-flagellation, these accounts still have been forced through the author’s self-preserving cognition, which is always working to rationalize and make excuses for themselves. We cannot assess ourselves objectively, even in relation to our own abstract moral code.

One of the most important things to me personally as an academic is arguing in good faith. Whenever possible, I try to imagine the best possible intentions for a colleague, the people I study, and to whomever I disagree with. Admittedly, within today’s political climate it is not so rare that the intentions of people entering into arguments is mainly to ‘destroy’ the other side and consequently score points for their own side.

“Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy.”¹

However, as long as this is not the only viable interpretation of a situation, I refrain from it. Most often construing motivations that make your opponent look malevolent results in you being woefully wrong of what is actually going on inside their head. Moreover, this strategy will definitely win you nothing in terms of personal growth. This is true both when you are dealing with people living today, but in a sense even more important for a historian. We are not only often studying people who have been dead for a long while and cannot defend themselves, but our interpretations and voices have a disproportionate power over someone’s reputation once it reaches print. People are not going to go and come up with their own interpretations by themselves, they will trust the authority – in this case the historian.

When you accurately estimate the psychology of another person and come up with a reasonable moral code they may have followed, the decisions made by even the worst types of people you can imagine start to make more sense. It is possible that you will also come out of the experience feeling slightly unclean. It is not like you suddenly share the values of these people and would not have chosen a similar path to theirs, but when your estimate of their internal life is realistic, you can at least understand them. And that in itself can cause some initial discomfort. However, your map will now more closely resemble the territory, and you are better off for it. Being closer to the truth is reward enough to having to step into nauseating mindscapes. I think every self-respecting historian should strive to do this; to understand the people they are studying regardless of who they were or what it is they believed in or did.

Way too often I encounter one of two strategies employed by historians when they write about people whose beliefs or actions did not always align with the researcher’s own morality.

    1. The unsavoury bits of their existence is ignored and the focus is keenly kept on the ‘other important stuff’ the person was involved with, as if you could cut a part of the person out like a dark spot on a fruit and still call it a holistic interpretation.
    2. The unsavoury bits are placed under laser-focus and what is considered a dark spot on the person contaminates their whole being. There is nothing to be salvaged, as the person is made ‘unclean’ by the rotten parts of their legacy.

Neither of these approaches feels intellectually honest, and I feel even more remorse for the readers to whom the facts of the person in question are otherwise unknown. We should trust our readership more and refrain from frantic virtue signaling just so that nobody can say we ever agreed with Hitler.

¹ Yudkowsky, Eliezer. ”Politics is the Mind Killer” in Rationality: from AI to Zombies” Berkeley, MIRI (2015). 255.


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