U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Rethinking Objectivity: one foot grounded in the past and one firmly in the present

I recall once hearing a story about Edward Said, which, whether true or not, I return to time and again when thinking about the ideal of objectivity in Western culture. In a press conference delivered by Said, so the story goes, an Israeli journalist asked him why it is that he never attempts to present the Palestinian-Israeli conflict objectively. Why, in other words, does he only stress the violence inflicted by Israelis upon Palestinians and not vice versa? For surely, anyone can see that Palestinians have committed a host of atrocities that Said never seems to invoke in his analysis of the situation in Israel/Palestine, maintained the Israeli reporter. In a brilliant rhetorical maneuver Said recalled the biblical story of Moses, who after witnessing an Egyptian “smiting” down a Jewish slave, came to the slave’s defense and killed the Egyptian guard. He asked the reporter how he would present the story. Would he present Moses’s assault in a negative light or would he stress the violence committed by the Egyptian guard as the act that overwhelms the narrative? Such is the case with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Said concluded.

What I think we can take from this story is two fold. First, Said chose the story since the structural abuse of slavery as a system is apparent and anyone should be able to instinctively identify the weak victim and the abusive oppressor as the larger context of the narrative. Second, Said chose this precise story because he recognized the disposition of a Jewish person, or any western person for that matter, to sympathize with the biblical Jews and with the persona of Moses as one of the greatest biblical heroes. In this way he sought to unsettle the false symmetry that the Israeli reporter tried to invoke. The tale Said spun was well chosen—crafty, yet intellectually compelling and cogent. Said understood his role both, more generally, in the way he presented the plight of Palestinians and, specifically in the case of this give and take with the reporter, as an intervention in a struggle that requires both an apt analysis of the past for what it was, but no less so an analysis of the exigencies of the present.

The reason I thought to bring this up is a recent encounter I’ve had with a person with centrist/conservative views. When he heard that I’m a history Phd student he perked up and inquired if I too am part of this trend to present everything in American history in negative terms. This is what young people are about these days, he lamented. I confirmed that indeed I am one of those “trendy” types. In the ensuing conversation I proceeded to link the history of slavery and racism with contemporary race relations and pervasive inequality in today’s United States, as an example of such a supposedly anti-American position. His reply was measured, clearly designed as an attempt at objectivity. Although he admitted that one can make that argument, he stressed that there are other no less compelling narratives out there that we can choose to accept as valid, which demonstrate that slavery has nothing to do with the current state of affairs in the US. To that my response was a resounding “no”—as someone who has immersed himself in American history, I asserted, that is simply not true.

What shook me upon reflection was my resounding conviction that there is a truth in this case that one cannot challenge. As someone who during my time in academia dabbled in some post-modern and post-structural thinking this conviction sounded out of touch with earlier positions I had taken regarding the ideas—indeed ideals—of truth and objectivity. It seemed suddenly clear to me that there is a more objective truth in this case. And as an historian my responsibility was not only to tell that truth but to convey it in a compelling manner to others in this contemporary world that we inhabit. In other words, to be a good historian, not only do I need to understand the past, but also the present.

Having recalled L. D. Burnett’s recent post about Schudson’s Making the News and the ideal of objectivity in journalism and in our discipline I thought to revisit ideas of objectivity, or at least my ideas of it as they had developed as a result of this recent exchange. As I used to view it, there was no such thing as objective history; that romantic notion belonged to a bygone era of naive historians. The assumption that we can somehow arrive at an objective truth or present an objective truth seemed illusory and wrong headed, and so too did the notion that there is an objective truth out there, more generally. Now, however, I am less convinced, especially of the latter. After the conversation I had with the said conservative interlocutor, it seems more and more compelling to me to view objective truth as an ideal—a promised land that we can strive to get to but probably never will. Moreover, as shifty as its borders might be, the notion that it’s out there must to a great degree guide us.

The trouble I have personally encountered, both in my own self and in numerous interlocutors over the years, is that the very history of history-telling has rendered any attempt to simply examine things for what they are quite futile. For the stories people told of themselves over thousands of years, and even more so, the writing of history since the emergence of the nation state has been for the most part an attempt at addressing the psychological needs of self-legitimization. In talking to the Israeli reporter Said had to contend with decades of carefully crafted Zionist indoctrination. Likewise, in my conversation with my conservative interlocutor I had to contend with a no less daunting task of reconstructing his understanding of history not around his psychological needs of personal and tribal self-legitimization, but around the pursuit of an objective truth that must be out there. In a similar vein, as Said has demonstrated with his scholarship on Orientalism, there are myriad hidden ways in which I, or any historian for that matter, unconsciously perpetuate culturally ingrained biases. Furthermore, locked as we are in our minds and modes of understanding, capturing such an ideal in a text indeed seems futile.

To put it otherwise, I still do not believe there can be such a thing as an objective piece of scholarship. I don’t think Thomas Haskell’s more flexible notion of objectivity as he presents it in Objectivity is Not Neutrality is useful enough for my purposes either, though I see his point. However, this does not mean that I need neglect the notion that there is an objective truth, but what it does mean is that I believe we need to strive towards it by assessing as best we can where we currently are in relationship to that hazy place. Based on my intellectual engagements, I need to develop a kind of compass that would direct me in the general direction. This, as the case with Said demonstrates, requires a sure footing both in the past and the present. In other words, I propose that we can conceive what we do as historians as an intervention calculated to tilt the view we ourselves hold, our discipline holds, and contemporary society holds towards this ideal. We must develop both historicist and presentist inspired instincts that would help us purge both our own minds and that of the discipline and society at large from the myriad biases and blind spots so deeply ingrained over decades of skewed historical indoctrination.

Ultimately, as far as I can tell, I’m now of the mind that we should construe objectivity as a project rather than a mode of self or a mode of scholarship. Furthermore, in order to participate in this project we must have one foot well grounded in the past and one firmly in the present. This implies that a good historian should not be merely a good craftsperson but an intellectual; that good history necessitates a combination of both historicism and presentism; this means that we must not only think of what we intend to do but how we view the reception of what we intend to do; this implies that the larger project of objectivity relies on an engagement with the present. I am not advocating unchecked polemics, but I am convinced that polemics must figure prominently in what we do. I hope this is not a cart blanche for irresponsible historiography, but for a much more responsible intellectual practice. The greatest achievement for an historian seems, in this case, to be the ability to do justice to both the past and the present without taking away from either.