Do you know what my favourite television programme of all time is? It’s The Simpsons, and whilst the show has declined in quality as of late, in its prime it was by far and away the best thing on T.V. It was witty, subversive, and mixed humour and drama in a way that could make you laugh, cry and smile within the same minute (anyone who can watch the ending of ‘And Maggie Makes Three’ without getting slightly dewy-eyed is more machine than human). One of my favourite episodes from those golden years is ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’, as not only does it make some pointed observations about how small towns commemorate their local history, it also raises an important question: can a historical lie ever be justified?
First, a brief plot summary for those of you who haven’t seen the episode. After discovering that the founder of Springfield, Jebediah Springfield, was not the honourable man the townsfolk believe him to be, but a pirate called Hans Sprungfeld who once tried to kill George Washington, Lisa makes it her mission to convince Springfield of the truth. However, after seeing the unity the false memory of Jebediah has brought the town she decides the truth would do more harm than good, and gives up her crusade.
The conclusion of ‘Lisa the Iconoclast’ highlights one of the main arguments put forward by those who argue that a traditional historical narrative should remain unchallenged, even if there is proof they are a total falsehood, namely that it is an important source of cultural and social identity. I do kind of understand this argument. To use a real-world example, think about how much of our post-war cultural identity is based on our shared view of Churchill as the Prime Minister who wouldn’t surrender even though the odds were against him. Now imagine someone discovered a series of letters which showed Churchill had been planning to surrender to Hitler during the Battle of Britain. It’d have a pretty drastic impact, wouldn’t it?
(At this point, I should probably cover my own arse and make it clear that I don’t actually think these letters exist: they are a hypothetical and purely fictional example.)
That said, I can’t really buy into the “shared source of unity” argument, since it makes the assumption there is a “unity” to begin with. Admittedly, there is usually a degree of consensus about any group or individual’s legacy, but this is far outweighed by disagreement. To use Churchill as an example again, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who thought he did a bad job as Prime Minister during World War Two, but at the same time a lot of people will remember him more for his anti-union tendencies than for his wartime speeches.
Let’s assume, however, that there is an unchallenged national consensus. Even then, I would still disagree with this argument, simply due to the fact that it’s so bloody patronising, as it assumes we base so much of our own personal identities on someone or something else that we would literally be unable to function if we discovered our idols could be anything other than perfect. It’s the historiographical equivalent of saying “you want the truth? You can’t handle the truth”, and it ascribes to us the emotional maturity of a child.
Indeed, whilst it may seem counter-intuitive, if you really want to protect a person or organisation’s legacy, it’s better to present them warts and all. Generally speaking, I think we should always be critical of those things we value most, not just because history has shown that clinging to an idealised image of a person or organisation rarely turns out well, but also because acknowledging someone’s flaws means we can have a positive discussion about whether their negatives were outweighed by their positives, which can often result in people changing their minds. Blindly defending someone’s legacy against any and all criticism, however, is unlikely to change anyone’s minds, and instead serves only to give their detractors an easy way to undermine them, as presenting someone as infallible means even the most minor of flaws appears to be a damning condemnation of their character.
It’s at this point that I’d originally planned to argue that there may be some circumstances in which challenging an established narrative could have legitimately negative consequences, such as if the narrative is the basis of laws or institutions, as it could be argued challenging the validity of the narrative challenges the legitimacy of the law. However, since a full and proper consideration of the topic goes into some morally and ethically complicated areas, I get the feeling it needs its own post rather than being tacked on to the end of this one, and so I’ll leave it for another day. For now, I will conclude simply by saying that silencing dissent for the sake of an imagined national unity is unjustifiable, and whilst refusing to acknowledge someone’s flaws seems the best way to preserve their legacy, it actually runs counter to it, as by hoisting them up on a pedestal, you are making them far more vulnerable to criticism.