The perils of using empathy in historical analysis

This week has seen me reflect on empathy and morality, and whether they should inform the way we teach history in schools. Ben Newmark’s thought provoking blog got me thinking about this issue, as well as Bernard Andrews’ subsequent article.

Should we teach the facts and analyse historical events in a neutral way or should we bring our modern sensibilities into the mix? Is it actually possible to divorce our moral judgement from our analysis?

As serendipity would have it, I also happened to watch this week Tom Holland’s TV documentary for Channel 4 about ISIS. If I had any doubts before as to whether or not we should use morality to teach history, then watching this documentary laid my doubts to rest.

I have a great deal of respect for Tom Holland as a scholar, but it was clear to me right from the start of the documentary that he was approaching the subject matter from an emotive perspective rather than an objective one, that he had, consciously or not, decided to wear his human hat, not his historian’s one. In his introduction, he talked about having to force himself to revisit a place he had promised himself never to go to again. Whether this was metaphorical or physical, what was clear was that Holland’s approach was coloured by his visceral dislike, or even disgust, of Islam.

In this vein, we were treated to unnecessary footage of him watching an ISIS beheading on his laptop, and the distress this caused him. He took us to the Bataclan in Paris, and talked us through the atrocities of that terrible evening, again showing the emotive effect this had on him. Moving on to Iraq, he visited an ancient Christian monastery, speaking to one of the last remaining priests there about the persecution of this religious minority. He visited a Yazidi shrine and reminded us of the terrible tribulations they face. And then, he was filmed walking through the rubble of a town devastated by ISIS and having an attack of queasiness, ripping open his bulletproof vest in his distress. At every point in this narrative, Holland’s shock and disgust at ISIS brutality is brought to the fore. In no uncertain way, he conveys to us that these are evil, savage and cruel people.

Now, I don’t think anyone would disagree with that viewpoint. My problem, however, is this. I tuned into the programme because I wanted to gain greater understanding of why radical Islam has risen to prominence today. We all know about ISIS atrocities. It’s been on our news bulletins this past year or more. What we don’t understand is the why. Where has all this come from? Unfortunately, Holland’s empathy with the plight of the victims compromised his ability to provide a convincing analysis. By portraying ISIS as evil bogeymen, he wasn’t able then to construct a proper argument about their origins. Quoting contentious verses of the Qu’ran, out of context, he implied that the capacity for savagery was built into Islam’s DNA. He failed to discuss geo-political dimensions and defining events of the 20th century, such as the formation of the state of Israel or the Islamic revolution in Iran, or even the Iraq war. I didn’t see him address the question of why the growing secularism of the region in the early 20th century, as exemplified by Turkey, was replaced by increasingly theocratic governments, why Sunni and Shia muslims turned from co-existing to being at each other’s throats and why the Salafist interpretation of Islam, once confined to its niche in Saudi Arabia, came to be so dominant.

As a result, what we saw was a personal account rather than a historian’s thesis underpinned by analysis of the evidence. This provides us with a vivid example of what happens when we let empathy rather than the cool examination of sources, inform our analysis. By the end of the documentary, I was none the wiser in my understanding of why ISIS has emerged and consequently, what can be done to counter it.

What I have written above is perhaps an extreme example of the moralistic approach to history, but I think it illustrates my point. When we view history through the prism of our biases, we in effect construct a work of fiction. I was much struck by Bernard Andrews’ point about the limitations of empathy when he said:

“Perhaps more importantly, I would express the weaknesses of empathy in the following way: Whilst someone who is empathetic may be more admirable than one who is self-concerned, empathy is essentially knowledge of another via analogy with oneself. It relies on one’s egoism for its effect.”

Instead of empathy, we should be paying attention to what is around us, and seeking truth. Of course, as human beings, our search for truth will inevitably be fallible. It may not be entirely possible to isolate our empathy and ego from our analysis, but we must try.

I leave you with one final thought. Our opinions today are shaped by the society around us and the knowledge we have acquired. For example, our attitudes to homosexuality have changed considerably over the past few decades, and it would be fair to say that homosexuality is now accepted as something normal. This wasn’t the case a century or so ago. Our thinking has evolved. What makes us think that now, at this point in time, we have evolved in our thinking as far as we can go? Is it not reasonable to assume that in another century or so, many of our accepted social and moral norms will be viewed as retrograde? We don’t have a monopoly on morality, just because we live today and not at some point in the past. It is this arrogance of thinking we know best, that needs to be jettisoned if we are to gain any understanding of our history.

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