Therapeutic history

by Carl Dyke

In #@%*! rainbows I talked about various familiar rationales/ ideologies/ marketing slogans for the study of history, and suggested some ways that they are unpersuasive. Among them was the idea that to change things in the present we need to know how we got here. I referred to this as the ‘therapeutic hypothesis’ and cited psychologists Watzlawick‘s argument against it.

Their argument includes the observation that we cannot change the past, only our interpretation of it in the present. Any historian knows the latter happens all the time — it’s called ‘revision’. New information is discovered that snaps the old into a different alignment; new interpretive strategies reconfigure our understanding; new perspectives reselect, reprioritize and repurpose familiar evidence to produce striking new insights. Facts and meanings are in constant slow flux, punctuated by occasional major controversies and conceptual revolutions.

A more radical historiography suggests that in these interpretive revisions, the past ‘itself’ changes, since the past is nothing more (or nothing meaningfully more) than our perception of it. These discussions can get abstractly interesting but pragmatically murky and fruitless pretty quick. In practice, if our orientation toward the past is a search for ‘the Truth’, as it is for most naive history buffs and seems to be more substantively for Frank Furedi in his rant against the self-indulgence of historical victimology, we may still want to try to specify the conditions for the production of revision-proof historical knowledge. If our sense of truth is more conventionalist or gamey, at least we’ll want to agree on standards that allow us to recognize and produce ‘good, reliable’ history rather than ‘bad, unreliable’ history. But if our orientation to history is therapeutic, as Furedi notes, all of the Truth/ truth bets are off.

With a therapeutic orientation, what counts as ‘good’ history is history that helps people feel better in the present. History is then subject to denunciation and revision if it makes us feel bad (unless, as certain Christian ascetics do, we decide that feeling bad is actually good for us) or otherwise does us harm. Holocaust denial is one obvious instance of therapeutic history. So is what’s called ‘Whig history’, the idea that all of history has risen to its pinnacle in us.

Here’s another example of therapeutic history, and its perils. You may remember that not too long ago a young black woman came forward and accused white members of the Duke University lacrosse team of brutally raping her during a stripping performance at their house. This was subsequently proven to be a fabrication, but not before a rush to judgment had polarized the community, derailed the young men’s lives, brought the mentally-unstable accuser into a ruthless public spotlight, and so on. Just a real nasty little scenario all around.

Therapeutic history is a subset of activist history more generally. The rush to judgment was fueled by righteous activists, many of them prominent members of the Duke faculty, who seized on the race, class and gender of the accuser and accused to stage the event as a microcosm of the oppression of poor black women by rich white men throughout U.S. history. Of course those bastards did it, so the thinking went, because people like them had been doing it to people like her for hundreds of years. I’d say these educated folks ‘should have known better’; except that according to the knowledge-constructing priorities of activist history they acted with complete integrity, just as their knowledge of our oppressive history demanded.

The plot thickens. According even to non-activist standards of historical knowledge-construction it is true that lots of rich white men systematically oppressed lots of poor black women. In the context of the original righteous poo-storm, one of the most striking claims then was that the victim had suffered a double assault and a compounded harm: not only the rape itself, but the traumatic memory of all of those past rapes too.

When there’s harm, the law tells us to look for the harmer. For the assault in the present, it’s clearly the perps. But with respect to the historical assault it’s not clear they can be held accountable. What we actually need to know is who’s responsible for filling that girl’s head with the traumatizing history. That was optional. If it hadn’t been there, that part of the harm couldn’t have occurred. So from both a legal and a therapeutic perspective, once she got justice from her physical attackers her next move should have been to sue her history teachers and the historians they read for the pain and suffering their knowledge caused her.

The therapeutics of history are properly about enhancing our present. Therapeutically, insofar as the knowledge of history can cause us pain it must be suppressed. If ‘knowing where we came from’ entails stigma, or empathetic trauma, or carries forward reasons for self-doubt; if it’s a source of vulnerability in any way, then away with it. In fact, from this perspective insistence on recording and publishing painful truths is a kind of intentional infliction of distress. After all, there’s plenty of pain and injustice and strife in the present without piling on and reliving all of the old hurts too. So easy to fix. Just leave ’em all out of the stories we tell and for our children it will be just like they never happened. Are we really so selfish that we can’t justify our lives to future generations without passing on our misery to them?

In all my classes I have a journal requirement – the idea is for the students to produce a field ethnography of the class as a social setting and learning environment, a document that a social historian of education 500 years from now would be delighted to find in the archive. (Again, I want the students to think about producing history, not just consuming it.) To get the students clear on the need to record their experience in detail I ask them to imagine that in the future, people learn by taking knowledge pills, so they will have no idea what any part of our teaching/ learning processes were like.

Most of the students really like the idea of knowledge pills – it seems so easy. A few tumble to the more orwellian possibilities of social control through control of the formulation, production and consumption of knowledge. But wouldn’t that make therapeutic history so much easier! We could all feel really good about who we are and where we came from, then.

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