History: A Living Subject where Emotions can Run High

Over the past few months I’ve seen lots of history themed threads on Facebook go from polite discussions to very heated arguments and accusations of bullying, and yesterday I received an email asking me to “head off” people who were seen as having emotional reactions to Henry VIII on this site. It inspired me to write this article.

Now, I believe in free speech and that everyone is entitled to their opinions. I also believe that history is a living and breathing subject because new theories are being shared all of the time, new sources are being found, sources are being interpreted in new and different ways, historical characters are being rehabilitated, sources are becoming digitised so that more and more people can view them etc.

We live in exciting times and I for one can get very emotional and passionate about a subject that means the world to me. History, in my opinion, is something to get passionate about and I wouldn’t do what I do on a daily basis if it wasn’t. Passion and emotion, however, can lead to people getting upset. It would be a boring world if we all agreed with each other but the trouble with online discussions is that people can be misunderstood or feel attacked when people get emotional and ‘militant’ in their defence of an argument. What would be fine across a table at a pub can quickly deteriorate online because you can’t see people’s faces, or know their emotions and the way that they are saying things. People often give a rather sweeping statement or a throw-away comment and then feel ‘got at’ when asked to back up their argument with sources. However, if you’re willing to say something in a public forum then you really should be willing to back up your opinion in some way or admit that it’s just a feeling you have, rather than something based on historical evidence. There’s nothing wrong with raising your hands in surrender and admitting that it’s just your own personal view and no more, better than digging yourself a hole!

Here, on The Anne Boleyn Files, I don’t have a police state. I allow all comments and only delete ones which contain expletives or that are trying to sell designer handbags or the like. If you want to say that Anne Boleyn is a witch and home-wrecking wh*re, then fine, but I might just ask you what you base that opinion on. If you want to say that Henry VIII is a monster then that’s fine too but again it would be great if you could explain why you feel that way. Some people find comments like “Jane Seymour deserved to die, it was karma”, or the same about Thomas Cromwell, offensive, but they are people’s views and people have the right to air them. Yes, I disagree with them and will happily debate with those making the comments, but I’m not going to moderate them and delete them. Debate is a wonderful thing, but I will step in if it goes from intelligent debate to personal attacks being flung around. We need to act like grown-ups and be respectful of others.

Sometimes, the problem is that a person airs an ‘opinion’ as if it was a ‘fact’. It could be because they’ve been led to believe that it’s a fact by historians or authors, e.g. Anne Boleyn was a murderess, Anne Boleyn miscarried a deformed foetus, George Boleyn was gay…, or because they are just too rigid in their thinking and in their sharing of the information. I always find it best to err on the side of caution and ask them why they believe it, rather than jump on them and attack them. If they stick to it and are not prepared to be reasonable, after I have stated my case, then sometimes it’s best to just walk away and bang my head on a brick wall, or more commonly my desk. If they are so rigid in their beliefs then nothing I do is going to change that.

I must admit to sometimes playing devil’s advocate. I was taught that you can argue anything as long as you are willing to back it up, so I do quite enjoy posing questions and provoking debate -sorry! I never mean offence, I just want people to think about what they believe and what they base that belief on.

A great example of good historical debate is that between Eric Ives and G W Bernard regarding Anne Boleyn’s fall. They published articles disagreeing with each other, but they did it oh so politely! They also gave reasons for rejecting the other’s theories and backed up their own. You could not accuse them of ‘bashing’ each other, simply disagreeing. Who knows what would happen if they were let loose on a thread on Facebook though?!

It’s the same with John Guy and Alison Weir. John Guy, and his wife historian Julia Fox, didn’t agree with Alison Weir’s views of Jane Boleyn and questioned her sources in a review of her book. It wasn’t nasty and if an historian or author publishes their views then they expect to have them challenged or debated, that’s the whole point of history. You state your case and then invite others to state theirs – “simples” as Aleksandr Orlov, the famous Meerkat says, and yes I did just quote a meerkat!

Academics disagree, authors disagree, people disagree… It’s the way of the world and shouldn’t we embrace these differences and have some fun with history? Yes, I think so.

What do you think?

P.S. Feel free to disagree with any/all of what I say 😉

P.P.S. Jacquie just made a great point on Facebook about how many disagreements happen because people judge historical characters by our 21st century standards. I don’t believe that we can really judge historical people because we cannot fully understand the context they lived in and we don’t know what they thought or how they felt.

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