Posts Tagged ‘law’

There are not two sides to every story. We should not have entered the First World War.

08/08/2014, 02:36:55 PM

by Sam Fowles

The “balance fallacy” in the commemorations of the First World War means we forget the real reason millions died.

“There are two sides to every story and this is my side. The true side.” said Emma Stone at the beginning of the (highly underrated) teen comedy “Easy A”.

The mantra that “there are two sides to every story” is embodied to a fault in the anniversary coverage of the First World War. This is dangerous. January’s controversy about the origins of the war has been smoothed over with references to “complexity”. Every mention of tragedy is mitigated by the platitude that “no one” was expecting the nature of the war. Apparently it was no one’s fault.

Except that it was. To say that the slaughter was senseless and some were more to blame than others isn’t to ignore the complexity of diplomatic and military history. Sometimes history is not balanced. Sometimes the merits of one side of the argument so monumentally outweigh the other that the imbalance must be acknowledged.

In a History Today blog in January I said that the study of history is the search, not for truth but, for understanding. But the belief that the sun orbits the earth does little to advance one’s understanding of the solar system.

Understanding history is important because history is inherently political. Imagine historians agree that “A happened, therefore B action was taken and C was the catastrophic result”. The next time A happens we, as a voting public, will be understandably skeptical of anyone who suggests doing B or of anything suggested by the people who suggested B in the first place.

This creates a problem for those original decision makers (or their political descendants) who don’t wish to lose power. Or if doing B again remains in the interests of certain powerful groups despite its catastrophic consequences for society in general.

There’s a fable amongst lawyers about the Harvard Civil Procedure professor who tells his students: “If the facts are on your side argue the facts, if the law is on your side argue the law and if neither the facts nor the law are on your side bang your fist down on the defence table and make enough noise until everyone forgets you’re in the wrong.” If you want history to forget how you screwed up, create enough contradictory accounts that it looks like a debate with “no right answer” rather than a cataclysmic failure of judgment. Create legitimacy with noise rather than academic rigour.

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