February 14, 2003

Writing of Oz History: Rhetoric, Dialogue, Tradition

I have refrained from commenting on Keith Windschuttle's comments on the writing of Australian history because I wanted the dust to settle a bit. I wanted to see whether the dialogue was getting anywhere or whether it was going around in circles. I also wanted to see whether positions were becoming entrenched, issues were being sidelined and prejudices were being expressed rather than reflected upon.

In his most recent intervention Why I'm a bad historian Windshuttle makes two claims. He says:

"The debate over my thesis suggests something is seriously wrong with academic history in this country. A small group of university teachers with overt left-wing political commitments believe they can decide among themselves what happened in this country's past. When challenged, they resort not to debating the substantive issues but to demonising their critic and mocking his concern for facts."

I am willing to grant Windschuttle this with suitable redescription in terms of the rhetorical traditon. 'Demonising their critic' is the standard way for debating issues publicly in Australia, and sadly it is how Australians understand rhetoric. See a previous post on the intervention by Dick Moses More on Windshuttle/Ryan dispute re writing Australian history. Demonising is not conducting a dialogue or conversation in deliberative writing as it is more concerned to achieve victory in the cultural wars. See Nor is demonising a good way to persuade an audience to adopt their point of view through the use of figurative language.

'Mocking' is one technique to amplify the force of writing and arouse the emotions of the audience. It is designed to provoke laughter and scorn, undermine one's enemies and divert attention from the weak points of the argument. Laughing is laughing at someone--speaking derisively--- and it involves a glorifying or triumphing over others.

Windshuttle deploys this rhetorical tradition himself with his amplification or magnification of the argument. which is designed to intensify the passions --eg., fabrication, invention, concocted----which presents the facts in a maner more favourable to his side that they are in strict truth. These emotional appeals are then picked and circulated by the neo-con journalists with great ornamention. The case Windshuttle is arguing is then presented with great exaggeration born of indignation, as seen in Interpretation or Fakery. These are standard rhetorical techniques.

If we are going to have a dialogue on the writing of Australian history then it should be acknowledged that all parties in this debate are working within the rhetorical tradition, and that they doing so with great gusto.

The second issue Windshuttle raises is his claim that the writing of Australian history should be an empirical history. He says in response to Alan Atkinson's piece in the February edition of the Australian Book Review that described an article of Winshuttle's in The Australian (December 9) as "heart-sinking" that:

"I had provided a list of examples of the abuse of scholarship in Aboriginal history, showing that interpretations of frontier warfare and genocide were based on invented incidents, concocted footnotes, altered documents and gross exaggeration of the Aboriginal death toll in colonial Tasmania.

What made Atkinson's heart sink, however, was not this catalogue of misconduct. Instead, he was dismayed that my critique was based on such an outdated concern as getting the facts right. "Windschuttle aims to take the discipline of history back to some golden age," he lamented, "when it was all about facts."

Windshuttle's response? It is that:

"...historians should report the facts accurately and cite their sources honestly. To pretend these things don't matter and that acceptable interpretations can be drawn from false or non-existent evidence is to abandon the pursuit of historical truth altogether."

So there are two different issues here: the use of rhetoric and the way to write Australian history. What is disappointing is that there is very little engagement by historians with Windshuttle's claim that the only way to write Australian history is to do empirical history. They do not engage with this claim even though it is pretty clear that they have rejected this way of writing history and are writing it in different ways. I have suggested in previous posts Windshuttle, Fabrication & writing Australian history and Windshuttle, empirical history, language that one of these ways is a hermeneutcal one; ie one involving an interpretative way of writing based on an understanding of primary sources as texts.

What happens in the public debate is that John Quiggin and Ken Parish have agreed that Windschuttle has landed some very telling blows on Lyndall Ryan's academic reputation. I previously questioned that claim in Multiple interpretations of history. In Another shot in the Cultural Wars Ken Parish says:

"Ryan has apparently known of these allegations for over a year, she has had well over 2 months since publication of Windschuttle's book to hotfoot it down to Tasmania and drag out her old notes and photocopied documents. If it was me whose reputation had been attacked in this way, I'd have been on the first plane down there. The fact that we still haven't heard a substantive defence from Ryan or any of her sympathisers rather suggests that she's simply been caught red-handed, and is hoping the controversy will somehow just die away."

I have argued that Ryan has indeed responded by indicating that she has moved away from an empiricist history at The writing of Australian history revisited with her conception of history involving different and multiple truths and interprrtations. The attacks on Ryan do not engage with her alternative conception of writing Australian history.

There is only one kind of writing history, say the empiricists. That is ours. If interpretation exists---even Windshuttle uses the words--- it is built up piece by piece from the facts (primary sources) not from other texts. All the time of course Parish and Quiggin are spinning their interpretations from other texts---in the media or online. They are practising what they theoretically deny without the slightest embarrassment---giving interpretations of a particular text. So they are enforcing their empiricist dogmas onto Ryans text thereby constructing false interpretations of Ryan's texts.

It is about time there is some acknowledgement of the rhetorical and hermeneutical traditions that are being deployed here in this public debate about the writing of Australian history.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at February 14, 2003 01:14 PM | TrackBack


Gary, if you insist on sending non-educated readers like me to their Third Edition Macquarie just to demonstrate your own superior erudition, maybe you could do us the courtesy of spelling the damn word correctly.

Or perhaps, like most academics, you would prefer the great unwashed not to read your stuff and to stick to reading the Daily Telegraph while moving our fingers along the letters and moving our lips.

Posted by: Ron Mead on February 15, 2003 02:55 PM

I am very sorry. There is no excuse to that mispelling.My apologies for causing all that exasperation.

There are mitigating circumstances: it was extremely hot in Adelaide when I wrote that post --I was nearly asleep--- and I do not know how to use spell check on Moveable Type.

I did mention other links in the post to give some background to the debate, and there is a reference to hermeneutics in the resources listed the bottom of the weblog. These were an attempt to save readers the trouble of having to waste their time doing research. The links and resources were give some signposting.

It has nothing to do with superior eurdition and treating readers as the great unwashed----it is trying to show that the extremely strong hold the empiricist tradition (there we go again!) has in Australia; so strong that people are not recognizing that they are doing something very very different to what they say they are doing.

To show that other traditons need to be introduced---rhetorical, hermeneutics---to give a name to these different practices. If we can recognize that there are different kinds of writing taking place in these disputes (and that these are all jumbled up,then we may be able to remove some of the blockages to the public debate.

This currently goes round and round in circles endlessly with both sides repeating the same points and throwing the same accusations.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 15, 2003 05:01 PM

Sorry, Gary. I'm just a cranky old man.

Posted by: Ron Mead on February 15, 2003 05:58 PM

Lyndel Ryan has built her case for "genocide" of the Tasmanian aborigines around documentary evidence that she cites to support her research.

What Windschuttle has done in his book is to examine the validity of the references that Ryan has actually cited in her text. That examination has shown that the Ryan citings in numerous cases bear no resemblence to the evidence she purports to have uncovered.

It's all very fine to have an "interpretative" view in the writing of history but it's a bit rich to claim that as reason for an historical approach when at the same time you are citing documents to support your interpretation that have no bearing on the content of the argument.

If one accepts this as a legitimate means of writing history then any interpretation is as valid as any other and the necessity to cite supporting documentation is so much a waste of time.

The problem for Ryan is that she as cited footnotes as empirical evidence to provide legitimacy for her "interpretations" and Windschuttle has most inconveniently exposed this as little more than a sham.

Mike Murphy

Posted by: Mike Murphy on June 3, 2003 05:12 PM
Post a comment