Bearing witness

Every scholar who deals with living people eventually faces a conundrum when it comes to source material. Sometimes materials are painful or present a misleading picture, and we must balance the realities of the "public record" against the humanity of the research subject.

In the instant case I have the question of how to handle materials that are public but politically sensitive. In the grand scheme, these are marginal actors, the foot soldiers in a movement that does not support free expression and thought, and anti-LGBT politics are only one facet of it. Public shaming is not my purpose; it is not a legitimate endeavor for an historian to undertake. But the erasure of past actions leads to ignorance of their continued effects. Silence, going underground and pretending that one never advocated for politics that now prove embarrassing or inhumane, does a disservice to our civic culture.

I wrestle with how best to serve the historian's ideal public mission of enriching the collective memory, giving voice to the voiceless and keeping a record of how the past really was. Without a thorough grounding in history, people are easily taken by the same lies in the present. It is for that reason that, though we must weigh source material for its potential harm, we must also remain aware that the central duty of historians is to the People, not in aiding individuals to conceal the less than savory aspects of their particular past.

Humans are a complex animal and human society is a complex system. Reality is nuanced, it cannot be reduced to black and white. That temptation is the way of the ideologue and the totalitarian, and it must be resisted. All facts will be interpreted through a political lens once they're in the public eye, it's inevitable. But what I want is understanding, and to perform a witnessing function. Too many people find it easy to deny reports from the LGBT community about bias or harassment, and the existence of deep-seated bigotry. This is the main value of the letters I am publishing, that they are so quotidian. These are ordinary people, just like you and I. Think deeply about what ordinary people are capable of, and remember that your words, thoughts, and deeds all matter.