Character Assassination: The Historical Perspective [Part 2]

By Martijn Icks

In my previous blog, I argued for the importance of historical perspectives on character assassination. However, historical research also comes with its own challenges and limitations. Let’s have a look at some of these.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge is the danger of anachronism: we should be very careful not to assume that our own convictions and categories of thinking are valid for historical cultures as well. For instance, we tend to judge our politicians on their authenticity. We feel strongly that what they say and do should not be a feigned pose, but reflect their true inner selves. In fact, voters value authenticity so highly that they might condone a politician’s rudeness, narcissism or other undesirable traits, as long as they feel that he or she is at least being authentic. Nothing worse than a poser!

However, the whole notion of authenticity and a “true inner self” is a relatively recent invention in Western culture. It would have made little sense to a medieval cleric, who didn’t judge the king whose reign he chronicled on his authenticity, but on his Christian piety and martial valour. Of course, it would still matter to this chronicler whether the king’s piety was sincere or feigned, but only because a ruler who wasn’t devoted to God was a bad ruler by default. Sincerity is about commitment to public values; authenticity is about being true to yourself. It’s a subtle but important distinction.

Trump
Whatever you think of President Trump, he appears to be authentic

Trying to understand the past on its own terms is far from easy, especially if the cultures we’re talking about have very different values and ways of thinking from our own. Even words shift meaning over time. If an historical figure is described as “awful” or “terrible”, does that still mean what it used to mean?

Another problem with the past is that everyone tends to be dead. We therefore have to rely on very incomplete, often contradictory and sometimes highly unreliable sources. This can make it hard to get a clear picture of the circumstances in which character attacks took place, what motivated the attackers and what audience they were trying to reach.

In particular, it’s hard to gauge the effectiveness of historical character attacks. Whereas a political scientist or communication expert might look at polls or do surveys to see how the voting public values political candidates and to what extent accusations and slurs in the media “land” with them, such means are simply unavailable to the historian.

When Octavian accused his political rival Mark Antony of drunkenness and debauchery, how many people did he actually convince? When Reformation propagandists compared the pope to the antichrist in their pamphlets, how did that affect people’s opinions of the Catholic leader? We know something about the outcome of these conflicts – Octavian beat Mark Antony and became the first Roman emperor; large parts of Northern Europe converted to Protestantism – but how much character attacks contributed to these outcomes is anyone’s guess. We can only assume they probably had some effect.

That doesn’t mean other academic disciplines can’t contribute anything to historical character assassination research. Quite the contrary. In a study I did with Eric Shiraev, we performed a content analysis of one of the speeches in which the Roman orator Cicero attacked his fellow senator Catiline, accusing him of plotting murder and arson. We then applied insights from political psychology and sociology to suggest what would have made this speech effective, such as Cicero’s attempts to stimulate anxiety in his audience and his rigid distinction between a benign “us” and a malicious “them”.

Our conclusions were necessarily speculative, but if we allow that certain features of the human mind and human society are (nearly) universal, psychologists and sociologists have much to offer students of historical character attacks. The same goes for rhetoricians, communication experts and other scholars. We’ll never get the whole picture, but different perspectives may help us to see things in a clearer light.

 

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