There’s been a lot of discussion lately about historical conjecture and speculation, whether it’s right or wrong; whether specific examples are right or wrong. It’s a complicated and vexed issue because it’s always right and never wrong; or never right and always wrong, or sometimes right… only we might never know for sure which.
How we respond to conjecture and speculation is entirely subjective. Even when we run it through our most objective of objective filters, it’s subjective in the end. That’s because it’s more about belief than knowledge; more about ideas than facts. But that’s the important part of the process that’s often missed: running it through filters of objectivity. Not just accepting it because it fits our preconceived ideas, or because we like the person doing the conjecturing and speculating.
At it’s most logical and sound, where bits aren’t added and others taken away, when its expounded by the most intelligent person in the universe, we can only plot it on a ‘likeliness gauge’; on a ‘I could buy that’ scale, where 0 is ‘not at all’ and 10 is ‘without reservation’. And the same piece of conjecture and speculation is going to be in different places on this gauge and on that scale for different people. Fascinating? Yes. Frustrating? Hell, yes!
See, the same standards should be in place across the board. Each piece of conjecture and speculation (ok, C&S from now on because my hands keep stumbling over the -ject- and the -tion) should be judged on its own merits. Does it stack up? How much filler is needed to make it work? Does it fit other more established ‘facts’? What sources have been mined? What sources have been ignored? Is there any evidence of cherrypicking? For it to work, is a leap of faith and/or logic required? Does it have internal logic? Instead we get: Do I approve of the person who is conjecturing and speculating? What ridiculous analogies do I have to make in order to refute it? Does it contradict the C&S that I’ve already internalised? (The last question will nearly always be ‘yes’. That’s the nature of the beast. But if we run it through the earlier questions, we might come to the intriguing conclusion that either might be right. And that’s ok.)
The trouble is that so much of history has become a matter of belief, especially (and you knew this was coming) the bits of history that involve Richard III. Person A (who really really likes him) conjectures and speculates the very best of and for him. Person B (who hasn’t got a view either way) conjectures and speculates more neutrally. Person C (who thinks he was evil personified) conjectures and speculates the very worst. I know which of the three I’d be more likely to listen to.
One of the things I hear most often from the Persons A of this world is: “Be more openminded!”. Which I’ve learned actually means: “Start thinking like we do!”. (Maybe I should have included Person D in this (who quite likes Richard but is prepared to deal with findings that lean more towards our friend C than A). Or Person E (who thinks he was a bit of a villain but is prepared to give him credit where it’s due). There are probably quite a lot of other Persons involved in this, a whole alphabet of them. And that’s because responses to Richard III don’t just come in two flavours. There’s a whole beachside gelato bar out there!) Anyway, back to the ‘openminded’ thing. Of the Persons so far, B, D and E come closer to the ‘openminded’ goal than either A or C. And B, D and E are getting tired of hearing that they’ve missed it. “Be quiet, closeminded fool!” we get told. “Go away and repeat the mantra “Richard could do no wrong” and don’t come back until you believe it.”
As for the notion of ‘objectiveness’… I’ve come to understand that, in another semantic twist, it to has come to mean “thinking like we do” as well. Saying “I don’t know what happened, I want to read everything I can and think about it for a bit. Here’s some ideas, they might be wrong, but hey! it’s a start!” isn’t, apparently, ‘objective’. Saying “I’ve just read all this stuff written by various Persons A and they’re dead right!” is ‘objective’. Apparently. In fact, the more actual objectivity you have, the more you’re shoved into the Person C basket. And they’re not hugely more objective than the Persons A. See how complicated it is? No wonder I’m exhausted!
So, just to set the record straight, I’m not a ‘traditionalist’ (with or without a capital T), I’m not an ‘opponent’. And I’m not an ‘atheist’. (Well, I am, but not when it comes to Richard III. Because he’s not a deity.) I’m just someone who wants to find out (if that’s at all possible) what went on, without too much interference from Persons A and C.