Validity and the Ways We Talk about History

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On Jan. 14, 2015, Time reported that Ava DuVernay, director of the new civil rights film Selma, responded to criticism that her film lacks historical accuracy by saying, “Everyone sees history through their own lens and I don’t begrudge anyone from wanting to see what they want to see … This is what I see. This is what we see. And that should be valid.”

While I’m looking forward to seeing Selma, I found this comment disturbing. Not for what it suggests about DuVernay’s views on the civil rights movement, but for what it exemplifies in our public discourse and ways of talking about historical truth. Whether or not a particular film is historically accurate seems to me much less significant than what a diminished view of the reality of that past could do to our public consciousness and our appreciation for those who lived it.

DuVernay’s use of the word “valid” is what struck me most. Validity and Legitimacy are sister words that have become favorites in the way we speak about the diversity of opinions, views, beliefs, etc. in our society.  Daily we hear that so-and-so’s opinions or feelings on a subject are valid or legitimate, or legitimately valid, without any real explanation of what is meant by these terms. At Counterpunch, Jonathan Cook puts forward that contrary views can be legitimate, seemingly, if they are “advanced in good faith.” And Niall Breslin writes that all views are valid “once the person is telling their story and not pretending they have all the answers to others’ problems.”

If the words simply indicate that someone has the right to hold a certain feeling or opinion, regardless of whether or not it conforms to reality, then that is about as pedestrian as saying that the comment “I hate vanilla ice cream” is valid. They most certainly do have that right. But if these words are surreptitiously (or even unconsciously) being employed as synonyms for truth (even subjective truth), then that  raises some interesting problems for Validity and Legitimacy and for people like DuVernay who use them with such ease.

Turning to DuVernay’s comment as a typical example, the deployment of Validity/Legitimacy distracts us from the matter at hand (i.e. whatever is being discussed). In this case, the historical veracity of her film. And it reconfigures the conversation around a person’s freedom of expression. Rather than defending her film by suggesting that her views have more veracity or are balanced or are commonly held views, DuVernay wipes away the otherwise messy issue of the differences in historical interpretations.

This tactic is essentially a verbal feint, a rhetorical sleight of hand, and one that is incredibly effective and prevalent in popular media.

Of course DuVernay has a right to make a film based on her reading of history, and I am looking forward to watching it. But that hardly is the point. To brush the history aside by leaning on Validity/Legitimacy diminishes the importance of the reality she is representing. At best, this tactic relativizes all such readings of history, and at worst, it neutralizes the importance of the events, because all interpretations of the events are legitimate, as long as someone sincerely holds them to be true.

Another point worth considering is whether or not DuVernay truly means “everyone” and whether or not everyone’s views actually should be granted the same legitimacy that she assumes. Personally, I deny the validity or legitimacy of many people’s views of history. This list includes: radical Islamic terrorists, Nietzscheans, social Darwinists, those who deny the reality of the Holocaust, racists, and those who opposed the civil rights movement based on historical precedent. To grant validity (or legitimacy) to such views of history–to say that they have truth value–simply because someone holds to them is to acquiesce to either ignorance, apathy, or inhumanity.

Finally, since Validity/Legitimacy have become synonymous with a person’s right to hold a certain opinion, then if a particular view (e.g. social Darwinism) is almost universally condemned in popular opinion (i.e. not granted Validity/Legitimacy), we are faced with several serious questions. Should such opinions be permitted in the public sphere? What do such refusals say about our notion of the right to free speech? By what measures are we drawing such limits? And, most disconcertingly, if popular opinion were to embrace one of those opinions that we currently deem sexist, racist, intolerant, etc., would that give the view Validity/Legitimacy?

I’m afraid that, despite its popularity, the Validity/Legitimacy discourse has neither the backbone nor the complexity to answer such questions. As Steven D. Smith argued in The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, we need more robust and meaningful terms and principles than such as these to conduct our civic and social conversations.

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