Let’s Lose the Term “Revisionist”!

In another instance of my books talking to each other, two authors from very different perspectives argued that the rhetoric of “revisionism” is unhelpful to serious discourse, though quite convenient for polarizing polemic! Robert Tracy McKenzie, a Christian historian argues that we should lose this term in discussions of history (in his case, in his book The First Thanksgiving). Ellen Schrecker, whose core beliefs can only be inferred but probably differ from McKenzie, makes the observation that the accusation of “revisionism” became the popular argument of the conservative right against the perceived “political correctness” of the academy in her book The Lost Soul of Higher Education.

Why is this so? Both contend that revision is a constant and healthy process in the academic world. In no field do we know the exhaustive truth about anything. Both of these writers are historians, and history is an effort to write an account of the past to which we have no access apart from primary source materials and artifacts, which gives us far from an exhaustive view of that past. Revision happens when new source material comes to light, or new perspectives allow one to give an account of past events more congruent with the totality of the data. It is the latter type of revisions which come in for the greatest criticism because many of these involve looking at history from perspectives other than that of white men. The roles of women and non-white peoples are often given a truer account when historians do scholarship from perspectives that include concerns for these peoples. Often, such history shows our “heroes” as people with feet of clay–consider for example Thomas Jefferson, and the studies that reveal him as a slaveholder, and likely a father of children by at least one of his slaves.

Rather than tarring certain areas of scholarship with the “revisionist” label, the scholarly thing to do (but one that can’t fit into a media or blog soundbite) is to assess the quality of the scholarship in question. Does it indeed represent the best account given all the extant sources or data? Does it deal even-handedly with competing theories or explanations and provide a convincing account of why this explanation is superior? Are all the assertions made reasonably supported by the data or sources, or are there unsupported claims? Are all the sources or data accessible to or reproducible by other researchers? These are the kinds of questions a genuine concern for truth in our scholarship requires.

In most discourse, I would argue that the “revisionist” tag is the cheap-shot substitute for a serious response to scholarly work (or work that purports to be intellectually serious). Most of the time, it is a pretentious way of saying I don’t like what someone is saying, or resent that the person has questioned the verities of my life. If we genuinely think a piece of work is bad thinking or bad scholarship, the answer is not to label it revisionist, but rather to produce better thinking and better scholarship that shows bad scholarship for what it is and advances the search for truth.

The “-ist” in revisionist  in fact makes an inference about the person producing a given piece of work, as much as about the work itself. As such, I would contend that this is a form of ad hominem argument that moves our disagreements from the realm of disagreements about what is true to personal attacks upon the character of the person advancing that argument.

What are other words you’ve come across that shut down serious efforts to pursue truth, that function as verbal “smackdowns” that deepen divides rather than produce understanding?

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