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The absence of malice

/ 04:04 AM December 08, 2020

Last Thursday, I had the great good fortune to speak at the Private Education Assistance Committee’s LIDER2 series; my topic was combating historical denialism. Allow me to share excerpts of my speech. This week, a discussion of what some historians call positive historical revisionism. Next week, the conditions that allow historical denialism to take root.

Bear with me: In mis-translating Rizal’s (Tagalog translation of) Article 12 (of the 1789 “Declaration of the Right of Man and the Citizen”), did (Encarnacion) Alzona revise history? In translating only the main clause in Article 12, and in adding a new thought to it, did Rizal engage in an act of historical revisionism? In pointing out Alzona’s translation error, are we acting like revisionists?

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If by the term we mean negative historical revisionism, then the short answer to all three questions is No. If by the term we mean positive revisionism, then the answer is Yes.

The distinction is important. From my perspective, positive historical revisionism involves three different types of change.

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First is the correction. Whenever the historical record is reviewed, whether the review is prompted by new scholarship or plain serendipity, errors will inevitably surface or become visible. Correcting the errors, such as changing Alzona’s English translation of Rizal’s Article 12 to reflect its true meaning, is a positive revision. It brings the historical record closer to the truth as we know it.

Second is the contextualization. History is not only detail, but background; not only facts, but context. Providing or updating the context brings the historical record closer to the truth as we know it, and is a positive revision. To cite a small instance, the 1976 edition of Rizal’s “Political and Historical Writings” does not name the translator; the 2007 edition does — and the addition of Alzona’s name is a modest but called-for change in (the publication’s) context.

Third is the construction, by which I mean interpretation. History is not necessarily written by the victors, as scholars like William Henry Scott have taught us. But history is necessarily told from specific perspectives. New research or new thinking may improve a previous interpretation, or widen the perspective from which it is written. In that way, reconstruing the historical record brings it closer to the truth as we know it.

In my “Revolutionary Spirit: Jose Rizal in Southeast Asia,” I suggested a framework with which to understand the most common types of error in Rizal studies. Perhaps we can apply that framework here.

Let me start with the unfortunate error, the type that “concerns merely factual imprecision.” Alzona’s mistake in translating Article 12 as being about the formation of public opinion (rather than being about the creation of an armed force) falls under this category. Fixing this mistake only requires the first kind of positive revision: a correction of the factual error.

The instructive error may “throw unexpected light” on some aspect under study. Alzona’s error leads us to read Rizal’s Tagalog translation again; but I think it is genuinely puzzling that Rizal translated only half of Article 12. This puzzle is new to me, I do not have any answers, but I think it is important to note the possibility that Rizal’s erasure of the second half of Article 12 can lead to new understanding. Fixing this mistake requires the second kind of positive revision: a contextualization.

The pernicious error is “a gross misinterpretation.” I was referring to the fundamentally flawed premises from which Rizal’s biographers proceeded: Austin Craig, for example, believed Rizal was a proto-American; Miguel de Unamuno thought Rizal was an impractical dreamer. At a very basic level, they misunderstood Rizal. Fixing a mistake like this requires the third and most difficult kind of positive revision: construction, or reinterpretation.

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Correction, contextualization, construction: All these positive revisions become possible because of new research, new discoveries or breakthroughs, new or updated thinking. We call these changes positive historical revisionism because they are an exercise in getting closer to the truth.

The journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame uses a phrase which I have borrowed again and again, because it sums up what journalists pursue: the goal of journalism, he said, is to get “the best obtainable version of the truth.” I think historians have the same goal, but with more finely tuned tools, a more comprehensive view or review of related literature, deeper research, and longer timetables. Truth IS obtainable, but the word “obtain” suggests a humbling struggle, a grasping after, a perpetual chase.

And the errors these positive revisions can fix have something basic in common: the absence of malice. When Alzona mistranslated Article 12, or when Rizal translated only the first half of it and added his own description, they did not do so to mislead the individual reader or the public at large. They made what we call honest mistakes.

There was no direct intent to deceive.

On Twitter: @jnery_newsstand, email: [email protected]

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TAGS: absence of malice, Encarnacion Alzona, historical context, historical revisionism, John Nery, Jose Rizal, Newsstand
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