After Hannah Smith killed herself after experiencing some truly vicious trolling on askfm, the issue of cyberbullying – and how to keep children safe online – has been the subject of political and media attention. The detachment of the internet environment seems to give some people a kind of licence to be abusive. But even those not setting out to bully can struggle to connect how they felt when on the receiving end of abuse and how people they themselves were posting about might feel. One teenage boy, Kade, spoke of the ‘really hateful stuff’ on askfm about his brother, who’d died when Kade was eight – but he said he liked to make people laugh, posting sarcastic comments on the site. The ability to empathise with people only known by avatars and usernames seems to be a real issue for the cyber age.
That distance makes empathy more difficult is nothing new (we just have new ways of being distant from people, including those immediately around us). It’s also relevant when it comes to the past. How can we understand how it felt to experience a particular event or live through a particular period, particularly those outside living memory?
One criticism of public history is that it deals more in empathy and emotion than in evidence – encouraging us to feel rather than think – and is thereby liable to distortions and misrepresentations. Certainly there is an emotive dimension to much public history, shaped by a desire to connect: with family, with a place, with a community’s past. Such a desire seems fundamentally human, and not suspect in and of itself. Recognition, celebration, commemoration might motivate people to make connections with the past, but the public historian can play an important role as a critical friend, offering constructive challenges as well as affirmations.
When public history enters the terrain of popular history, however, is there a risk that the need to entertain can mean suffering is smoothed over? We’ve been enjoying (endless re-runs of) the Horrible Histories songs in our house, current favourites of our three-year-old daughter being the Joan of Arc and Boudicca songs. She merrily dances around the kitchen singing about being burned alive or slaughtered and dismembered, and particularly enjoys songs in which her dad can act out a grisly end.
There’s nothing wrong here – we all know more about Joan of Arc than we did before – but it did get us thinking about empathy. Joan is burned, singing, at the stake, but tells us it’s all alright in the end: ‘my death led France to put on war paint, and crush the English, so now I’m a saint’ – cue wink. The take-off of modern music is really funny for adults (the Take That RAF song is pure gold for my generation), and children enjoy the quirky characters and the gore. The gore (and the poo) is there to entertain – it is horrible histories after all – but no-one’s takes comedy gunk seriously.
We probably need some degree of empathy to be good historians, as well as decent human beings. (Disciplined) imagination is part of the historian’s craft. We can’t treat our subjects’ experiences with the hindsight they lacked, ‘smoothing’ out their suffering within the account, even if our interpretations suggest it was ‘alright in the end’ (‘alright’, of course, from someone else’s perspective). As public historians of various kinds, how can we help people to empathise with people in the past, while still offering that vital critical voice? And can that empathetic connection with people in the past help us negotiate our human relationships in the cyber age?