From John Hennessy:
Many thanks for the thoughtful comments offered up on Part 1 of this post, which you can find here. Bear in mind that what follows will be far more useful if you read Part 1 first.
It strikes my limited brain that there are three reasons public historians choose to portray violence: To shock (an easy thing, but rarely useful in itself, and indeed often gratuitous). As a tool to generate empathy (sometimes useful, when used to a higher purpose, but sometimes mis-used). And as a means to greater understanding (of either a major theme of history, a place, or people).
But there is a fourth outcome, invariably unplanned:
While portrayals of violence are often powerful tools for engaging an audience, we also have to recognize that for many people violence is a formidable barrier to understanding. One woman I greatly admired, possessed of an inquisitive, expansive mind, rejected every opportunity to understand the Holocaust because, she said, she simply could not endure the images (literal or described) that invariably accompanied the discussion. Likewise my wife struggles with battlefield interpretation, in part, she declares, because there’s such a focus on stories and images of violence. It is more than she can bear. She is by no means alone in her struggle. Many people view battlefield interpretation as captive to graphic detail, some of it making little contribution to greater understanding.
Yet, violence is an essential part of history. The violence that permeates our sites and stories tells us important things about human behavior and human struggle–struggle against each other, and against violence itself. More than that, violence–subtle and brutish, literal and symbolic, psychological and physical–is the birthplace of empathy.
And in turn, empathy is the siren song of public history. Visitors crave it; interpreters love engendering it. Certainly, for any kind of understanding on a human level, empathy is essential.
But, I would suggest, we fail when empathy is the end game, for empathy does not always carry with it understanding, and nor does it always tell us something important. It is, rather, a tool. Which brings us back to the three accounts we discussed in Part 1 of this post. Continue reading