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Public opinion?

1127 [1]By Susana Torres Prieto, Professor of Humanities at IE University and IE Business School.

It has been a few years now that historians write about micro-histories, or intra-history, or whatever label we want to give to it. It is basically a theory of history that goes beyond those grandiose epic narratives that constituted the backbone of nineteenth-century Geschichte to give voice to the vast immensity of anonymous characters that could, and do actually, change history, according to Leo Tolstoy. Count Tolstoy thought that neither War nor Peace were made by great men, but by different individuals, unknown to many, that with their little unadvertised actions did actually changed the course of history.

This shift of interest in history studies was not only promoted by historians that, given their political affiliations, as in the case of the much missed Eric Hobsbawm, were also pursuing a political agenda in looking at “the people”, but in a much more shocking event: the fact that sources did not match facts. Sources, particularly written ones, limited and biased as they can always be –after all, as one of my Cambridge professors used to say “We don’t write history from what was there, but from what was left”– did not match the development of events as they were attested, and did not really explain them. To give just but one example, the process of Christianisation of the Roman Empire did not really happen as St. Agustine thought or described, as Peter Brown aptly showed a few decades ago. One of the reasons for this is not only that St. Agustine wanted the events to have happened in a certain way, but he also had an agenda in mind when writing. Everybody does.

The problem as well is that St. Agustine belonged to an elite (social, cultural even economical) which made him probably unaware (let’s rule out, in principle, the will to mislead) of how people really felt or what they really thought.

For more than a few months now, almost a few years, Europe’s public opinion seems to be in constant shock about what Europeans do, from voting ultra-nationalist parties to deciding to abandon the EU. Europe had grown used to Americans taking weird decisions, en masse, but we always thought we were, how to put it, more rational? The problem with public opinion, of the type you read in newspapers, of experts speaking in tv debates, is that it is progressively less public and more opinion. The fact that opinion makers do not foresee, or refuse to believe, the results of elections and referendums, and some are always ready to jump to conspirator theories, is that, like St. Agustine, we preach to the already converted. If a historian from the future read the papers today and analysed how the world is going, he would have to turn what we call micro histories, he would have to analyse things like Facebook or trash tv –rather needlework or  journal cartoons– to really understand why people do, and vote, the things they do, and vote, in order to understand why things are happening the way they are. Turning a blind eye on people’s fears and frustrations is a comfortable way of keeping within our comfort zone, but it does little to steer the boat. Not many are actually ready to sit down with an ultranationalist voter, or a Brexit supporter and humbly, without prejudice, ask him or her, why do you really think this is actually the best option. Until we are ready to do so, populism will never cease to increase, and what we call today public opinion will be the realm of intellectual elites who find little space, or recognition, in the societies they live in. We would benefit more from thinking twice what is it that we are failing to understand than blaming indiscriminately the foolishness of others. Because the others, polls show, are actually becoming a majority, and, as Count Tolstoy used to say, it is they who will change history in the end, with our understanding and endorsement or not.