As regular readers of this blog will know, it is my very firm belief that in heritage interpretation we must strive to tell a balanced story. This concept is also known as ‘multivocality’: presenting multiple perspectives on something.
When I discussed multivocality in interpretation with my peers in the past, I have sometimes been accused of relativism. In this line of argument, there exists an objective truth which provides legitimacy to a certain set of perspectives but not to others. To insist on the legitimacy of multiple perspectives consequently must mean to deny truth: it means to deny facts.
A few years ago, I simply dismissed such views. Study after study shows that heritage is not a clean-cut thing. We cannot pretend that heritage is always homogenous, nor can we continue to insist that it is determined by scientific values and nothing else. From post-colonial to feminist critiques, from discourse analysis and representational theory to the challenges to the Authorized Heritage Discourse coming out of critical heritage studies: we know that heritage is personal, emotional, dissonant and contested. In other words, more often than not, it is made up of multiple perspectives. And it is not, in general, based purely on facts. This is not because of any denial of facts. Rather, facts are appropriated, reinterpreted and recontextualized to acquire new meaning.
A few years ago, I would have stopped there. The studies are clear, and so is my interpretive answer. Full stop.
Except, today we are well into the post-factual age. The sector has been grappling with this for some time, and so have I. So when, a few months ago, Michiko Kakutani’s book The Death of Truth was published, I immediately read it in search for further input to help me formulate my new answer to the challenge of relativism.
It didn’t disappoint. The book provides an excellent overview of the Culture Wars in which people broke free of the unquestioned dominance of science. It also traces the development from well-founded critique of ideas of universal truth to the extreme rejection of any verifiable fact, or, as Kakutani writes, ‘the celebration of opinion over knowledge, feelings over facts’ (p. 63). From here, she steps right into a description of the post-factual age: the ‘sheer shamelessness and decibel level’ of right-wing media (p. 111) and our existence ‘sealed in impermeable filter bubbles by Facebook news and Google search data’ (p. 105). She reviews the historical strategy of propaganda based on lies and concludes that, this strategy was ‘to distract and exhaust [a nation’s] own people…to wear them down through such a profusion of lies that they cease to resist and retreat back into their private lives’ (p. 141). She sees a similar strategy applied in modern contexts, where lies are joined by bombast and sheer outrageousness, which equally wear people down until they retreat.
The sane person’s gut reaction is to insist on facts. There are facts. There are standards. There is a way to behave accordingly. And then there is everything else. Kakutani herself presents a cautionary tale when she cites a 2011 BBC Trust report which concluded that on climate change ‘the network’s science coverage paid “undue attention to marginal opinion”’ (p. 75) in the very effort to present a balanced story.
So, out with multivocality because it is incompatible with facts? After some reflection, I still say: no. First of all, we know from recent experience (and the review in Kakutani’s book makes this painfully obvious as well) that simply insisting on facts doesn’t make people accept them. Secondly, facts can be and actually are interpreted differently by different people. Facts do change according to a changing context, for example when further facts emerge. It is how science has evolved over centuries, and with it our understanding of the world. The key point to note is that a different interpretation of facts is not the same as ‘alternative facts’ or more bluntly, lies. We can have, and should promote, verifiable facts as our common ground. But we cannot insist that our interpretation of a certain fact is the only acceptable interpretation. We must not force others to adopt our attribution of meaning. We cannot ignore what we have learnt in recent decades about the influence that discourse and power relations have on reality and our perception of it. Particularly not in heritage, which is the subject that interpretation deals with.
This is where I still reject the charge of relativism against multivocality. Facts do have a place in multivocal interpretation. But to present them in an unassailable interpretation as ‘truth’ is to go backwards. And the BBC’s findings on telling a balanced story? If this were heritage, they would have been guided by heritage values of the relevant communities. The ‘marginal opinions’ would have consequently be presented as just that. Full stop.