- Opinion, Informed Opinion, and Public Perception in the Wiki-age
In July 2018, I delivered a public lecture on a fifteenth-century genealogical roll held in the University of Canterbury collection.1 After the lecture, an audience member questioned my assertion that the section of the roll relating the settlement of Britain by Brutus—and its subsequent rule by Lear, Arthur, and others—was 'mythical history'. Why, she asked, did I dismiss my source? I provided a 'standard' explanation: the account is based, ultimately, on Geoffrey of Monmouth and, while Geoffrey's sources remain the subject of perennial debate, most historians are of the view that Geoffrey himself was the Dan Brown of the twelfth century.2 I left it at that, the circumstances making it impossible to go into further detail of what is known/not known about early medieval Britain.3 But I could tell my questioner was not satisfied. Who was I to question the evidence as it appeared on the roll?
The internet has certainly brought new and valuable approaches to historical analysis, just one example of which is crowd sourcing. As with the Canterbury Roll, it also enables us to open up new windows on old sources and to take new approaches to their publication.4 Yet there are, perhaps inevitably, negative aspects as well. The above encounter led me to reflect on two issues that seem to go hand-in-hand with the continuing popularity of history in our wiki-age. First, that the New Zealand public increasingly lacks any real sense of what a professional historian 'does'. And second, that 'opinion' and 'informed opinion' seem to have become increasingly interchangeable. It may be that it was ever thus; if that is the case, however, the diminution of the standing of 'expert opinion' certainly seems to have accelerated. As the British MP Michael Gove put it, the public 'have had enough of experts'.5 My interlocutor's question was not without merit; yet it was [End Page 187] asked with no sense of the key role contextualization plays in source analysis. The source was accessible online; why would a professional historian's reading of it be any more valid than that of anyone else?
It is certainly possible to ignore this issue. Yet the 15 March 2019 terror attack in Christchurch and its aftermath underlines the problem with doing so. In the absence of a robust defence by specialists, the most obvious danger is that the warping of history to serve twisted ideologies will go unchallenged in the public sphere. A prime example of distorted history is the so-called manifesto produced by Brenton Tarrant, the man charged in connection with the Christchurch mosque shootings with the murder of fifty-one people, forty counts of attempted murder, and one count of engaging in a terrorist act.6 As Daniel Wollenberg ably illustrates, a re-imagined medieval Europe as a pastoral utopia, one defined by its 'whiteness' and surrounded by invaders, plays an important role in the ideology of the extreme right.7 Tarrant's 'Great Replacement' is a text book model of such a reimagining. I am certain that debunking such nonsense will have no impact whatsoever on Tarrant or the choir to whom he is preaching. Yet it is important to do so anyway. Those who read the 'Great Replacement', or similar works, may assume, even if they dismiss the ideology that drives them, that the portrait they paint contains some grains of truth.
On one level, Tarrant's world is easy to dismiss. His use of imagery is, for example, a confused mix of the Christian and the pagan. The author claims his moment of revelation involved a war graves cemetery in Europe filled with crosses; this and much other Christian symbolism is juxtaposed with the pamphlet's final page, which summons visions of Valhalla. Yet, for all its muddled attempts to evoke emotion, Tarrant takes care to add a patina of 'research' to his ramblings. An element of this is the series of links to Wikipedia articles and Facebook posts scattered throughout the text. They exist to convey the impression that the author's [End Page 188] views...