Chismis and history




The Manila Times


FOR this column, I am replying to a question recently sent to me by a sympathetic correspondent, Jannelli: “Some literature says gossip can be a historical reference. Can gossip, when confirmed, studied and analyzed, be historicized, po?” Short answer: A piece of gossip is gossip because you cannot confirm it. If it is confirmed, that is not chismis anymore. Fellow Manila Times columnist Van Ybiernas noted that many think that history is like chismis because of the tagline of the show, “History with Lourd,” for which I was historical consultant, was “Chismis noon, kasaysayan ngayon (Gossip then, history now).” This is a valid point. Yet, the show actually showed how various historians gather evidence, validate the true story of the historical events and analyze their implications. It also showed how a piece of gossip remains one for lack of evidence. That is why it is “gossip then,” but because the discipline of history had shed light on it, it has become “history now”: “Chismis noon, na-verify kaya ka saysayan na siya ngayon.” It is not “chismis forever, history never.” In many ways, some criticisms and views about history are correct and it is also what we historians ourselves say: It can be filtered, biased and opinionated. But there is one thing that is not mentioned by the critics of history to dilute its power. The one thing missing in those statements is the most important: History has a method and should be evidence-based. History many times is filtered, in many cases not because one wants to hide something but because one must limit their narrative only to those that have the strongest arguments, or relevance to the chosen topic. A historian is not a mere chronicler of such events or chronology, he must choose what should be included for the narrative to be readable. Ano ba ang may saysay sa kasaysayan? If not, we will have very thick books with no points at all. But it can only be done after a careful study of all available stories and various perspectives at hand. History is biased because it is human to have biases and histories are written by human beings. Everyone comes with personal beliefs based on gender, beliefs, politics, experiences, and many other considerations. But one must see beyond one’s biases, and this can be done by meticulous reading and comparing all available sources whatever the perspectives are. Thus, biases are lessened by methodology, for one can have analysis, judgments and a stand while maintaining fairness. History is opinionated because one cannot be a historian without interpreting. A historian not only chronicles the events but also analyzes their importance, implications and connections to the present. Sometimes, historians also infer circumstantial conclusions based on the context of the times and may offer theories (although they should be clear they are theories). But it is opinion based on research, and if one cannot verify, one should say it is such. So, it may be true: history can be filtered, biased and opinionated as long as you have methodology, and you have a basis for anything you say. That is why history is a social science and not merely creative literature. We cannot create history; we only retell and analyze them. In fact, I remember Van already being concerned before about the tagline, “Chismis noon, kasaysayan ngayon” being misconstrued. He suggested that we make a slogan to tell people at the end of the show that history is not just a mere story but has methodology. Quick, snappy and understandable. That slogan is what I end many of my shows now, “Ang kasaysayan ay hindi basta-basta kuwento, meron itong metodo, magtanong, mag-imbestiga at magkumpara (History is not just a mere story, it has a methodology, ask questions, investigate and compare).” But gossip can be studied and historicized because it is useful if you want to study not the veracity of what happened but the mentalities of people who spread and cherish those unconfirmed stories. It can reflect the values, fears and aspirations of a people at a certain moment in time. A simplistic understanding of post-modernist notions on truth as relative led to the belief that to each his or her own truth. Perspectives can differ about what happened in the past, but it cannot change what happened. We cannot really recreate and bring it back for us to witness but traces are there to get to as close to the truth as possible. Despite our different views about the past, real conversation can only start if we agree on certain facts based on evidence. Discoursing about it in a civil way, without the agenda of misinforming others helps people understand and may even unite us. Like all human endeavors, there is no perfect way to find history, but methodology makes one’s work credible.