Bias in History | Opinion of the applicant

When asked to comment on reviews that say I am “biased” (sic), I refer the curious to the PLDT phone book. Here it is in printed form, hundreds of pages that provide a simple list of names and phone numbers. I used to treat the phone book as a rare example of an objective primary source, except that the arrangement of the data can be considered subjective. For example, why is the list ordered alphabetically by last name? Can we arrange by first name? Would it make more sense to order the list numerically in ascending or descending order? Can the data be disaggregated by gender? By occupation? Or geographical location? If we can’t be objective and unbiased in a phone book, what more can we say about history?

Prejudices in history are as old as history itself. I remember the late nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo who was marked red, as a communist, for his historical book: “The revolt of the masses: the story of Bonifacio and the Katipunan” (1956). “Which story is not biased? he yelled one day, adding with a big laugh: “Show me a historian, a real historian who is not biased, show me! I wonder what he would think of the many self-proclaimed history experts who plague the internet today and spread fake news or pass off opinion as fact.

My conversations with Agoncillo were published under the title “Talking History” (1995) which, in retrospect, could mean either Agoncillo talking about history, or Agoncillo being literally talking about Philippine history. Explaining bias to me in 1984, he said:

“When you say, for example, that [Ferdinand] Marcos [Sr.] is such and such then you are biased. You have to interpret. In the story pag sinabing objective ka, you are nothing! You are nothing, absolutely nothing! Absolute zero! (Laughter) Even a calendar chooses! (laughs) Humanap ng kalendaryo, makikita mo hindi everything is called calendar (laughs).

“People who criticize me don’t really know the story. They do not know what history is, for the very fact that the student of history chooses what to include and what not to include in his work is proof that history is never objective. (Laughs). When you say, for example, that Mrs. [Imelda] Marcos is a beautiful woman, you are not objective, because [that] beauty of Mrs. Marcos does not say that she is beautiful. It’s you! Ikaw angsasabing maganda if Mrs. Marcos. In other words, you’re already imposing yourself [into the narrative].

“As soon as the student of history makes what is called a value judgment, and in history we always do that, wala na! Saan nandoon ang objectivity mo? It is important in history to be impartial! Which is different.

I met Agoncillo in his twilight. He met me at the dawn of my career. I often think that his life and work inspired me to follow Clio’s path. More so when he repeated to me the words he spoke in 1977 when he retired from UP, an act he jokingly described as “coming out of darkness into the light of the sun”.

He said: “Those who would work in the fields, and others like me, who have tried to explore, should not be afraid, like true explorers, and should say things for whatever purpose. can bring, no matter who is hurt. I once told my class about the Philippine Revolution, and I would like to repeat it now, that he who is afraid of making enemies cannot be expected to tell the truth (laughs).

“…the little that I have done has not even scratched the surface of the vast and deep reservoir that is our history and our culture. It remains for those I have left to continue where people like me left off: experiment, modify, enrich, correct and expand as they go along. There is no perfectibility, nor completeness in scholarship, and the fools that we mortals are, as Shakespeare once said, can only do our best to make the most of from a bad situation… I don’t mean to be narcissistic or falsely modest, but I like to think that my residence hall at this institute of learning has given knowledgeable outsiders reason enough to suspect that there is a department of history at the University of the Philippines (laughs).

Modesty may not be one of Agoncillo’s virtues, but even his critics agree that he cast a long shadow in the history of the Philippines which, rightly or wrongly, has shaped how we know and understand the Philippine Revolution and the short-lived First Republic. I miss him very much.

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