One of the easiest (and laziest) ways to engage in what passes in some circles for critical thinking is to claim that someone who does not agree with you is biased. The implications of such a declaration are not difficult to discover. First, because someone is “biased,” they must be wrong. Second, the person making the accusation is suggesting that they themselves are not biased, and that their view of what happened, how, and why is dispassionate, objective, and thus correct. Third, the declaration of bias in itself is enough to discredit one’s findings or interpretation. One need not demonstrate the existence of said bias or how such alleged bias distorts or discredits one’s scholarship or one’s argument. Asserting it seems to be enough.
Often bias is associated with one’s presumed identity. That is, one’s a Yankee historian, for example, or a Lincoln court historian, or a Lost Causer. If a historian critical of some aspects of the Confederacy hails from the former Confederate states, they must be a scalawag in the eyes of their critics who are far more sympathetic to the Confederacy. Race, ethnicity, and gender are also part of the playbook of presumed bias criticism. Biographers are assumed to be in love with or defending their subject, or are described as out to get someone: a declaration of presumed motive seems sufficient in the minds of some as meeting the requirements of critical discourse, allowing one to forego the need to demonstrate the existence of said motive or its manifestation in one’s work. This is an especially vibrant them in the minds of those who claim that there’s a “conspiracy” against so-and-so that has lasted for decades if not centuries, as if there’s some sort of secret guild established to protect the reputation of whomever and attack someone else.
What unites these approaches is easy to understand. Explanations of motivation or bias serve as substitutes for actual critical engagement with a historian’s argument or use of sources. Indeed, it’s a way to avoid intellectual engagement altogether. Moreover, one senses a bit of projection going on. Critics who rely upon notions of conspiracy, bias, and identity as the substance of their criticism quite often are rather impassioned believers in someone or something who are blind to their own bias and rooting preferences. I recall when someone asked the late Tom Buell, who had a fondness for George H. Thomas, to discuss what mistakes Thomas might have made and what shortcomings he might have had. Buell pondered the question, then answered that he did not know of any.
Lately I’ve seen an increased tendency to use other labels as well, sometimes in wildly indiscriminate fashion. People are “politically correct”; they are “leftists” or “Marxists” and so on (recall that I once asked someone to define what he meant by “Marxist methods of interpretation of history,” and he couldn’t). I’ve discussed these matters before. These labels are always tossed around in a critical context as a substitute for critical thought.
That, in the end, is the problem with such thumbnail analysis: it refuses to come to grips with the necessity of first proving that an argument or interpretation is flawed or simply wrong-headed. It simply rushes to explain why that analysis is wrong-headed, without first demonstrating that it is, in fact, wrong-headed. It simply presumes that it’s wrong-headed, primarily because the person making offering the criticism thinks it’s wrong-headed, but either finds it beyond their ability to explain why or simply refuses to do so. In other words, the criticism is grounded in one’s own bias and discredits one’s own claim to dispassionate objectivity, or it’s a wonderful exhibition of intellectual laziness or simple inability to engage in intellectual discourse.
Good scholars look to subject the arguments of their peers to critical analysis. All too often we see people who fancy themselves to be historically literate skip that essential step in their rush to explain that the reason an argument is flawed is because of the supposed bias of the person making it … never pausing to consider what that says about the critic’s own lack of objectivity, intellectual capacity, or evident bias. Show me (don’t simply tell me) that an argument is flawed, not that the person making it is flawed, at least in your eyes.