This is certainly an embarrassing moment for Naomi Wolf, but I ain’t gloating, for reasons I spelled out in this recent post. In this case, the author in me, who feels for fellow authors who have made mistakes, is a lot stronger than the conservative in me who likes to see leftish prejudices (especially about the past) confuted.
In How to Think I wrote about the power of what C. S. Lewis called the Inner Ring: “Once we are drawn in, and allowed in, once we’re part of the Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post hoc rationalizations that confirm our group identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those who are Outside, who are Not Us.” Wolf’s mistake looks like a classic example of that very kind of confirmation bias: See, those people from the past are every bit as nasty as we thought they were! And certainly Wolf and editors should learn something about assumptions that too readily confirm their priors.
But: Wouldn’t you — wouldn’t anyone — assume that the phrase “death recorded” means “death sentence carried out”? I know that’s what I would assume. Now, someone might say, “Well, she should have looked it up.” But we only look words or phrases up when we have reason to think that we have misunderstood them. Wolf fell victim to what C. S. Lewis (there he is again), in his book Studies in Words, called the “dangerous sense” of an old word or phrase:
The dominant sense of any word lies uppermost in our minds. Wherever we meet the word, our natural impulse will be to give it that sense. When this operation results in nonsense, of course, we see our mistake and try over again. But if it makes tolerable sense our tendency is to go merrily on. We are often deceived. In an old author the word may mean something different. I call such senses dangerous senses because they lure us into misreadings.
Words don’t tell you that they mean something other than what you assume they mean. When our assumption “makes tolerable sense” of a text’s meaning we don’t pause — we have no reason to pause. And that’s why, though I have no high opinion of Naomi Wolf as a thinker or writer, in this case I simply I feel sorry for her.
UPDATE: Or am I being too generous? The fact that she chastised earlier historians for getting it wrong inclines me to less sympathy. If, as an amateur historian, you see professional historians making a claim that your own research leads you to doubt, then surely you should double-check your findings. As I say above, it’s reasonable that the term “death recorded” would raise no alarms; but it’s far less reasonable to blithely assume that all previous professional historians simply missed information that was there to be read.