Our language defines us. When we speak, our precise choice of words betrays our intent; when we dig through history, historians sniff and scurry like terriers to find the exact words used by people long dead, because we know that is our best chance of learning who they truly were.
As a result, few things get my blood boiling like a misattributed historical quote. As an Elizabeth I specialist, I see red over one line frequently attributed to the Tudor queen. It’s the decidedly Mills and Boonish line: “I do not want a husband who honors me as a queen, if he does not love me as a woman.”
It was probably invented by a hack named Frederick Chamberlin in 1923, although even he couldn’t have predicted the day it would be splashed across The Sun‘s Page Three as an inspirational love-guide endorsed by that day’s topless girl du jour. (It’s seven years since the topless Page Three spread was abolished, and yes, this is still the moment in its history that really bothers me.)
If you’re a real Elizabeth-fangirl like me, you might see it as an insult to the historical woman it misrepresents – a strategician far too complex for such Hallmark guff. But a more historically dispassionate view is to see the proliferation of these “modern” inspirational quotes, placed in the mouths of people who understood words like “love” or “husband” completely differently, as part of a dangerous elision of the gulf between us. today and the people of the past.
The women of the 16th century did not speak in Instagram-lingo. And they weren’t, most of the time, “just like us”.
So I sympathized with the writer Otto English, when this week he spotted a cringeworthy and inaccurate quotation had made its way onto the wall of a school. The school in question is the Michaela Academy, beloved by Tories and hated by lefties for holding its pupils to the highest behavioral standards and for imposing strict discipline when they fail.
The headmistress, Katharine Birbalsingh, came to national attention when she spoke at the Conservative Party Conference in 2010 and immediately came under a relentless attack from Labour-supporting colleagues. Birbalsingh soon resigned her job as a vice-principal – her supporters of her described her as having been hounded out of the state sector – before eventually setting up Michaela as a free school.
Now, a new documentary portrays Michaela as an astounding success. But English spotted a trailer for the show – which has yet to even be aired – in which a large-font quotation can be seen on an internal wall at the school.
The quotation in question reads “success is not final, failure is not fatal: it’s the courage that counts”, and is attributed to Winston Churchill. only problem: as English points out, Winston Churchill probably never said any such thing.
English is right. It’s not unreasonable to expect schools to check that the history they’re teaching pupils is actually accurate – and a quotation on a wall, while not a formal history lesson, is still part of an educational display.
But it’s what happened after English spotted this on Twitter that should worry us. Birbalsingh has acknowledged that the attribution of the quote is a “minor mistake” and invited English to visit within a year to see that the quotation has been fixed.
But she’s since been deluged on social media with demands that she formally apologize – to her pupils, to her staff, even to the wider public – and issue a statement of regret.
As Birbalsingh herself wrote on Twitter: “Shall I gather staff together in the morning to recognize our terrible sin? Will that satisfy you? Or are our children forever deeply harmed by this misattributed quote? Maybe we should just shut the school down and be done with it?”
This may seem another minor Twitter story. Birbalsingh certainly spends too much time on Twitter – as do I, guilty as charged – and has said ill-advised things on it before. So far, so 2022. But it combines two peculiar contemporary phenomena.
One is the online preponderance of supposedly inspirational quotes attributed to historical heroes, many of which sound unconvincingly modern. As I’ve suggested above, part of this trend may stem from our need to convince ourselves that people of the past framed their thoughts as we do – because if not, we are faced with the unnerving realization that our innermost emotions are framed by the linguistic and cultural norms of our time. Where does that leave personhood?
The other contemporary trend is the rise of the mob-forced apology. Ritual public apologies used to be confined to the state television of China or the show trials of Soviet Russia. They are not designed to demonstrate regret, but to show that the target has bowed completely to a superior political power.
You don’t have to like Birbalsingh, or her educational philosophy, to have seen this happen to other people. Consider the friend of mine who, in the recent past, made the mistake of suggesting online that people convicted of sexual offenses against women (while identifying as men), should not be married to female inmates if they subsequently choose to define as women.
The apology she was required to offer, in order to keep her post, didn’t just apologise to the trans community – it required her to commit to a process of “re-educating” herself and keeping silent on all issues of sex and gender in the future.
As she said to me: “I felt like I was being made to apologize for my own soul.” Nor does she think her rivals de ella in the office de ella believed either in the need for the apology, or her own belief in it – “but they loved making me say it”. She left soon afterwards.
Katharine Birbalsingh hasn’t stumbled into the gender wars, but Churchill is also an emotional subject.
Just this week, a new and hyper-negative biography by Tariq Ali has been passionately defended by the anti-imperialist academic Priyamvada Gopal and attacked as close to treacherous by Piers Morgan: one’s attitude to the wartime leader has become a litmus test of political identity .
Most of Birbalsingh’s enemies don’t want her to apologize for misattributing a quote – they want her to apologize for having the gall to propose Churchill to her pupils as a hero. Beyond that, I suspect they’d like her to disavow her entire educational philosophy of her.
So brava to Katharine Birbalsingh for refusing to commit hari-kari in public. Otto English is right to hunt down our plague of bad quotes – as he does in his excellent new book by him, Fake History. But we’re sick of performative apologies being demanded over minor mistakes. Something dark is going on here.