JewishGen Discussion Group #JewishGen Re: On the Ethics and Morals of Genealogy #general


In a message dated 29/7/00 12:10:21 am, cweinstein@... writes:

<< I guess the best observation I can add to what was already covered in my
post (which, in turn, came directly >from the National Genealogical
Society web site) is follow the golden rule. "Don't do unto others that
which is hateful to you." Amusing stories and anecdotes about dear old
tante Feige are one thing; the fact that Uncle Max spent ten years at
Leavenworth for embezzling is quite another. If you are going to put up
a web page or publish a book with your family history, unless it is
truly necessary to the story, derogatory information is not in keeping
with Jewish morality and ethics. >>

There is a group of people in the UK who claim Richard III, the notorious
hunchback King to whom the murder of his two nephews in the Tower of
London is attributed, was innocent - a maligned and defamed name.

How do we know anything is true, whatever has gone down in the annals
of history and the legal verdict? Who know what is history and what
is politics equally in "history" and in families? And what is genealogy

I have made a previous point about the professional issues surrounding
broadcast and published biographies where it is known families object to
the portrayals. This becomes more muddled when "star" actors are
identified with the parts they play and these assumptions have been
incorporated into biographies.

We read and see personal details of famous people often still living on
TV, in books and now on the web all the time. This all creates employment
for PR specialists worldwide!

When individuals who have not sought fame become involved in the media
spotlight for the first time, they often start objecting to newspaper
reporters and reports for the first time - even though they have read and
enjoyed media reports in the past. I am not judging or criticising them for
it. They are trying to protect themselves, as anyone would. But such
publication is a fact of life.

Chuck WEINSTEIN wisely puts in the words, "unless it is truly necessary
to the story". Putting on my hat as a family researcher, I am using genealogy
for a specific purpose - to discover new relatives and their descendants,
not to circulate gossip which may or may not be "true" or accurate.

Ancestors may have criminal convictions. I do not know whether they
were guilty or innocent. Ancestors may have been placed in mental
institutions. I do not know whether they were mentally ill or
whether they were put there for other reasons. But I already know
these "stories" and want to find out fresh information.

"Onkel Max's" criminal conviction at least is established in the public domain
- that's the most one can say - and we know "he spent ten years at
for embezzling' while judgements on the laughter value of "amusing anecdotes"
about his wife Tante Feige are in the eye and ear of the man - and woman -
beholding and listening to them.

Sure, we have to make personal decisions about whether to publish (and the
key word is publish) on the web and what will be the repercussions on
individual lives. But these issues are coming up because the line between
personal and public is increasingly blurred. At one time in Britain
at least, there was never any talk about "privacy" and the press. The only
criteria was whether something was accurate or inaccurate.

Now so many people have tools of a trade. A camera, a computer without
being professionals. Anyone can take a photo of a celebrity and sell it to
media. Anybody can publish a website. Whether we like it or not, tabloid
newspapers, book publishers, professional documentary makers and
little 'ol amateur genealogists are facing the same issues, whether or
not money is involved. I have posted this e-mail for publication by
Jewishgen, as well as sending it privately to Chuck WEINSTEIN.

I have a couple of family histories written by a distant relative (not
Jewish) who, in my opinion, has struck the happiest medium possible
in writing about the family. The histories are jam-packed with
information and written in a sentimental, slightly flowery, but fairly
bland fashion. I do not know whether this is all a deliberate stylistic ploy
but it effectively distances both the reader and writer >from the work.

Every so often he inserts words to the effect, "Who are we to
judge people's lives, whether their actions were right or wrong, who
are we to know the full circumstances, motivations. We only know
what is recorded". For "amateurs" publishing personal histories,
it is not only about the facts themselves but, as for professional
writers, the art of narration, the narrative voice. As an Irish
professional comic Frank CARSON says, "It's the way you tell 'em".

To quote >from another Irishman Oscar WILDE "The Truth is never pure
and never simple". Of course when I quote this anecdote attributed to
WILDE, I am aware of another anecdote. WILDE telling the American
painter James WHISTLER in alleged admiration and envy, "I wish
I had said that" and receiving the reply, "You will, Oscar, you will ...".

Of course history may not have recorded whether it
was actually "WHISTLER's Mother" who made the original quip ...

These are all issues which will run and run. Ironically it does
become an intensely personal decision with public repercussions
whether to publish and or not to publish and how to frame a
narrative. And an intensely personal decision whether or not
to be offended.

Alice Josephs

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