“So you must have all your facts right then,” an older lady at a friend’s gathering said to me.
I must have looked startled. “To publish a book,” she added. Of all the concerns I’d had, this had not been – until now – top of my mind.
You see, I’m finishing a book. Nothing that’s about to give Dan Brown a run for his money for the best-selling book of 2014, but a book all the same.
It’s based on a PhD thesis I completed back in 2010 (clearly factual enough to pass examination, I tell myself!).
It tells the story of the Cummeragunja Aboriginal Station from its establishment by the NSW government in 1888 through to the 1960s when the community regained a greater level of control over the land – and their lives.
It shows the marginalisation of Aboriginal people over many years, living under a white manager appointed by the state.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. A remarkably resilient group of people emerge with a penchant for parades, for singing and for one another. Their decision to walk-off the station in 1939 captured widespread attention and has even led to an opera in recent years.
But I’m not here to plug my book*, I’m here to talk about the terror of getting one’s facts right. It’s a topic that’s haunted me for months now, the cause of 4am insomnia, lying awake, imagining a horde of academic scrutineers pointing angrily at pages marked up in red.
Reviewing the proofs, I’ve found myself going back to the original records just to be sure.** Is the date right? Was there a possessive apostrophe in the organisation’s name (the answer all too often, sometimes yes, sometimes no).
It’s led me to reflect, however, that it’s the meaning that really matters, and it’s a conclusion that applies equally to my work in communications.
I’d rather get the year wrong or a spelling incorrect than find my conclusions were false, that the meaning I’m trying to convey was only in my own head.
I feel the same way about numbers. A colleague asked me recently how many Aboriginal people were killed in the frontier wars. It’s a question that makes me deeply uncomfortable. Thousands, I answered, then shared my opinion on figures, particularly as they apply to mass deaths.
To me, the specific number doesn’t matter. In fact, it often disguises the real issue at play.
The amount of academic debate that’s been wasted fighting the conservative historian Keith Windschuttle on whether 20,000 Aboriginal people were killed is frankly depressing.
It was a lot. And we know it.
We see the same in climate change debates as much as we do Aboriginal history.
For the bulk of us, one number means much the same as another. It’s either not much, some or a lot. And it’s the meaning that comes with that scale that’s important.
We should strive for accuracy, certainly – it’s important if we want to be taken seriously.
But, I tell myself as I sign off on my final proofs, if it turns out the Aborigines Protection Association was set up in late 1879 and not early 1880, I’m not going to be issuing a recall.
The meaning of the story is there and has been for some years now.
Scrutineers, sharpen your pencils.
* Which is incidentally on sale here already (even though it doesn’t yet have a cover?)
** But that letter was to the Department of Public Instruction not the Aborigines Protection Board. Good Lord. What was I thinking? Change it! Oh wait it’s to a representative of the Department who’s also on the Board. Forget it, leave it. Oh you’ve changed it. Never mind. It will be fine.