In the middle of a recent panel discussion, the words “genealogy makes you a better person” emerged from my mouth. My fellow-panellists, and a fair number of the audience, looked at me as if I had just announced that the moon was made of cheddar, politely ignored the remark and moved on to saner topics.
Nobody was more surprised by the remark than myself. It has depressing echoes of the hoary adolescent debate about the utility of art. Does reading and appreciating a great poem have any moral effect? A long time ago, after half a decade spent in the company of third-level teachers of literature, I came to the conclusion that the answer was No. If anything, spending your professional life immersed in great writing appears to have the opposite effect. Pettiness and spite seem to be pettier and more spiteful among specialists in literature than anywhere else.
And, on the surface, genealogy is hardly much better. Cranks and shysters make up a disproportionate number of us. Our committee wars are acrimonious and interminable, following the axiom “the smaller the teacup, the bigger the storm”. The goal of our research is not disinterested truth but more information about ourselves and our families.
And yet the very process of family history research, its sheer amateurishness, does have a strong positive effect, at least on some people. It teaches that we are all mongrels, providing a powerful antidote to snobbery and racism. It shows that history is not a simple competition between good guys and bad guys and, by extension, that neither is the present. It provides a powerful emotional antidote to social atomisation.
Maybe some nuance is needed: the study of ancestors won’t make bad people good. But it can make decent people more decent.