Thursday Thought #165: The Politics of Memory and Forgetting

“Why do you think some atrocities reverberate through the annals of history, compelling people to vow ‘never again’ and yet, others are completely lost to the sands of time?”

“Well, I believe that there is a politics of memory and forgetting. Through social climates, economic issues and sheer demographics, what lies within a culture’s memory is always being molded.”

A few days ago, I reached out to a wonderful journalist/scholar who has spent his life studying the politics of foreign policy. Among his many works is the book King Leopold’s Ghost, elucidating King Leopold II and his legacy in Congo: Mr. Adam Hochschild. I was curious about atrocities that seem to be lost in the folds of an ever-unfolding human narrative. In this wondering, we came to discuss the politics of memory.

“As societies shift, those who wield the most influence in the social structure will decide the direction of collective memory. Even nations that pride themselves on freedom of speech and ideas are not immune to this phenomenon.”

Adam went on to recount the early days of his career. He told me that if one visited Williamsburg in the 1970s, there would be scant mention, if any, of the legacy of servitude and slavery there. The only reason that story is told now is because of the ripple effect of the Civil Rights movement and the shifting American population. Stories only get told because their purveyors advocate for them.

No discipline can escape this need to advocate. Lately I’ve been reading Heart: A History. It’s powerful and moving historical, medical and poet look at the heart throughout human history. Within it is a story about the Roman doctor, Galen. Galen was the most renowned doctor in Rome and perhaps the most renowned medical practitioner in ancient times. But his theories on the heart and how it functioned within the body were dubious at best, dangerous at worst. Yet to challenge Galen was to blaspheme. Therefore, cardiologists throughout the ages were harangued – and even hanged – for trying to present alternative (and correct) theories of cardiac function. It wasn’t until the 19th Century that a pair of doctors in England eschewed their fear of social persecution in order to forward accurate science.

Among their influences was an incredible Persian doctor, Ibn Al-Nafis, who in 1242 made so accurate a theory of the heart that it still stands up to 21st century scrutiny. But his theory went unacknowledged by cardiologists for 700 years, leaving matters of the heart in the west to be “more deeply hidden than the step of the black ant on black rock in the black of night.” These are the politics of memory. And forgetting. Sometimes it can hold humanity back for centuries. Even Millenia.

Collective memory is the substance that binds the collective, gives societies a shared sense of meaning and history. But in this day and age, with billions of people living out billions of narratives, how do we find balance in what stories come to the fore, especially when some of the greatest ideas in history have been subject to the politics of collective forgetting.

I’m not sure there is a good answer to this question. As many nations continue to diversify, the pendulum of forgetting can swing the other way. I’m not sure what that will mean, because the balance of power can shut out a whole different village of narratives when a previously neglected minority group comes into power.  Perhaps that is the source of the nationalist, protectionist and isolationist backlash that we are seeing today: people fearing that their cultural mythos, their essence, will be forgotten.

Perhaps the shift begins with access. Perhaps it begins with the opportunity to be exposed to divergent narratives and to choose for oneself which you want to delve deeper into.

In this time of blending cultures, there is hope for a new light that will shine on narratives both painful and providential – so that we may not forget those who shook the world, and so that we may all stand on an entire Earth of collective wisdom.