Debates

Current May 04, 2016 - Present

Does Collective Remembrance of a Troubled Past Impede Reconciliation?

When a society is torn apart by years of conflict or under the rule of a repressive regime, one of the challenges it faces is achieving reconciliation. How it collectively narrates and commemorates that painful past will play an essential role in the society’s path towards a peaceful and inclusive future –or the recurrence of confrontation and violence.

Victims of human rights abuses cannot forget. Memorials and acts of collective remembrance can demonstrate that a community is honestly and thoroughly reckoning with the past. These perennial reminders aim to restore the dignity of the victims who suffered serious violations and prevent atrocities from happening again. On the other hand, after periods of war or repression, many countries opt to bury the past for the sake of peace, arguing that remembering would only reopen old wounds.

When manipulated for political purposes, collective remembrance can deepen divisions rather than help bridge them. When a society has been through violent confrontation, collective historical memory can in fact entrench narratives of victimhood and domination, breed distrust and sow seeds of revenge. In those cases, is it actually better to forget?

These issues continue to play out in numerous post-conflict and post-authoritarian societies where ICTJ works, prompting us to address the issue squarely by asking: Does collective remembrance of a troubled past impede reconciliation?

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Collective Remembrance is Ideological, Not Impartial

Yes
David Rieff
Journalist and Writer

The great Kashmiri poet Agha Shahid Ali once wrote "Your history gets in the way of my memory / Your memory gets in the way of my memory.” Those lines sum up the principal point I was trying to make in my first contribution to this debate. With respect, I have much to learn from both Pablo de Greiff and Sihem Bensedrine, who I want to thank for taking the time to engage in this debate with both such passion and such civility — and what a rare combination that is these days! — and also to thank those who have volunteered comments of their own that are of a very high quality indeed.

However, I continue to believe they are mistaken in believing that there is any practical means of establishing some set of objective criteria that can differentiate, in a way that will seem legitimate to both sides of a conflict a “right and moral way of remembering” that contributes to social reconciliation from a “wrong remembering” that undermines the possibility of such reconciliation. To reiterate the example I used in my earlier intervention, in many of the world’s conflicts — Kashmir, Israel-Palestine, and Northern Ireland are three obvious examples — the fighters whom one community views as freedom fighters is viewed by the opposing community as terrorists.

I want to be very careful here. For example, Bensedrine may be absolutely correct when she claims that in Tunisia “amnesia is the best possible way to facilitate the return of the demons of the past and that, without the ‘process of remembrance’ it will be ‘impossible to end violence, to prevent it and to protect the society from it in the future.’” But while I have no right to an opinion about Tunisia, a number of the war-ravaged societies I do know, such as the Balkans and Israel-Palestine, seem to me to teach the opposite lesson.

I have never claimed that it is always better to forget. Instead, what I have argued in my book In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and Its Ironies and in this debate is that one must judge the moral, political, and societal value of remembrance and commemoration on a case-by-case basis and that this means that, yes, it is sometimes better to forget because in those cases collective memory is a goad to violence and resentment.

De Greiff concedes that “there can be acts of collective remembrance that impede social reconciliation,” but argues that “those with dubious intentions do not have a monopoly on the strategic deployment of the past.” In fact, I agree with him, which again is why although I reject George Santayana’s dictum, which Bensedrine seems to me to accept too uncritically in her contribution, that “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I am most emphatically not trying to replace it with its anti-principle, i.e., that it is in fact those who remember the past who are the ones condemned to repeat it. But what I am saying is that this is because in many conflicts there is no existing consensus between the warring sides over who was in the right and who was in the wrong. For an illustration of this one need look no further than the incompatible views in Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh. One can argue that this an example of what de Greiff describes as using memory for “revanchist purposes.” But even if he is right, there does not seem to be any realistic prospect of reconciling the Armenian and Azerbaijani view, at least not in the foreseeable future. My argument is that, in such cases, societies agreeing to disagree, which is a form of “active forgetting,” to use Friedrich Nietzsche’s term, is the best option on offer.

To some extent, de Greiff, Bensedrine, and I are talking at cross purposes in that they are talking about societies in the immediate aftermath of war or murderous dictatorships while I am talking about historical memory over a much longer timeframe. And while I do not see remembrance as erecting the kind of firewall against the recurrence of war and atrocity they seem to believe it can provide, I certainly do not disagree with them about what is owed to victims of atrocity.

I differ with de Greiff about Spain because I do not think those clamoring for the end of the pact of forgetting are willing to accept that the Republican side, while not remotely as murderous as the Franco regime, also committed numerous atrocities. (The refusal to acknowledge the crimes of the Montoneros in Argentina is another problematic case.) In other words, I do not think that what de Greiff rightly calls “the struggle for memory” in contemporary Spain meets his own criteria of, as he puts it, remembrance when done right having to include all violations of rights “regardless of who were the victims and who were the victimizers.” But I agree with the general principle he advances.

Our disagreement largely centers on what happens later on, when those who have suffered the injury and, for that matter, their children and grandchildren, are no longer alive. Because while de Greiff is unquestionably right that for a victim of the military dictatorship in Argentina or the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia, forgetting is not an option, those memories are as mortal as the people who retain them. To make an obvious point, there is in fact no such thing as collective memory but only individual memory.

Instead, what we are talking about when we invoke collective memory is the consensus about the past that societies develop and that evolve over time. It is that form of collective memory that I am so skeptical of, because, again, of my sense that it can be such a dangerous goad to resentment, hate, and war. From what de Greiff writes in his first contribution, I did not have the impression that he would necessarily disagree.

One final point, both de Greiff and Bensedrine appeal almost exclusively to the language of rights as if rights could be distanced from politics. As someone who believes that law is a fundamentally political artifact, I do not think this is possible. I would simply point out that, uncomfortable as many (though certainly not all) of its advocates are to admit this, human rights is an ideology just as surely as communism was or neoliberalism is today. Can a fundamentally ideological construct lay serious claim to being impartial? Perhaps it can, but I have to say I think it highly unlikely.


David Rieff is a New York-based journalist and author. During the nineteen-nineties, he covered conflicts in Africa (Rwanda, Burundi, Congo, Liberia), the Balkans (Bosnia and Kosovo), and Central Asia. Rieff has written extensively about Iraq, and, more recently, about Latin America. He is the author of eight books, including Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West and A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis. He has published numerous articles in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde, El Pais, The New Republic, World Affairs, Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, Foreign Affairs, The Nation, and other publications. His book The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the 21st century was published by Simon & Schuster in October 2015. Rieff’s latest book In Praise of Forgetting: the Irony of Historical Memory will be published this month by Yale University Press.

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