The Importance and Value of Memory in Advancing Human Rights

The problem is not memory, it is its hijacking by those who use it in a tendentious way that seeks to sustain hatred and conflict rather than foster cooperation and coexistence and by those who lack compassion and empathy.
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The Guardian recently published an extract from David Reiff's new book, 'In Praise of Forgetting.'

It is perfectly possible to remember and commemorate past events and experiences without fostering hatred, antagonistic obsession, prejudice, resentment and destructive rage.

Suggesting forgetting as a model for peaceful coexistence is to subjugate human beings to relentless cycles of abuse and violence in which perpetrators can conveniently count on impunity to enable them to murder, violate, torture, dominate and destroy without accountability and, consequently, with little to deter their aggression.

It is not memory that is the problem but egoism (particularly in its collective manifestations,) chauvinism, intolerance, and narcissism - religious, national, ethnic, racial, political, gender, sexual orientation or otherwise.

Equally problematic is the use of pejorative stereotyping and the tendency to reduce individual human beings into essentialized examplars of their purported collective identities, ensnaring human beings in prejudice in a way that violates their dignity and denies them freedom.

Attacking the task of commemoration in a reductive way is unhelpful, as is the false dichotomy of remembering or forgetting. The essential question is not if to remember or not but how to remember, the quality of memory, and how to express and share memory in a healthy and constructive manner.

Forgetting in situations of mass human rights violations inevitably becomes a form of social silencing, coercion, and contributes harmfully to efforts to marginalize those who suffered human rights violations who legitimately demand acknowledgment, truth, justice and repair.

Such forgetting would ensure that the primary perpetrators of genocide and crimes against humanity in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, for example, would not have faced justice. It would damn Chileans and Argentinians to the perpetual wound and violence of systemic injustice, rather than enable them, as they finally are now choosing to do, to pursue justice for years of mass torture, killing, disappearances, and other human rights violations under their respective military dictatorships. The Guardian's recent articles on justice for indigenous women in Guatemala and survivors of sexual violence globally illustrate the importance of remembering in a human rights context forcefully.

In Spain, the collective political and judicial amnesia Spaniards have embraced regarding the mass murders and other gross human rights violations during the Spanish civil war has a destructive impact on survivors and their families and is an affront to Spanish democracy and the place of human rights in contemporary Spanish society. Rieff rightly notes that whatever the 'virtues' of forgetting Spain has little to gain from maintaining such impunity now that it has a stable society that respects the rule of law and is democratic in character. Uruguay's policy of deliberate forgetting which enables impunity for the murderers and torturers of Uruguay's military dictatorship is another example of the way forgetting is commonly the enabler of injustice and cruelty.

The problem is not memory, it is its hijacking by those who use it in a tendentious way that seeks to sustain hatred and conflict rather than foster cooperation and coexistence and by those who lack compassion and empathy on a universal human basis beyond the boundaries of their particular collective sectarian identities.

Memory must be in the service of honoring those whose rights, welfare, and humanity were violated and focus on constructive aims of healing, restoration, and transformation, not rage and hatred that feed violence that can become cyclical in nature.

Memory is essential and our most egregious ongoing human rights violations stem largely from forgetting and denial, not from excessive honest acknowledgment of our past and commemoration of it.

We need to remember more, but in many contexts we need to remember differently and we need to do a far better job of internalizing the lessons of what we remember such that we transition from our platitudinous tendencies to verbally confirm that we remember, for example, the genocide of European Jewry in the Shoah, only to do nothing to prevent and stop genocides inflicted upon other peoples such as the Tutsi of Rwanda in the decades that follow and to neglect to take seriously the ways in which Jews remain vulnerable and subject to pejorative stereotyping, discrimination, and persecution.

We need to remember human rights violations and injustices that happened abroad in distant lands which are all too easy to deliberately forget -- many in the context of colonization -- that are often willfully subject to collective forgetting such that those legacies have never been addressed in a meaningful and sustained way by their perpetrators and those who suffered from them lacked and still lack access to justice and repair.

Both colonization by Western powers such as Britain, France, the Netherlands, Germany, (in what is now Namibia) Spain, Portugal, and Belgium and colonization by Turkey, China, Russia/the Soviet Union, and Japan have had devastating impacts on human rights and human welfare. Each of these countries and their respective societies have not grappled substantially with these living legacies of violence and injustice, preferring a combination of active and passive forgetting, denial, justification, rationalization, apologetics, and downplaying the moral, human, and legal dimensions and consequences of their human rights violations. We need to remember not in hate and resentment and discord and fear but in the service of ethical decency, accountability and justice, generosity of spirit and compassion, and the ability and aspiration to create a better future from a wounded, violent, and painful past.

All this is predicated on remembering fairly, reasonably, fully and honestly - not upon forgetting, silencing, and repressing the past.

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