Tuesday 23 July 2019

Memory that resists

A scene from the documentary The Silence of Others

A few weeks ago, I read in an article that the impasse regarding Brexit negotiations is considered, both by Remainers and Leavers, humiliating for Britain. According to one poll, 90% of the respondents agreed that the way the UK is dealing with Brexit is a national humiliation. The author of the article, Professor of Political Psychology Barry Richards, referred to an increasingly influential body of psychological theory which emphasises that “the need for dignity is basic to our psychological make up. To feel that we have been stripped of it is very threatening and destabilising.” He makes the distinction between feeling humiliated and feeling betrayed and his advice is to avoid endorsing and amplifying the sense of humiliation. He also suggests that the word “humiliation”, and others (such as “traitor”, “betrayal” or “treachery”) shouldn’t be used in the debate.

I agree that the need for dignity shouldn’t be overlooked (and it has, in many countries, regarding different situations). It is also relevant to be reminded that “the minds of those who do not personally feel secure or dignified in the contemporary world” might turn to a “strong man” leader who promises to recapture lost pride. But can one deal with the loss of dignity by not saying the word? Will this make the feeling go away? Will the word “get in the way of any later process of reconciliation”, as suggested by Richards?

Saying the word (saying it and not “using” it) is, I believe, an important step in the process. It is the acknowledgement of a legitimate feeling or situation. One must do something about it, starting by… talking about it. Has true reconciliation ever been the result of silencing? Is forgiveness the result of forgetting?

The documentary The Silence of Others had brought up these same questions for me. I hadn’t known of the Spanish Pact of Forgetting, the “pact of silence” in the name of reconciliation and in the name of the future of Spain. Did they really believe that people would remain silent for ever? How could they think that Spain would be strong and its future bright by not dealing with the past, by trying to impose a silence about it, by calling the search for justice of the victims of francoism “revenge”, by keeping young people ignorant (one of the most shocking scenes in the documentary, together with the voting in the Assembly of Madrid regarding the renaming of streets which bore the names of known torturers)? Nerea, a character in Fernando Aramburu’s book Patria (regarding the Basque terrorist group ETA and its victims) also says: “Our memory is not extinguished with water cannons. And you will see that they will throw it on the victims’ faces that we refuse to look into the future. They will say that we are looking for revenge.” Forgiveness, though - and peace and reconciliation - was not the result silence in Aramburu’s book.

The 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre on 4 June also brought up the issue of forced forgetting. Journalists Luisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala wrote about their witnessing of Beijing’s Great Forgetting, in others words, how the State “has systematically erased the evidence and memory of this violent suppression using its increasingly hi-tech apparatus of censorship and control.” One of the people interviewed by Luisa Lim for her book The People’s Republic of Amnesia; Tiananmen Revisited, Tiananmen Mothers co-founder Zhang Xianling, told her that she had once managed to hold a small act of remembrance at the spot where her 19-year-old son had died from a bullet to the head. “The next year, a closed-circuit camera had been trained on that spot, designed to prevent any public act of remembering.”  The opening in April of a museum in Hong Kong commemorating the massacre was met with some vandalism and mild protests. A participant said that local residents were concerned about the museum disrupting the community. “This building will make our lives very uncomfortable. We are just normal people who want to live a peaceful life.” Does peace come with silence and forgetting? Lee Cheuk-yan, secretary of the non-profit Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (which set up the museum thanks to considerable public donations) said that the museum serves a public interest. “The struggle of June 4 is remembrance against forgetting. We believe the more people try to suppress the museum, the more it shows how important it is to Hong Kong and the world.” Ongoing protests and huge democracy marches in Hong Kong show that people are determined not to forget.

We are all too familiar with statements such as “never again” or “never forget” or “those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it”. Museums, monuments, archives claim to be at the service of memory. And yet, these statements are put to the test on an almost daily basis these days, and we are frequently confronted with official attempts to impose a silence, to erase certain memories, in the name of peace and reconciliation. Reconciliation based on amnesia, peace based on silence are doomed to be short-lived. A community’s cohesion must be the result of knowledge; its pride cannot rely, as it often does, on misinformed arrogance. Let’s not wish for the lightness of ignorance... Was there ever a better future in it? Will there ever be?

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