Collective and Public Memory
‘Public memory was never short rather always selective.’ – Subharalin Thakuria
‘It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.’ – Mark Twain
Anecdotally, it is said that the public memory is no more than six months. How true that is entirely subjective to the people and the times they are living through, both individually and collectively. One person’s memory is different to another’s. One group’s memory is different to another’s.
It all depends on how the individual or group decide, consciously or unconsciously, to view, interpret, and retain that memory. At times it appears that the public memory can change from day to day given the circumstances, the information, and the methods of delivery. The overabundance or under-abundance of supplied information is another factor and if that information is consistent or contradictory also impacts on the formation of memories due to what is selected and retained from the information.
Memory, whether individual, collective, or public tends to view the event from one perspective be it nationally, the community, individually, or within societal groups. These are coloured with the biases, values, and narratives particular to the group or individual. Therefore, memory is selective to the facts that are kept, discarded, distorted, fragmented, and interpreted and must be taken into consideration when assigning credence to the presentation of such memories.
The importance of understanding the difference between history and memory is important in that sometimes the differences are misunderstood.
History aims to provide an accurate, comprehensive, and as much as possible an unbiased portrayal of events. History also can record multiple perspectives and details in order to provide a fuller account of events from a variety of sources and viewpoints. Resultantly, history and memory, while similar, can and often does contain differences. This is not to be mistaken with the history written by the victors from global conflict, rather that this is the recording of the history of society which, can and is, a convoluted process and fraught with inconsistencies.
So can the public or collective memory be distorted?
It can be and is routinely manipulated to suit present times. Take for example the public memory of the last World War. The horrors, privations, destruction, and deaths are simply surreal to current generations as time has softened these things down to an abstract of the reality of those times. What remains instead, in some instances, are the glorification of those times in the heroics of the soldiers, the sacrifices and stoicism of the civilian populations. What is left out is the actuality of those times as that cannot be imagined from the perspective of current generations. The concept of total war and mass death is surreal and unimaginable, as are the sacrifices and hardships endured by the civilian populations, as current generations have not ever experienced such things in nearly eighty years. Such is the current collective memory of those times.
What is ignored in modernity is the mindset of previous generations. Previous generations had no choice but to adapt and submit to the political decisions that led to war and the ways in which war was waged. Propaganda played a huge part in shaping the public mindset yet lived experiences reinforced the propaganda as populations directly suffered the impacts of the ruling authorities. Modern times will see the realisation of accepting propaganda designed to achieve an outcome based in ideology and nothing else as it rips apart the fabric of a cohesive society.
‘One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic’ – Stalin
Recent events in Australia have shook society deeply as we experience our first recession in thirty years. There is actual fear in people, as it is fear of the unknown, and it is propagated by the media.
The reason is that even those who lived through the sixties to the nineties have had the experiences of those harder times diluted by the passage of time. The World Wars are little more than stories told by tired old men and women. Rolling strikes and the hatred of the military are products stemming from the sixties and propagated into the eighties and these things are mostly forgotten due to the change in societal views promoted by the ruling mindset.
The collective memory is softened by the personal and public memories that were more pleasant in that era and reinforced by the propaganda of those times that were designed to motivate people. To tell children of today about the experiences of those times is simply unbelievable, regardless that the storytellers were children and young adults back then. We lived through those times and we experienced the impacts on families and an entire generation as a result.
There was a time, not so many decades ago, that it was simply an accepted reality that children would die from a variety of causes from the moment of birth until adolescence. That was just the way it was. Advances in medical science have changed that and nowadays the death of a child is a staggering tragedy. Perceptions change and so do attitudes, in this example it is vaccinations to some degree.
The connection between having nothing and having to make do with what you had is a concept that recent generations simply have not had to contend with. Make do and mend are just words in these current times and have no relevance.
The present is the magnifier of events and it is with rose coloured glasses that the past is viewed, almost as if the trials of those times were somehow easier or simpler. The past is merely an example of statistics that have little relevance to many. The reality of those times may yet be dwarfed by the reality of what is to come. For those who lived through those times it is an indelible part of their memory. That is why older people hoard food and keep cash in physical form as they lived through the times in which these things were threatened due to the actions of the political process. Today these actions and attitudes are alien to modern generations who fail to understand those times.
It is all a matter of perspective.
How this fits in with the health of a nation may not seem clear, yet it is. When memory distorts history, the problem is that perspectives are altered as facts are ignored or discarded. When altered or ignored on a small scale, that presents a small problem, to the individual or the group and not the broader society. On a large scale the impacts are massive.
A classic example is how politicians depend on the shortness of public memory and how they distort it by various means. Obfuscation is the most common tactic politicians use to cover mistakes, statements, or acts that raise the public ire. Relating a personal experience to the public to create a connection when the practices or policies that they have enacted are harsh is a way to not just make them relatable, but also helps to form a commonality with the population when it simply isn’t so. If that fails then make yourself the victim and play that card for all it is worth.
Look at the media reports of Scott Morrison cooking a curry for his family or building a cubby house for his kids. Look at Daniel Andrews regaling people with his working-class background, how tough his parents had it, and how he misses his mother. Look at other premiers and leaders and how they present themselves as the ‘caring parent’, stern or otherwise, looking out for the best interests of their children, being the population, in keeping them safe. They are designed to make these politicians more relatable to the electorates, nothing else. They are designed to promote an image of commonality that simply does not exist as these people live in a wealth and privilege sphere that is not the same as the masses of the population they seek to connect with.
They are designed to create images of commonality that will become part of the public or collective memory in the perpetuation of their own advancement. In some way they care little of how history will judge them, as history is a thing that doesn’t matter to people like that, even as they create it.
What is left out is that they do not endure the same privations which their actions have placed upon the electorates. Some have had pay rises. Their livelihoods are intact, and they still enjoy all the privileges of their positions while the rest of the population has to endure the privations enacted upon them. Our hardships and sacrifices are not theirs. They are the authors of what we endure rather than the audience.
They are actively manipulating the public memory in the present and for the future.
So, is this a bad thing? Well yes and no.
What is bad is when an individual or a group that is promoting an ideology manipulates public memory with fragmented or false information in order to achieve an end that is based in self-interest.
No, it is not bad, in that sometimes it is necessary to manipulate the collective or public memory to motivate a population to strive towards a common goal that is in the best interests of the nation. Even then there are questions of how ethical this is.
Tiananmen Square and the images of a lone student standing in front of a tank are well known to the people who lived through that time and mostly reported in the western world. This was the rejection of totalitarian rule. Yet the Chinese government have eradicated that moment in time from the collective memory and history of their population because it presents their socialist regime in the actuality of their brutality and repression. Simply put that would expose their hypocrisy.
When statues are pulled down, when books are removed from libraries and destroyed, when facts are altered or omitted to further a cause then the collective memory is altered to fit a narrative. When media reports events subjectively to suit an agenda, or simply make a conscious decision to not report events at all, that is manipulating the public memory. These are all bad and yet it is happening in this very era … right now in fact.
It matters little that these things are happening to real people and impacting real lives, as time will dilute and then forget that. These things are unimportant in achieving an end.
‘In a time of deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act.’ – George Orwell
‘Critical voices have to care about history. We have to care about the way things get controlled in the past because that’s when the damage gets done and if we don’t keep that historical memory, we will allow them to do it again next time.’ – Martin Baker
The above quotes are the intent of my writing about public and collective memory. Australia and the entire world is currently living through a time of turbulent events and change. Nations are sabre rattling while preaching peace, societies are tearing themselves apart, violence is being presented as peace, economies are being decimated, and the inequalities and actions of activism have achieved a sort of respectability fuelled by mob rule. This is all happening under the guise of a pandemic, PC culture, and being ‘woke’ and on a global scale.
When you believe bullshit all you get is shit.
Socialism and fascism are sexy once again in mainstream society and our public and collective memories are being shaped to fit narratives that would in more rational times be rejected.
The brave few who present facts and tell the truth of events are now the subversives and enemies of the state. History is being erased in the same clumsy, heavy-handed way that the Nazis did, just more covertly under the cover of political correctness and the ‘woke’ mentality. Language is being reshaped and the literal meaning of words are being distorted to fit a new narrative. It is Orwellian ‘newspeak’ in modern clothing. Orwell’s thought crimes are now real and known as ‘unconscious bias’, of which we are all apparently guilty.
The good parts of our past are ignored or degraded, and the bad parts of our past are magnified to again fit a narrative. It is selective and insidious in intent and in large part encouraged by those in positions of power either as active supporters or as cowards in fear of personal loss. The brave few who dare to point out the hypocrisy are belittled and scorned as the means to either silence them or silence the facts.
This is all part of the manipulation and shaping of our public and collective memories so that it can pass by largely unnoticed.
The ideology of PC culture is accelerating fuelled by cancel culture and the ‘woke’ mentality to push the narrative, drown out any voice of common-sense, reason, or fact to arrive at a conclusion that is unknown to the propagators of this. The altering of the collective and public memory is just another way in which this ideology is engrained into the public consciousness as being acceptable, justified, and right.
We are allowing this to happen and it is as sheep to the slaughter we go.