Memory and Responsibility

Pattern number within this pattern set: 
Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)

Although the evils of the past continue to haunt us in the present, society is often unable — or unwilling — to deal with historical injustice. Thus, although specific incidents of invasion, slavery, apartheid and genocide may appear to be receding into the irretrievable past, they are never altogether absent from humankind's collective memories. As Robert Putnam states, "Networks of civic engagement embody past success at collaboration which can serve as a cultural template for future collaboration" (2000). Unfortunately these cultural "templates" encode past collaborative evils of the past, as well, and these are recycled all too regularly. Can humankind escape this cycle?


Societies are the sum total of their past events. The events of the past that have not been successfully reconciled haunt the present. Projects that endeavor to help address social problems may be well served by examining historical memory and reconsidering how to respond appropriately.


Our memory of the past must guide the responsibility we accept in the present for the future. Without this linkage over time I could steal your belongings with no guilt or responsibility. Of course this has happened on a large scale throughout history. One group will murder, displace or enslave another and enjoy the fruits of their sins for lifetimes. Each passing day tends to legitimize — but never really erase — the misdeeds of history.

Unfortunately, misremembering history, is institutionalized. It's important to understand the motivation and the implications of intentional (let alone unintentional!) misrepresentation of history. Thus in the United States, the enslavement of Africans and the devastation of Native American communities as well as the militaristic forays of recent years including saturation bombing of civilian Japanese populations in World War II to the catastrophic Viet Nam War to the recent illegal invasion of Iraq are generally downplayed and sugar-coated. According to these re-writers of history, Americans always proceed with the best of intentions, perhaps marked by an occasional yet guileless misstep. With ubiquitous misinformation how can the next generation fully understand their country — with its successes as well as its failures — and make wise decisions in the future? Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States serves as an important (though still vastly underutilized) counter-balance to these trends and could also serve as an excellent model for other countries and regions as well as for various economic, political, and religious ideologies.

What can/should people to be done to reconcile past sins and heal historical trauma? Although this question has rarely been addressed peacefully, thoughtfully and effectively throughout humankind's vast history, the large number of projects now in progress shows one hopeful sign of our era. According to Richard Falk, the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany, and directed against Jews primarily as well as against the Roma, Gays, and other groups, marked a central historical marker in this regard. Since that time, movements for redress of war crimes of Japan against China, redress for indigenous people throughout the world, and tribunals and commissions focusing on war crimes and other transgressions have been launched.

People are engaging in innovative projects that help people confront and understand and, hopefully, reconcile the present and future. Some of these examples include the courageous work of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo who publicly confront the abuse of power with photographs of "the disappeared" from Argentina's "dirty war" to seek justice and reconciliation with the past. Other examples to explore include the Seder ritual celebrated by Jews around the world, the post-war efforts in Germany to come to terms with their past, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work in post-apartheid South Africa (and subsequently in many other regions), and the reparations efforts to help compensate African-Americans for the enslavement of their ancestors.

In 2000, the North Carolina General Assembly commissioned a report on an event that had been covered up for over 100 years — a violent revolt and coup in 1898 that was directed against blacks by white vigilantes in Wilmington, North Carolina. Unwilling to wait until the results of the (fixed) election took effect according to law, white supremacists seized city government, burned black-owned businesses and murdered 100 or more blacks in the streets and in their houses. According to John DeSantis, the draft report released in 2005 concluded that "the rioting and coup fully ended black participation in local government until the civil rights era, and was a catalyst for the development of Jim Crow laws in North Carolina" (2006). The report stated that, "Because Wilmington rioters were able to murder blacks in daylight and overthrow Republican government without penalty or federal intervention, everyone in the state, regardless of race, knew that the white supremacy campaign was victorious on all fronts" (DeSantis, 2006).

Not only did this event disenfranchise several generations of black families in the Wilmington area but it actually ushered in a wave of similar actions and intimidation all over the South and became a model for actions in other cities including Atlanta, Georgia in 2006. Interestingly, whites and blacks were both wary of bringing this ugly historical incident back to public visibility and awareness. But what to do with the knowledge that a large number of people were brutalized and murdered (which led to a decades-long denial of basic civil rights) by a large number of people whose great grandchildren are undoubtedly still living in the region. The fact that this historical information has been sequestered for so long, especially in a region of the country that is well-known for its interest in history shows the prevalence of selective historical memory — which in itself represents many challenges for an exercise such as this.

The function of collective memory should promote healing, to set up patterns of behavior that constructively parses history to avoid future problems and to teach each other through mistakes. The intent is not to blame or punish the descendants of people who perpetuated misdeeds both great and small — after all, who if anybody would be immune to that historical ensnarement — but to encourage people to reason together and strive for reconciliation. Ideally the descendants, especially those who have prospered since that time, would play a role in the design of mechanisms and policies to atone for and help reconcile and help redress the sins of the past especially for those who have suffered the most.

In another region and in another era, Veran Matic (2004) eloquently described the rationale why the B92 radio station he works for in Serbia, in the former Yugoslavia, keeps working the way they do.

"If we do not grasp our recent past, we will build our present and our future on false assumptions, beliefs and stereotypes

If we do not face the errors of our past we will again seek excuses for our present in the same place Milosevic sought them — the guilt of others, global conspiracy and so on, rather than in the weaknesses of the society. These weaknesses must be faced in order to understand reality

If we do not fully comprehend our reality, reform programs will be based on false premises

The problems of the repressed past will boomerang, like the permanent problem of lack of cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, or the problem of mafia and police links, or problems with the business elite who amassed their wealth through privileges granted by Milosevic.

Without a radical break with the past there will be no change in the cultural model under Milosevic, which has overwhelmed the entire society, from culture, through education, to the media.

Unless we face the past, we will never know what is good for us and what is bad for us

By not facing the past, we neglect our duty to the future, leaving new generations to pay our debts, just as our generations have paid for the repression of the past of World War II in our country. This gave rise to new vengeance forty years later

And, finally, without engagement we will be unable to demonstrate authentic belief and strong will to institute changes that should benefit every single individual."

"Forgetting" the past is not desirable, nor in reality is it really possible. Although Matic is speaking specifically about recent injustice in the former Yugoslavia, his message is universal. Through hard work by all concerned, healing historical wounds can be accomplished. Although it may seem impossible, those who have inherited the results of yesterday's actions must relive insofar as it can be done, the past sacrificing as necessary to set a more just course for the future.

The best outcome of this pattern, a valuable gift to our descendants, would be the attenuation or, better, the cessation of current practices of brutality, exploitation, impoverishment and oppression.


Think about and confront memory in creative, productive and sensitive ways. Cultivate and assume responsibility. Actively work to reconcile the trauma of the past to guide a better tomorrow.

Verbiage for pattern card: 

Although the evils of the past continue to haunt us in the present, society is often unable or unwilling to deal with historical injustice. The function of Memory and Responsibility is to promote healing, to study history to avoid future problems. The intent is not to blame or punish but to encourage people to reason together and strive for reconciliation.

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