Against Remembrance – Seminar & Book by David Rieff

Is the best way to overcome the legacy of conflict simply to forget about it?

Author and journalist David Rieff spoke on this subject last week in a seminar at the Institute for International Integration Studies (IIIS) at Trinity College Dublin. Rieff has recently written a book titled, Against Remembrance (published in Ireland by Liffey Press), which draws on his wide experience observing and reporting on conflict zones.

The seminar was hosted by IIIS and the Irish School of Ecumenics and featured responses from Prof Geraldine Smyth, head of the Irish School of Ecumenics, and Prof Ronit Lentin, head of the Sociology department.

The book is hot off the press so I haven’t yet had a chance to dig into it, but the excerpts from it reproduced on the Liffey Press website are certainly passionate:

‘Forgiveness is not enough. … Without forgetting, we would be wounded monsters, unforgiving and unforgiven . . . and, assuming we have been paying attention, inconsolable.’

At the seminar, Rieff said that he knows that he is challenging the ‘accepted orthodoxies’ of most peace and conflict resolution academics and practitioners, who see ‘dealing with the past’ as an essential component of ‘successful’ post-violence transitions.

Rieff questioned the morality and the effectiveness of slogans such as ‘Never Again’ – popularised in relation to the Holocaust – by pointing out that sloganeering about ‘remembering’ has done little to prevent more recent atrocities in the Balkans, Rwanda, the Sudan, etc.

Therefore he urged listeners to shed the ‘pieties’ that surround discourses about the duty to remember, as if memory could serve as an ‘inoculation against horror.’ Rieff admitted that much of his thinking is shaped by his experiences in the Balkans, of which he said:

‘In the Balkans nothing has changed. No one will win that war. Each place has different textbooks with incompatible narratives. The best thing they could do is forget about all of it.’

Rieff said that he was reluctant to speak about the violence on this island, given he was speaking to an ‘Irish’ audience in TCD. Indeed he was disappointingly reticent on this island’s conflict, although the book’s publicity does seem to promise some commentary on Ireland.

Rieff also said that memory is ‘useless’ or ‘counter-productive’ when memories are not reconcilable – when opposing groups will never be able to agree on what really happened or on who was in the right or who was in the wrong.

He thinks it’s dangerous when isolated communities reproduce their mutually exclusive memories of atrocities suffered, through commemorations of events long past.

On this island, I don’t think we have to look too far to see examples of the production of ‘counterproductive’ memories, memories that keep division and sectarianism alive. In fact, the upcoming decade of centenaries may (or, more hopefully, may not) provide us with plenty of opportunities to observe the production of one-sided, semi-mythical ‘memories’ by various groups.

Rieff may think this type of memorialisation should not happen, but his remarks left unanswered the question of who he thinks could or should step in to stop it.

I don’t think that attempts to stop or sanitise these types of commemorations are especially productive. Tom Dunne articulated a similar view in his book on the 1998 commemorations of 1798. Dunne’s wider point is that people are capable of engaging and should be encouraged to engage with the complexities of history.

At its most basic this means simply recognising that there are competing interpretations of events. This also includes cultivating a willingness to understand others’ interpretations of the same events and to critique one’s own group.

In addition, Rieff’s remarks included enough qualifications and distinctions that I think that he would not be ‘against’ many of the processes currently underway to ‘deal with’ Northern Ireland’s past.

For example, Rieff said that as long as direct victims and survivors of conflict are still alive, they should not be told to simply forget about it. Here, Prof Smyth’s comments on the work done in Northern Ireland by Healing Through Remembering provided examples of how constructive such processes can be at the grassroots.

One of the more impressive aspects of Healing Through Remembering’s work is that it involves extensive consultations with local communities. Its research reports and recommendations are not simply ideas pulled from nowhere, but formulated in consultation with a range of stakeholders.

Rieff did not say much that spoke to the current debate in Northern Ireland about whether Government should establish some sort of overarching framework for ‘dealing with the past.’

But it was my sense that the remembrance Rieff is so ‘against’ is the mythologised reworkings of ancient history, not attempts in the here and now to find out more about what happened in the recent past and to provide living victims and survivors with a public platform for their stories to be acknowledged.

Rieff may be ‘against remembrance,’ but it’s a very specific type of ‘remembrance’ that he is ‘against.’

On this note, however, something that Rieff said could serve as a word of caution for Northern Ireland. He said that in some cases, there may be a choice between truth and justice. In order to find out the truth (or, to put it less contentiously, to discover empirical facts about events), justice may need to be sacrificed. Trading truth for amnesty, as in the case of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, could be considered an example of choosing truth over justice.

Should truth trump justice when it comes to dealing with the past? Can people face the truth and resist vengeance, in the absence of justice?

These are certainly legitimate questions to ask.