Never use memory (or lack thereof) to justify cruelty: Holocaust Memorial Day 2015

20150127 HMD Keep Memory Alive

For the Holocaust Memorial Day 2015, the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building, in cooperation with the Institute of Conflict Research, held a seminar event: “The Ethnics of Memory and Community Recovery”.

The speakers were Daniel Greenberg and Lord Alderdice, chaired by the Attorney General for Northern Ireland, John Larkin.

Lord Alderdice provided a distinction between the memory of an individual and that of a community: “The memory of any of us dies with us, but memory of community lives well beyond.”

Commemorations, he added, can serve as a marker of the past (whilst recognising that the present is different); they can also serve as a reminder among some that ‘the battle is still on’.

Mr Greenberg concurred, saying that the further one goes back into memory (history), the more it can be used to justify anything.

Lord Alderdice demonstrated this by the familiar phrase, “Never again.” He cited the 2014 visit by German Chancellor to the Houses of Parliament, where in her speech she thanked the British people for standing up against the German people and the havoc they were causing under Nazism. The implication is that World War Two remains more than just a memory for the German nation.

The danger, Mr Greenberg suggested, is that memory can become an obsession.

But what of community recovery?

In this regard, there was an interesting conversation amongst all three speakers.

Mr Greenberg said that while treatment exists for individuals, there is no “community psychiatrist” to help. We are left with the law and politics. And that the law is a poor instrument for healing.

Mr Larkin responded that the law can make a positive contribution, citing examples of the application of human rights law.

But Lord Alderdice replied that the law and concentrating on material facts of historical events “are remarkably weak in dealing with emotion”.

Better, he suggested, was the role of the arts — visual, written, theatre.

Mr Greenberg agreed: “Art is an expression of emotion, and you can’t argue with that.” The hope is that art compels the observer to want to learn more behind the expression. And that art provides more space for healing.

I asked a question about the science behind how each of us decides what is worth remembering, and what parallels between individual and community recovery.

Lord Alderdice responded that unlike individuals, there is not a singular point making constant decisions of what to remember (and not remember) for a community. Rather, much as each of our personality is an expression of experience, values and attitudes, the group personality of a community could be described as culture.

What is similar between individuals and communities, though, is that if there is a problem persisting in the environment of either case (e.g. domestic violence, military attacks), then the likelihood of recovery significantly decreases. However, removing the person or group from their familiar environment itself is not a guarantor for success.

Mr Greenberg added that while you can’t force individuals or communities onto a path of recovery, one can measure its progress by monitoring its culture. He gave an example of examining what children draw of their environment, over time from a mass traumatic event. Lord Alderdice added that individual psychiatry can assist here.

Reverend Lesley Carroll asked a question in regards to the role of ‘the other’ in community recovery. Lord Alderdice replied that the business of being hurt becomes part of one’s identity, and that recovery is a process itself. Mr Greenberg referenced Nelson Mandela, who maintained that reconciliation must include ‘the other’; otherwise it is just a conversation.

There was a question about the role of individual leadership in providing community recovery. Mr Larkin replied that there is always the risk of a gap between one’s position and the community they represent, making reference to Mssrs Paisley and McGuinness (former First and Deputy First Ministers). Otherwise known as ‘the Chuckle Brothers’, Lord Alderdice said that the issue was they looked like they were enjoying each other’s company too much.

Indeed, Mr Greenberg added that different generations of the living will have different responses to acts of reconciliation. For example, a photo of friendship between once two warring adversaries may be warmly welcomed by younger people, but if your injuries — emotional and/or physical — have not yet healed, then your own memory may perpetuate ‘the battle is still on’ than being able to place it firmly in the past.

I suggest that this works at the community level too.

All speakers’ concluding remarks reflected the conundrum of memory — that conscious recollection of the past should never be used to justify cruelty, but neither should willing ignorance allow human misery to re-emerge.

Daniel Greenberg, Katy Radford (Institute for Conflict Research), John Larkin (Attorney General for Northern Ireland) and John Alderdice (with apologies to Eva Grosman (Centre for Democracy and Peace Building)).
Daniel Greenberg, Katy Radford (Institute for Conflict Research), John Larkin (Attorney General for Northern Ireland) and John Alderdice (with apologies to Eva Grosman (Centre for Democracy and Peace Building)).

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