Collective Memory in the Aftermath of Mass Violence Essay

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Memory refers to a mental process where information is encoded, stored, and retrieved for use (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968). The process of memory is not, contrary to what many believe, like a tape recorder that accurately records events. Instead, our recollection of events is pliable and subject to a number of influences (Loftus, 1979). For instance Buckley-Zistel (2006) discussed how the recollection of the past of horrific events such as the 1990's genocide in Rwanda is influenced by variables such as the roles of the people during the event or their current living situation. Connerton (2008) attempted to disentangle the notions that remembering is usually considered a virtue and forgetting is necessarily a failing of a person or people. He noted that forgetting is not necessarily a unitary phenomena and that forgetting might have a purpose. Even though Rwandans claim that remembering the genocide is important to avoiding reoccurrences in the future, their recall of the events appeared tainted when interviewed later (Buckley-Zistel, 2006). The current paper describes how the people's recollections of the events that occurred in Rwanda in the 1990's correspond to Connerton's (2008) seven types of forgetting.

Connerton (2008) describes repressive erasure as not so much a form of forgetting as it is an attempt to ignore or overlook past events. This is accomplished by actively removing reminders of a past event from one's immediate view. Connerton gives examples of how totalitarian regimes have actively tried to remove remnants of prior rulers or governments; however, it can take less physical forms such as simply not presenting the full story or editing or leaving out certain details of an event as in an art gallery that only displays Western art or school history books that only concentrate on certain ethnic groups. Thus, such events are not forgotten as much as they are repressed in those cognizant of them or never taught to others. Buckley-Zistel (2006) reports the results from interviews that indicate that much information is repressed in public recollections such as the atrocities directed against the Hutu in favor of recalling the Tutsi experiences. The manner in which the war and genocide is publically depicted along ethnic lines in such a manner that the experiences of the Hutu are overlooked or are not even acknowledged and in effect are erased from recall in favor of the Tutsi. Moreover, the current government actively represses all references to different ethnicities in favor of "Rwandaness" (Buckley-Zistel, 2006). The events are not forgotten; instead they are just not recalled.

Prescriptive forgetting is distinct from repressive erasure in that it is not advanced by an act of state or of some institution in power (ethnic differences), but it is performed by the people because it is believed to be done so in the best interests of all parties involved to prevent acts of vengeance, retribution, or conflict among people (Connerton, 2008). Buckley-Zistel (2006) describes numerous instances where individuals report that they chose to forget or repress memories or accept the current depictions of past events of in order to avoid conflict. One person even states that "…we think that they should give pardon to perpetrators and we live again in peace" (p. 138), whereas another believes the memorials should be eliminated all together to avoid conflict.

Constitutive forgetting in the formation of a new identity occurs when people discard remembrances that serve no purpose with respect to their identity or current goals (Connerton, 2006). The emphasis in this type of forgetting is the gains that accumulate by knowing how to discard memories inconsistent with one's image or goals. Newly shared memories are built accompanied by a set of implicitly shared silences which are directed at some set of goals or maintaining some new sense of identity such as the absence of knowledge regarding one's ancestors or past relationships when newly married. In the first real psychological explanation of forgetting Connerton notes that this type of forgetting avoids cognitive dissonance. In Rwanda, Buckley Zistel (2006) reports that the subjects she interviewed often replied that they could not recollect what caused the genocide. People who are forced to live together, despite past atrocities, distort recollections of the past to establish and overall group coherence. Thus, the new situation and new image of Rwanda can only be facilitated by forgetting or distorting the past.

Related to the above is the notion of structural amnesia, where a person remembers only…[continue]

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