Sometimes, Forgetting is Better than Facing the Past

Published in Turkish Daily News, 29 May 2007

Allow me to defend myself ‘pre-emptively' in line with the contemporary modus operandi, before you are even offended by this article. (And who knows, may be my initial fears too will be proven to be unfounded when you finish reading this article) In actual life, I am a lot less ‘cynical' than I appear here and have rather strong opinions about how societies should deal with past atrocities. However, as the debates between Armenians and Turks still continue to present themselves exclusively in terms of ‘truth' and ‘justice' over the past, what often is muted in the cacophony of who-is-the-real-victim dogfights, is the present tense.

The problem as well as the solution lies in the present!:

As social sciences and philosophy have pointed out again and again, the present does not discover a mere ‘truth' as it is in the past. Since the past is only present to us in narratives selectively constructed by contemporary actors, one cannot separate the present from the past. By whom, why and how a narrative is constructed is equally, if not more, important than what that narrative tells. It is therefore the present that has to be scrutinized first, not the past, if one wishes to proceed beyond the haunting ghosts of the past. In Armenian-Turkish talks (or rather mutual verbal attacks) the present context is often brought onto the table in ad hominem arguments to discredit the other side; “Of course a diaspora Armenian would say this” “So and so is a Turk thus any criticism of his is ungrounded or denialist.” What I call for here is none of this: I believe that the sword that can cut the Gordian knot of a century long pain, prejudice and conflict does not lie in the past but in the present. Thus, we have to critically analyze, deconstruct and challenge the ideas, discourses and goals that dominate the present if we ever want to reach a half-baked closure over the sad episodes of history and a possible future together. So let me lead the way with casting the first stone; there is so much naivety in the public excitement and blind folded support of demands for facing the past.

Problematic promises of “facing the past”:

The arguments we hear can be summarized in two groups; utilitarian and moral. Utilitarian arguments try to convince us that a nation can be healed only when it confronts her past; that peace and reconciliation can only be achieved by official acknowledgement of past injustices; that such an acknowledgement deters repetition of similar crimes. The moral arguments centre on the themes of justice and moral debt owed the dead. They exhort us to give heed to contemporary demands, because it is moral to do so. Both of these arguments share taken for granted assumptions, which are far from unshaken solid grounds to base an argument. In contrary to the popular beliefs based upon self-help sound bites, facing the past can open the way for re-traumatization of the victim rather than healing. Human beings develop certain mechanisms to continue their lives after tragic events. Leaving it aside, not speaking about it or not acknowledging it and living as though it never happened are not uncommon strategies used by the victims. By putting them to cross-examination, pressuring them to retell the event in the courts or on TV can totally take away from them their only means of coping with life. Even Freud has warned that the patient may leave the therapy in a worse condition than before. The same danger is increased in manifold when we move from the individual victim to wider political concerns. In postconflict settings (e.g. after civil wars and ethnic clashes) or in transitional contexts (e.g. when an old dictatorial regime opens the way for democracy), the negative peace (cessation of armed conflict) can often only be achieved by negotiations of amnesty and not speaking of past evils. Demands for facing the past in these contexts can turn out to be the greatest hindrance to stop destruction and proceed to a better future.

Remembering can be dangerous!:

Similarly, remembering past atrocities can be far from deterring new ones. Serbs ‘remembered' the loss of the Battle of Kosovo of 1389 to Ottomans and made it a corner stone in the narrative of a new Serbian identity as well as legitimization for the brutal treatment of Bosnian Muslims. Hutus too had memories of Tutsi animosities towards them. Identities that are developed on being victims always run the risk of committing the worst crimes. Finally, facing the past means a life long tension as different segments of societies will run counter-memories even though a country may officially choose to face the past and move on. In a poll published in 1998, 74 percent of white urban South Africans, and 62 percent of blacks, reckoned that the operations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had done more to stir up old resentments than lay them rest. Even in the South African experience, the most famous case of ‘facing the past', the reopening of wounds have been extremely painful and incomplete. There are still survivors who are angry about the amnesties granted to perpetrators and perpetrators and beneficiaries of the system who still deny responsibility. Same thing applies to Argentine and Chile, where there are still different memories of military days and occasional tensions.

Countries that chose to forget:

Philosophers all the way back from Plato to Nietzsche have promoted forgetting the past and starting with a blank page. Aristotle tells us that after the civil war of 404 BC in Athens, peace and democracy was established by leaving the past behind. An amnesty law was passed and the remembering of past injustices became a punishable offence. The reconstruction of democracy by ways of forgetting brought a long period of stability to Athens. The wise men of the Antiquity are not alone on their decision. Modern Spain was born out of the attempts for collective amnesia, which is known as Pacto del Olvido, Pact of Forgetfulness. Only through not speaking of the evils of Franco era and granting amnesty, Spain was able to be what it is today. Mozambique was able to end a 16 years long bloody civil war in 1992 which took one million civilians and left behind memories of gruesome tortures and mutilation by deciding to allow the past to be the past. So sometimes, the only way to save people is to let the past go!

The “innocence” of moral discourses:

Much has been written on how the genuine desires of the victims or their descendants have been utilized for vote gathering in Europe and the US, so I'll spare you that. But there is more politics than meet the eye when states decide to ‘face their past'. France has undergone a significant change in her perception of the past. The myth of French resistance against invading Germans and non-cooperation in Vichy era had to be upgraded when it could no longer hold to be true in the face of the facts of the deportation of tens of thousands of Jews to the arms of death. When the past can't be escaped and upright denial can no more convince anyone, the romanticism of facing the past by offering apologies become a quick way of gaining the moral higher ground once again. Switzerland too had to come to terms with the myth of complete neutrality and account/expiate for the blood gold with setting up foundations and working for ‘deterrence'. Not so surprisingly, Truth Commissions- the epitome of facing the past, have always had their share of similar political motives. They have always provided, knowingly and unknowingly, a great political legitimization to new governments and leaders over the previous ones. At times, they even highlighted the wickedness of the past when the present was not much different. Idi Amin of Uganda, known nowadays as the Last King of Scotland, had commissioned one in 1974 to inquire ‘disappearances' since 1971, which didn't stop people from disappearing during and after the commission.

Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind:

So there is more to it than just rhyme in Alexander Pope's poem. We expect too much from the idea of facing the past, which it can never deliver. Facing the past is a tiresome, non-conclusive, possibly dangerous process, flawed with immoral quests for legitimization and political public relations, with no ipso facto guarantees of healing, peace and reconciliation. The outcome, whether it would be destructive or constructive, depends on the actors of the present tense. Thus, we come back to what I stated in the beginning of this article; the only solution to the Turkish-Armenian question lies in the present not the past.