A Case against the Argument from “Collective Amnesia” and “Forgetting”15 May 2023
The term collective amnesia is often used to analyse cases or states in which morally, socially and politically pertinent knowledge, such as knowledge about historical injustices, is (arguably) absent or unavailable in a society’s collective memory. I find this both epistemically inaccurate and problematic and instead propose putting the analytical focus on the phenomena of active ignorance and denialism, which help us better identify the pernicious ethical and epistemological dimensions and implications of the memory practices and processes that constitute such ignorance. I shall do so by discussing the case of genocide denialism.
Forgetting has turned out to be a cultural code for Turkey to avoid facing the dark annals of its past. Forgetting as a cultural code most evidently manifests itself in having the problem to remember and reckon the Armenian Genocide. (Kurt 2014, 173).
Terms like collective amnesia and forgetting refer to a state of ignorance and suggest that this state is a by-product of memory processes. This corresponds with findings in cognitive psychology that demonstrate how the maintenance of certain memories is inextricably linked to the forgetting of other things and how this forgetting can be consolidated individually and social-relationally. In her insightful work, Tanesini (2018) applies findings from social cognitive psychology – in particular, a memory mechanism known as “socially shared retrieval-induced forgetting” (199) – to collective memory to show how collective amnesia may give rise to a distinct form of epistemic injustice. While I do not intend to argue here that collective amnesia or forgetfulness are always unapt for analysing epistemic deficits in collective memory, I here want to focus on cases in which such a diagnosis is both epistemically misleading and problematic.
My concern is with cases in which the epistemic problem of “collective memory ignorance” is not one of lack or absence, but of occlusions of knowledge and misremembrance. As Stoler (2011, 145) has put it in her account of “colonial aphasia” – developed against the background of the French context and treatment of its colonial past – the concern here is with the simultaneous presence of a thing and the misrecognition of it. While the latter description accurately grasps what I take to be the core epistemic problem in such cases, we have less pathologising terms at our disposal to account for it. When it comes to cases in which memory of injustice is actively distorted and misrecognized, we would do better by employing the notions of active ignorance and denialism. Because these notions do not simply refer to some organic cognitive deficit, an alleged absence or epistemic neglect, but centre epistemic agents’ ways of engaging with existing knowledge or other epistemically relevant inputs. After all, in analysing the epistemic problems of such cases, we should not only be interested in arguing that certain agents are ignorant, but perhaps more importantly, in explaining how they are ignorant.
Thus, in contrast to amnesia and forgetting, the notions of active ignorance and denialism do not diagnose an absence of relevant knowledge. Rather, they presuppose the existence of knowledge and other epistemic inputs and highlight epistemically problematic ways in which agents engage with them. This simultaneously allows us to acknowledge the resistant epistemic agency of genocide survivors and descendants and urges us to reflect on the ways in which their epistemic contributions are actively distorted, discredited and potentially smothered. Genocide denialism is thus an epistemically pernicious response to the presence of memories and testimonies of genocide.
As the example of Turkey’s denialism of the Armenian genocide shows, the genocide is not simply forgotten, but recalled and at the same time misrecognized. Armenians continue to be demonized and portrayed as inherently treacherous, the genocide rationalized, and social reality distorted in order to obscure the reality of Turkish domination and the legacy of oppression, which continues to have real-life consequences for genocide survivors and descendants until today. This makes the Armenian genocide not an issue of the past, but of the present and anticipated future. Its denialism provides an ongoing source of injustice, particularly epistemic injustice against genocide survivors and descendants. However, it may also come with considerable epistemic disadvantages for those in positions of dominant privilege.
Who would forget what you’ve written and what you’ve said my love? Which darkness could make us forget? Who could make us forget what has happened? Fear can do that? Life of oppression? Pleasures of this physical world? Or, can death make us forget my love? No, no darkness can make us forget my love. (Dink 2007)
In her speech on the occasion of the funeral of her husband Hrant Dink – a prominent Armenian journalist and editor-in-chief of the bilingual (Armenian and Turkish) newspaper Agos, who was murdered in front of his office building in Istanbul on January 19, 2007 – Rakel Dink emphasizes the impossibility of forgetting. In addition, she appeals to Turkish society to scrutinize the murder: “Whatever would be the age of the murderers, 17 or 27, I know that they were born babies once. Without questioning the darkness that created murderers from those babies, there’s nothing to do.” (Dink 2007) She thereby points to the central role of socialization in promoting discriminatory attitudes and institutional enabling conditions for – if not complicity with – the murder, which highlights the perniciousness of ignorance that is generated and sustained by a state policy of genocide denial. The state and its institutions engage in sustained efforts to legitimize the official state position as well as to continually silence genocide survivors and descendants – the ultimate act of silencing being physical annihilation, which, however rarely enacted, always remains a potential threat.
Denial is commonly a response to information that causes emotional distress, or is perceived as threatening, for example, because it is in conflict with one’s own desires, expectations, a sense of control, or cultural or political identity. This is bolstered by denialism, the collective effort of building a particular worldview. The active or wilful ignorance indicative of denial thus has an important social dimension. Let me illustrate this again with the example of Armenian genocide denialism. Both the Armenian genocide and its denial are rooted in an ideology of superiority, where the political construct of Turkishness is particularly relevant. Astourian (1990, 112), for example, points out that the breeding ground for genocide is prepared in particular by past socio-political discrimination, as well as by “collective phantasms shaped by the unequal relationship between the dominant and the dominated group”. Accordingly, the genocide of Armenians (as well as Assyrian/Aramaic/Chaldean Christians and Pontic Greeks) was the intermediate phase of an overarching relationship of Turkish domination over the targeted groups, whereby Turkish domination was to be maximally consolidated through genocide. (Theriault 2009, 92) Subsequent and long-term denialism obscures and normalizes these domination relations.
One epistemically problematic effect of this is that it tends to produce ignorant agents. Medina (2013) has proposed that those in positions of dominant privilege tend to be socialized in ways that likely lead them to develop epistemic vices, including epistemic laziness, arrogance, and closed-mindedness. Those who are ignorant out of privilege either do not need to know or inquire further (displaying laziness or arrogance) or need not to know (displaying closed-mindedness). The latter is particularly crucial for the problem of denial, where ignorance is actively sustained in order to protect privilege and hide complicity with oppression. (109) The privileges that matter here are not only material benefits gained from the genocide (such as lands or other assets). They also include, for example, epistemic benefits in the form of hermeneutical power, that is, the power to impose meanings and interpretations of relevant aspects of the social world, and what Theriault (2017, 55) calls “conceptual” benefits in the form of preserving a pure and positive national self-image, to “rehabilitate the image of the perpetrators and the perpetrator group’s identity”. This may inculcate excessively high (defensive) self-esteem among members of the dominant group, thereby also encouraging the development of epistemic arrogance. (Tanesini 2021, 98)
The conceptual shift from “passive forgetting” to “active ignorance” helps reveal how Turkey’s “collective memory ignorance” of the genocide perpetuates and sustains epistemic injustice. However, I believe that other cases and contexts of “collective memory ignorance” analysed in terms of collective amnesia or forgetting – including, for example, US, European or Russian violent imperial and colonial pasts and legacies – could be improved by centring active ignorance and denialism. Ideally, we would thereby run less of a risk to contribute to the further invisibilisation both of the victims, survivors and descendants of historical injustice, and of their continuous epistemic resistance in the face of systematic epistemic misrecognition of their historical and present-day social experiences.
This post is based on: Altanian, Melanie (2022). Genozidleugnung: Organisiertes Vergessen oder Substanzielle Erkenntnispraxis? Zeitschrift für Praktische Philosophie 9 (1): 251–278.
Altanian, Melanie (2022). Genozidleugnung: Organisiertes Vergessen oder Substanzielle Erkenntnispraxis? Zeitschrift für Praktische Philosophie 9 (1): 251–278.
Astourian, Stephan. 1990. “The Armenian Genocide: An Interpretation.” The History Teacher 23 (2): 111–160.
Dink, Rakel. 2007. “Letter to the Loved One”. bianet, 23.01.2007, https://bianet.org/english/politics/90622-rakel-dinks-letter-to-the-loved-one
Kurt, Ümit. 2014. “Social Dimensions and Reflections of the Politics of Denial in Turkey.” Journal of the Society for Armenian Studies 23: 171–174.
Medina, José. 2013. The Epistemology of Resistance: Gender and Racial Oppression, Epistemic Injustice, and Resistant Imaginations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stoler, Ann Laura. 2011. “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France.” Public Culture 23 (1): 121–156.
Tanesini, Alessandra. 2018. “Collective Amnesia and Epistemic Injustice.” In Socially Extended Epistemology, edited by J. Adam Carter et al., 195–219. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Tanesini, Alessandra. 2021. The Mismeasure of the Self: A Study in Vice Epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Theriault, Henry C. 2009. “Genocide, Denial, and Domination: Armenian-Turkish Relations from Conflict Resolution to Just Transformation.” Journal of African Conflicts and Peace Studies 1 (2): 82–96.
Theriault, Henry C. 2017. “Denial of Ongoing Atrocities as a Rationale for Not Attempting to Prevent or Intervene.” In Impediments to the Prevention and Intervention of Genocide, edited by Samuel Totten, 47–63. New York: Routledge.
Photo by Rıfat Özcan for Independent Turkey à https://www.indyturk.com/node/188061
 It is crucial to note that the Armenian genocide was not the only genocide committed by the Young Turk leadership. During the years 1914-1917, further genocides were perpetrated against the Ottoman Greeks, in particular the Pontic Greeks, and the Assyrian/Syriac/Chaldean Christians of the Empire.