Written By Jonas Guigonnat:
Human beings allow themselves to give a lot of importance to beliefs and if we look at the history of religions, philosophies, social behaviors or political concepts we can clearly see that we allow ourselves to have faith in anything. As it usually seems when it comes to our species of habits, this network of information, this ‘datacenter’, that we call memory plays a crucial part in the way we choose what to believe. There is another dimension to memory. One we tend to forget because it is too abstract to grasp completely, but which, nevertheless, plays a huge role in the way people find their place in the community and the way they interact with other individuals, or how they see other societies. This ‘collective’ dimension of memory ads a twist to our capacity to translate processes into ideas. In other words, most of our intellectual interpretations of the world don’t belong to ourselves, but to a collection of past memories which are omnipresent in every aspect of human societies.
Collective memory seems to play a huge role in our subconscious and pleases our mind when we are looking for intellectual comfort, for what seems ‘usual’ and ‘normal’ to us. The best way to block processes, to overshadow them instead of accepting the uncertainty of a development which isn’t under our control, is to trust this collective memory. We are creatures of habit, but also creatures of comfort. A phenomenon which supports both gives us the feeling that we are safe. Sorry to come so soon with bad news, but there is no such thing as real safety.
Are we doomed to be manipulated by our own beliefs?
If we try to look closely at the state of our current ‘western’ societies it seems that we do are condemned to follow patterns which are nothing else than illusions. In times of emancipation, as much for women as for (ethnic) minorities, we are generally surprised when confronted with the way of thinking of older generations. Until 1945 racism was quite a normal way to consider ‘others’, even in the most democratic countries. Segregation in the United States was still just another aspect of daily politic until the early sixties, and expressions of antisemitism in Europe and in the US were still occurring well after 1945. That some people nowadays still are able to think that way really astonishes most of the younger generations, but it should not be such a surprise. Each generation’s belief is nothing more than the result of past intellectual choices.
The choices which have been made in the last forty years comforted us into the idea that what we call democracy was the right way to see the world. There is, of course, no universal definition, but the word itself depends exclusively on positive intellectual associations. If you ask someone from a western country what he thinks about democracy, you’ll hear words as freedom, human rights, prosperity, rule of law or social equity. Those are the concept within which democracy is presented and taught. But what if we look at what makes it possible? Wouldn’t we find children making our clothes and mobile phones for one dollar a week? Or African countries where most of the economy is in hand of foreign companies? Wars for oil and natural resources? Do we not find systematically ‘western’ involvement in every bloody conflict of the past 75 years? Asking those questions is already giving the answer. But thanks to our collective memory we still do believe that ‘our’ way is the greatest factor of progress in history.
Collective memory tricks us and goes many times far deeper than what the media shows us or what politics tells us when election time arrives. The way western societies reacted in the past five years to sexual harassment scandals and the creation of the Me Too movement make it seem as if people were surprised to hear what was happening to women almost at every layer of society. If looking for a culprit, collective memory may be here, once again, the one we are looking for. In that particular case, it is not just a question of decades of intellectual choices, but of millenniums. As the great philosopher, writer, and feminist Simone de Beauvoir explained it in the second half of the last century, there is no point in history, as far as we can find sources, where men were not dominating women. To emancipate from something of that scale is just about the most difficult task one can think up.
As confusing and abstract as it can be, what we collectively believe makes us understand the world the way we do. But that doesn’t mean that free will has no part to play. It’s just that it needs to be shared and put into changes, which are taking time and deserve people to be patient. We should continue to forge our own beliefs, but without forgetting what the past tells us about our capacity to create any form of belief. Because memory seems to be what forges us, it becomes the only tangible proof of our existence. Which in the case of collective memory means that we do not only exist as individuals, but also as collective consciousness. One more reason to believe that we all are human beings. nothing more, nothing less.