Forgiving and Forgetting in Historical Memory

In the final chapter of his 2002 publication The Ethics of Memory, philosopher Avishai Margalit muses on the relationship between forgiving and forgetting in human memory. When a person, group, or state commits a wrongdoing against another person, group, or state, should efforts be made to “blot out” the wrongdoing in the same way that one erases text on a computer, or is it best to “cover up” the wrongdoing in a manner more similar to crossing out words on paper with a pencil? In other words, is it best to forgive AND forget the wrongdoing in question, or is it more appropriate to forgive without necessarily forgetting?

Margalit makes an important distinction between the act of forgiving and the act of forgetting. Forgiving is voluntary, while forgetting is involuntary. He argues that “the distinction between voluntary and involuntary applies to mental acts . . . I can voluntarily think of a white elephant, but I cannot follow the instruction not to think of a white elephant. Forgetting cannot be voluntary. Just as I cannot voluntarily avoid thinking of a white elephant. I cannot decide to forget something just like that. And so if forgiving involves forgetting, it would seem that one could not decide to forgive” (201). In sum, forgiving requires a deliberate and conscious mental effort to be achieved, and it does not necessarily entail forgetting.

Margalit suggests that the “cover up” method of forgiving–but not forgetting–past wrongdoings is the more ethical model for successful forgiveness. Forgiveness means disregarding past wrongdoings and overcoming the initial emotions that emerge from these actions–anger, resentment, and revenge–in the interest of seeking peace, solace, and understanding. “All we can ask,” argues Margalit, “is that the one who was wronged should not take the offense into consideration as a reason for future behavior toward the offender. Forgiveness is the decision that the injury is not ‘admissible evidence,’ that it is no longer a reason for action” (202). Seen in this light, forgetting is unnecessary for overcoming resentment because any effort to voluntarily “forget” a past wrongdoing often leads to unintentional remembering. Overcoming resentment of past wrongdoings requires a large amount of time and effort, often years, decades, or lifetimes in the making. But forgiveness, once achieved, is an accomplishment; not because it bestows mercy on the ones who committed the wrongdoing, but because it provides peace to ourselves.

How might the “cover up” method help us better come to terms with the past?

In my opinion, forgiving but NOT forgetting the past is more humane and honest than forgiving AND forgetting the past. For one, it is actually impossible to completely forget about the past because, as I argue in an earlier post, history doesn’t go away just because a person, group, or state chooses not to acknowledge it. A country like Brazil that attempts to forget its slave-trading past undertakes an impossible mission in collective forgetfulness, made all the more difficult because the wounds of slavery remain close to the hearts of slavery’s descendants today. We cannot undo the past or pretend that bad things didn’t happen “way back when,” and we certainly cannot begin to understand or reconcile the past if our end goal is to “move on” from it, as if historical inquiry has an obtainable endpoint that permits us the opportunity to wash our hands of human history.

While it is true that historical memory initiatives like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that seek to address past injustices may breed more hostility than reconciliation (or, as Sarah Kendzior suggests, “those who [remember the past] are doomed to repeat it”), I would suggest that such a desire for revenge may originate from a collective desire to forget rather than any sincere to forgive. To have the truth or what is understood to be the truth shoved into the throats of a society whose primary objective is to forget tears open old wounds that may not have been fully closed in the first place.

Coming to terms with the past requires a society’s overcoming of its collective anger, resentment, and revenge against past wrongdoings. In working to overcome past wrongdoings and the initial emotional resentments spawned from these wrongdoings, we must seek to forgive–but not forget–the past. To echo Margalit, a society is ethically obligated to forgive its past not so much because the past deserves it but because contemporary society owes to itself an obligation to care for its own social well-being. Indeed, the past’s significance lies in our concerns about the present. By forgiving past societies for their actions, we position ourselves for social healing in the present.