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null "We must interrogate our collective memory": Blue Table Webinar on Remembering


Last week was a busy one for the Academy, with the launch of two courses for the new Spring Semester and the first Blue Table Webinar of 2022. Held on Wednesday 16 March, the webinar opened the discussion on ‘What it means to be human?’ by looking at the importance of Remembering.

The first series of Blue Table Webinars began last year to provide a space where all - not just’s students, but the wider community - are invited to enter into cutting-edge, contextualised discussions around ethics. Academic Dean Amélé Ekué opened the session by introducing the theme for this year’s webinars. Following the success of 2021’s dynamic conversations around ethics and the pandemic, democracy, diversity, ecology, economy and the arts, this year, the webinars will address key ethical interrogations on humanity. How we engage with one another as human beings and how we contribute - or fail to contribute - to building peaceful and just communities together are particularly pertinent questions today.

The question of what it means to be human comes to the forefront in the face of war and violence. So began Dr Emmanuel Onyemaechi Ogbunweze, Senior Research Fellow for Sub-Saharan Africa at Christian Solidarity International, in his address to webinar participants. As a ‘human rights guy’, he continued, facing the victims of genocide and of human rights violations, you ask how the perpetrators of such brutality can possibly be human. In Rwanda, in Sierra Leone, in Nigeria, in Ukraine - how can we be human and capable of such savagery?

Remembering is a key pedestal of being human: without memory guiding our actions and avoiding certain situations, there would be no human history, no civilisation - our species would be extinct. Remembering helps us in our human rights work, stated Dr Emmanuel. The memory of historical incidents like the Holocaust and Rwandan genocide play important roles in preventing future conflicts. In the words of George Santayana, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.

Following Dr Emmanuel, Rev. Jebin Thankaraj, MAS student at the Bossey Ecumenical Institute and Research Fellow with, shared his perspective on being human and remembering with reflections from the Hebrew Bible and Indian thinking.

When we are in trouble and someone rescues us, we call them an angel or saint, began Rev. Jebin. Erring is human while forgiving and forgetting are divine. Equally, when someone behaves poorly, they are seen as animals. Echoing Dr Emmanuel’s earlier words, he asked: how could anyone with rationality kill their fellow humans for territory, commit genocide, leave such a devastating impact on our planet and ecosystem?

Is it thinking that sets us, as human beings, apart from animals? This itself is a cultural assumption, making the question yet more complex, Rev. Jebin reminds us. According to the Hebrew Bible, the fate of humans and animals is the same. In Hinduism, there is a belief in birth and rebirth for humans and animals alike. “If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans”, said English veterinarian and author James Herriot.

The concept of remembering is equally complex, continued Rev. Jebin. Memory is not about the past, but about how we re-actualize what we remember to create a new reality that determines the future, blending past and present together. What we choose to remember, and how we remember it, is critical. Our brains are composed of billions of connections and the construction of our memories are based on biological factors, on our traditions and culture, on our social interactions. Two people can witness the exact same incident and remember it differently - perhaps one wouldn’t remember it all.

How we remember and deal with bad and heavy memories, and whether or not we have a duty to remember them, are poignant questions. Understanding memory in the context of plurality and through the lenses of different cultures is critical, agreed Amélé. These vulnerable moments can give rise to clashes and conflicts. How then, she asked, should we deal with this disparity of experiences so that we do not repeat our failures?

Contextualising this key question within the framework of his experience in human rights work, Dr Emmanuel shared his perspective on the need to interrogate collective memory. Forging a better, more peaceful world cannot be achieved simply by remembering. We must interrogate memories - whether of white supremacy in the southern USA, or of atomic bombs being dropped on Japan, or of apartheid South Africa, or any other collective trauma - and use this as a basis for common values and empathic action.

The power of reconciliation can also not be overlooked. Discussing nation-building and democratic societies in contexts where there is a fracture between the memory of the victim and the memory of the perpetrator, Dr Emmanuel spoke of Mandela’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and Rwanda's Gacaca courts: opportunities for both sides to attest to their experiences and what needed to be done to move forward. Reconciliation may not be a perfect solution, but having the space to interrogate collective memories is key.

Indeed, interrogating the physical manifestations of these memories is also essential, continued Dr Emmanuel, responding to questions from webinar participants. Take, for example, memorials to slavers - in the USA, in the UK - and statues of Cecil Rhodes, again in the UK, in Zambia, Zimbabwe and elsewhere in southern Africa. We must find a way to appraise these memories so that the people we have designated as heroes are not people who have committed crimes against humanity.

Remembering is certainly a central part of understanding how we have to interrogate what it means to be human, summarised Amélé, concluding the vibrant session. “Out of this, there comes an ethical awareness of our responsibility and accountability in terms of how we want to live together”. We are called to interrogate our own and collective memories, to learn from what has happened to others as well as to ourselves, to develop the common values required to build a just and peaceful society.

This fascinating and enriching learning experience was the first in this year’s series of six Blue Table Webinars, to which all are invited and encouraged to attend. There is plenty more food for thought in these upcoming sessions, which focus on verbs, like Remembering, in relation to what it means to be human:

To deepen your learning around ethics in context, why not join one of Academy’s accredited online courses? There’s still time to register for our three Spring Semester courses starting in April: