Remember, you couldn’t if you tried

On whether it’s possible to never forget.

Sami Jinich

February 9, 2024

A response to The Harper Review’s winter 2024 proposition, “We should never forget the past.”

Dear editors,

There exists an ethical formula, attributed to Kant, claiming that “ought” implies “can.” Subsequently, for the statement “we should never forget the past” to be reasonable, it should be the case that “we are capable of never forgetting the past.” However, in practice we are incapable of such a task. Moreover, the language of “never forgetting,” with its political connotations, instills in us a dangerous impression that memory is rigid and objective. But while the historical facts of the past are just that—facts—memory is subjective and ever-changing.

In elementary psychology classes, students are introduced to the concept of memory reconsolidation: a process whereby each time a person recalls a memory, he or she makes it susceptible to change. For example, my once-vague memory of falling into a pool as a toddler has become more vivid as my mother recounted details I myself did not experience; her additions have been incorporated into my initial memory. Memory reconsolidation, along with various other psychological fallacies and phenomena, contributes to the subjective and fluid nature of memory. It is one reason why eyewitness testimonies, likely to be influenced by emotion, stress, leading questions, and reconsolidation, are often questioned as unreliable. An individual’s experience of an event is already an incomplete account of the past, and with time, that account also becomes morphed by new contexts and personal experiences. Forgetting is therefore an inevitable side effect of remembering.

This is even more concerning for collective memories, whose preservation is bound to instances of historical trauma or triumph. History is written by the victors, so they say, but the losers’ memories are likewise incomplete and biased interpretations of the past. In recent months, I have found myself staring into the pit of despair that is my phone, listening to the news, and scrutinizing the shifting views on global conflicts. Throughout all the opposing viewpoints, one characteristic has appeared universal: human susceptibility to misinformation. I am particularly wary of misinformation because it is used to reaffirm or challenge, and therefore change, collective memories.

I am tired of being told by my communities to “never forget” because it misses the fact that every time we call upon a memory or a past trauma, that memory changes. It shifts to fit new information—and misinformation—and new objectives. And while knowing facts is always useful, it is never sufficient. The stories we tell ourselves about the past are what actually constitute our communities’ narratives. We can, and should, attempt to understand our memories as they are, why they’re forged the way they are, how they’re being reconsolidated, and how they may shape us in the future.

I am suspicious of the statement that “we should never forget the past” and prefer the use of its affirmative, “we should always remember the past,” if we notice that remembering is more expansive than not forgetting. By framing the imperative in this way, we recognize that memories are not facts and that our memory does not prove anything about who we were, but rather who we are today and why.

Subjectively,

Sami Jinich

Sami Jinich is a third-year undergraduate at Duke University studying political science, data science, and philosophy.