Why we need memory studies in relation to conflicts / Vladimir Mihajlović

The Pinocchio monument, a painting by Pawel Kuczynski, exposes the true nature of our monuments The Pinocchio monument, a painting by Pawel Kuczynski, exposes the true nature of our monuments

2016 Summer School Participant
Course: Memory and Conflict: Remembering and Forgeting in Divided Societies

In my mind, there is no doubt that the heart of every conflict are stories, stories that have been passed around embellished and reshaped and made more powerful with each reiteration. Sometimes, the conflicting stories serve as the root of the conflict and at times they are newly created to give one’s struggle a higher purpose. When it comes to intractable conflicts, the collective narratives behind them are often the key to reaching a long-lasting peace. Unless we question the stories that fuel the sense of entitlement and grievances of either party, we risk having the same deeply ingrained beliefs and biases being passed onto another generation, thus prolonging the conflict and often maintaining the conditions that led to initial grievances.

This topic has always deeply intrigued me. I would always look back at my school days and remember the way my generation was being taught about certain important historical figures or events. As I was growing up I came to the realization that perhaps the things that we were not being taught were the ones that truly mattered. It is within these missing narratives, that we can find the truth about the nature of our collective identity, the often senseless clinging to well-constructed but ultimately flawed stories that come to define our sense of group belonging. In a way, it is akin to taking the red pill as depicted in the movie “The Matrix” where the main protagonist is offered the choice of remaining cuddled in a digitally fabricated world or stepping outside the Matrix and facing the harsh reality. Even in these modern times of rapid exchange of information and a variety of cultural and linguistic features merging together in a myriad of fashions, a vast number of people still opt to take the blue pill and feel completely comfortable with their assigned ethnic and national identity. Having a sense of collective belonging is not necessarily an issue but fully and uncritically embracing the stories that come to define it often leads to harm against those cherishing the opposing narratives. In relation to this, there is a certain type of dogmatism at play that often defies basic logic and reason causing a huge loss of lives in the process. It is my firm belief that people can maintain the sense of ethnic or national identity while still retaining a critical distance from the collective narratives, beliefs and myths that so often have us pitted against other fellow members of human species who have not necessarily caused us any direct harm.

Bearing all this in mind, one must look into how the great stories of nationhood are being built in our everyday life, through the state sponsored events, schools and media. The populace in general takes most of these things for granted which only reinforces the dogmatism of the aforementioned collective narratives. With time they become intrinsically tied to one’s sense of identity which makes it an extremely daunting task to challenge these pervasive ideas. This is why we need memory studies, to be able to ask difficult questions, to deconstruct the narratives and distil the facts. Most importantly, we need to reclaim people’s individual identities by putting them above the collective frenzy. The truth in that sense liberates, especially if one is capable of seeing things from a different perspective than the one being bestowed upon him solely by the virtue of being born in a specific cultural and geographical environment. This ability brings us closer as humans to our joint recognition of the irrationality and arbitrariness of the ideas firmly built into our collective identities. Once these ideas are safely and rationally dismissed, we grain the space where peace between two opposing groups and their respective identities is possible. This is in my opinion, the essence of memory studies and why I believe that it is inseparable from any genuine peace efforts.



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