The Memory Mavens, Part 9: Social Memory Distortion (1)

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by Tim Widowfield

Jael and Sisera by Jan de Bray, 1659

Jael and Sisera by Jan de Bray, 1659

The Song of Deborah in the fifth chapter of Judges, according to most scholars, contains some of the oldest material in the Hebrew Bible. However, Serge Frolov in a journal article and an online post notes several clues that should make us suspect that it’s a later work retrojected into the past. For example, he writes:

Another clue is what the text says, intentionally or unintentionally, about the author’s world. The U.S. Constitution was clearly written for a country that practiced slavery. Deborah’s song just as clearly has a monarchic political state in mind. It addresses “kings” and “potentates”; describes those who answered her battle cry as “princes,” “holders of the marshal’s staff,” and “lawgivers”; and portrays Sisera’s mother as a royal figure, complete with “princesses” waiting on her. Archaeology tells us that ancient Israel first became a monarchy in the 10th or perhaps even the ninth century B.C.E. Before that, its population simply had no concept of such aristocratic titles as “prince” for Israelites. (Frolov, 2016)

Given the linguistic content of the material, then, it would appear that someone perhaps even as late as the Babylonian Exile may have written the song in an archaic form of Hebrew as a deliberate affectation.

In any case, my interest at the moment is not so much the song itself, along with its lurid details and grotesque schadenfreude concerning Jael crushing Sisera’s skull (which is apparently an irresistible subject for artists), as its unexpected use in a particular event in British Colonial American history.

Just what are you guys doing over there?

Many of the Separatist Congregationalists who left England in the early 17th century tried making a go of it in Holland but eventually came to the conclusion that living among the Dutch presented the temptation of too much freedom. Nor were they happy with the prospect of their children assimilating culturally into a non-English society. The decision to leave Holland and sail to a new, wild continent had little to do with the religious freedom of the individual, but everything to do with the religious liberty and solidarity of the group. Within their new, ideal community, they would stay focused on what they believed to be important and would bind themselves together via a legal compact.

Ostensibly, though, this self-enforced deportation from Mother England would be temporary. Their example may, they reasoned, serve as an object lesson on how free and pious people should live together. Of course, the Separatists represented a small percentage of Puritan dissenters; most had decided to remain and resist. Michael Kammen, in his essay entitled “Some Patterns and Meanings of Memory Distortion in American History” says:

A majority actually chose the latter option [to tough it out] and stayed, but a minority migrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony with this rationale: because the Church [of England] was hopelessly unreformed, they were obliged to leave in order to save their souls. But their mission would most likely not result in a permanent transplantation. The New Jerusalem that they expected to create would be so successful, such a model community in covenant with the Almighty, that they would eventually be recalled “in glory” to recreate their New Jerusalem at home. (Kammen, 1995, p. 331, emphasis mine)

As time went on, and especially once the English Civil War broke out in the 1640s, those who had stayed behind began to ask some rather pointed questions of their brethren across the sea. In The Puritan Ordeal, Andrew Delbanco writes:

Indeed, with the outbreak of war in England, irritable questioning had turned increasingly to righteous anger. . . .

Meanwhile, Judges 5:23 became a favorite text of the parliamentary preachers: “Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord, curse ye bitterly the inhabitants thereof; because they came not to the help of the Lord . . . against the mighty,” a text rarely invoked by the Puritans in America until Davenport used it twenty years later to thrash those who faulted him for aiding the regicide judges. 

“There are [some] . . . who stand as neuters,” declared Stephen Marshall in the House of Commons, “who stand aloofe off, shewing themselves neither open enemies nor true friends” to the soldiers of the Lord. Though the Puritan warriors under Cromwell had in mind a variety of malingerers, mainly domestic, their exegesis carried specific embarrassment for New England. “I could never learne,” Marshall added, “whether Meroz were a Citie or a Province . . . If they were a Province, their Land proved a desolate Wildernesse.” (Delbanco, pp. 101-102, bold emphasis and reformatting mine)

Come on home!

Had they stayed true to their own rhetoric, they probably would have gone back to “Old England.” But most had already begun to think of the colony as home, and they enjoyed their freedom and autonomy. But surely, once their side had won the war, their entire case for separation melted away, hadn’t it? As Kammen puts it:

After 1647 and the triumph of Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the creation of a Puritan Commonwealth, surely the self-exiled Puritans no longer had any excuse to remain overseas. According to their own explanations at the time of emigration, they should have returned to England to reinforce the new polity of Saints. The New Jerusalem was imminently at home. (Kammen, 1995, p. 331, emphasis mine)

Yet the majority had no desire to return. Their emerging resolve to remain in the New World, combined with the recent memory of their clearly stated reasons for coming to America, brought severe cognitive dissonance, but this mental conflict quickly dissipated as the colonists constructed new mental scaffolding upon which they hung distorted social memories.

So they stayed put and thereby provide us with an intriguing example, from the very onset of American history, that memories can readily, with scant embarrassment or challenge, be quietly repressed within a generation and replaced by alternative explanations, credible and defensible, for human impulses of the most elemental sort — such as relocating to a brave new world in quest of religious purity and autonomy. (Kammen, 1995, p. 331-332, emphasis mine)

Converting the savages

One of the less convincing new reasons for staying was the supposed missionary work among the native population. If they had really been engaged in such an effort, they had reason for embarrassment over their lack of success. If anything, colonists were more apt to “go native” than for the locals to join them. By the time the Pequot War broke out anyone should have recognized it as an unmitigated failure.

The shift from conversion to conquest was by no means considered an acceptable change of tactics to fulfill a scriptural destiny; looking back on it was not a matter for resigned equanimity. It was nothing less than the collapse of a major, if belated, justification for their venture. (Delbanco, pp. 107, bold emphasis mine)

While some Puritan thinkers chalked it up to the Indians’ baser heritage, claiming they had descended from the “dark brothers” of Scripture — Cain, Ishmael, Esau — others insisted they were the progeny of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel. In any case, attempts at converting the natives came to naught.

As the idea of Jewish Indians declined into a crackpot theory and the claims surrounding it proved spurious, an enervating effect could be felt upon New England’s collective morale. By the end of the century lists of possible Indian genealogies were still being compiled, but with hardly a mention of the theory of Jewish origin. There was, moreover, no compensation for the failure of conversion in reverting to the idea of Indian savagery — “What God will do for the future with America,” remarked Increase Mather, “is not for us to determine . . . but . . . the Lord has not hitherto seen meet to shine upon this so as on the other Hemisphere. The greatest part of its Inhabitants are Pagans. Most of those that have any thing of the Christian Name are really Anti-Christian . . . a Scandal to any Religion.” This is not a righteous call to arms. It is a confession of abject failure. And it goes some distance (along with the many other portents of disaster) to explaining why second-generation Puritans attended to predictions from England that America was likely to become “one of the dolefullest spots of Ground on the face of the Whole Earth.” (Delbanco, pp. 107, bold emphasis mine)

Social frameworks as sources for distortion

Kammen’s paper goes on to list other turning points in the history of the United States in which collective memory changed in order to conform to a new social norm. The reasons for these changes need have nothing to do with sinister forces and deliberate deception.

As I tried to suggest at the outset, the distortion or even the manipulation of collective memory does not always, or inevitably, occur for cynical or hypocritical reasons. That has certainly been the case on occasion, as we have seen; but memory distortion also occurs commonly in post-colonial situations where the creation of national identity is necessary for functional reasons of political and cultural cohesion. (Kammen, 1995, p. 340)

The processes he describes are normal and natural, and they are not unique to the American experience. It only seems remarkable to us as we read these examples, because when we experience the phenomenon firsthand, we barely notice it. In fact, the general populace quickly assimilates and digests the new, distorted memory.

Moreover, even when leaders (political and spiritual) do engage in memory distortion or “practice” historical amnesia, we must recognize that members of the public at large are often likely to believe and internalize the rationalizations they receive. Frequently, as we have seen, the willful alteration of collective memory becomes a necessity for a viable, progressive society. How else can it coherently adapt to change, often desirable change, without being plagued by a sense of inconsistency or sham? (Kammen, 1995, p. 340)

We cannot predict just exactly how a society will “reconfigure” its collective memory in response to radical changes. Sometimes existing memories will find a new purpose, undergoing a commensurate radical reinterpretation. Other times, entirely fabricated memories will appear and become part of the social conscience.

Nor can we predict the speed at which memory will change. Social amnesia can occur gradually or practically overnight. Consider how quickly the “states rights” reinterpretation became the dominant explanation for secession after the American Civil War ended. Nobody wants to be caught standing on the wrong side of history.

Distortion or refraction?

Experts who write about memory distortion do not always explain what they mean by the term. I understand it as an umbrella term, covering the processes of perception, encoding, categorizing, storing, and retrieving information. At any point along the line, individual and social memory may deviate from “the truth.” In Michael Schudson’s paper, “Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory,” he writes:

The notion that memory can be “distorted” assumes that there is a standard by which we can judge or measure what a veridical memory must be. If this is difficult with individual memory, it is even more complex with collective memory, where the past event or experience remembered was truly a different event or experience for its different participants. (Schudson, 1995, p. 346)

As with individual memory, collective memory can change over time. As we said above, distortion can simply be an existing memory that gains new meaning, or it can be a partial or complete fabrication. Presented with the finished product, we may have few, if any, remaining clues that some memories are pure (albeit useful) fiction. In part 2 of this series, we noted that the widely believed collective memories of people changing their names at Ellis Island had no basis in fact. Nearly three years ago, we looked at reasons for people inventing stories about Christopher Columbus.

These case studies should encourage caution on the part of anyone who writes about history. I continually check and double-check items that I think are factual. You probably have the same experience — things we take for granted often have no corroborating evidence. And upon further review, they turn out to be myths, or perhaps assertions by one source that we simply can’t verify.

With all the foregoing in mind, I think you’ll understand why I find the following quotation from Anthony Le Donne quite distressing:

In order for a series of refractions to be trustworthy, they must seem plausible. If they are distorted in a way that makes them look like a kaleidoscope, we will be confused and we will not trust our memories. Memory is a series of slight refrac­tions along a trajectory. It is this continuity of slight refractions that renders memory intelligible. If there are dramatic shifts or large gaps in this continuity, we will notice a problem. Most often we don’t — memory is simply taken for granted. (Le Donne, 2011, p. 109, emphasis mine)

Triangulation of what?

[Le Donne] has missed the point entirely, which is that the new interpretation or the new fabrication must conform to the new social frame. As long as it does — that is, as long as it serves its purpose — the new configuration will stick.

I am not quoting La Donne’s statement out of context. On the contrary, his triangulation theory depends on these naïve assumptions.

What is vital to this model is the concept of mnemonic continuity. In order for successive memory distortions to be thought of as a “trajectory” there is little room for dramatic distortions. Once a perception has been localized within a particular mnemonic category, the distortions thereafter will constitute only incremental modifications to that category. This, of course, is not an absolute. Certainly, human history is measured in terms of paradigm shifts. For example, the perception of celestial bodies underwent a dramatic shift in the post-Copernicus era. Or, on a more personal level, a severe traumatic experience can have a similar effect. But even in such cases, societal constraints and the need for internal continuity tend to temper such paradigm shifts so that their effects are felt over a longer period of time. More commonly, memory progresses without dramatic shifts. (Le Donne, 2009, p. 72, emphasis mine)

And in his rebuttal to Zeba Crook, he writes:

Crook completely overlooks my third argument. As such, he misses the heart of my method: the possibility for mnemonic triangulation. If memories distort in patterns, they can be charted. The Jesus tradition is diffuse and betrays several mnemonic trajectories. Sometimes, these trajectories seem to emerge from a common mnemonic sphere and, sometimes, these trajectories distort in opposite directions. In these cases, the exaggerated (and even manufactured) memories of Jesus can be triangulated to postulate the mnemonic sphere from which they emerged. (Le Donne, 2013, p. 94, emphasis mine)

Le Donne’s assertions are wholly unsupportable. Time after time we see examples of group amnesia combined with the adoption of radically new memories or of wholesale reinterpretations of existing memories — even in literate societies with written records. Le Donne says that can’t happen, or else “we will be confused and not trust our memories.” He has missed the point entirely, which is that the new interpretation or the new fabrication must conform to the new social frame. As long as it does — that is, as long as it serves its purpose — the new configuration will stick.

Consider again our case study at Ellis Island. No “societal constraint” kept people from inventing stories of faceless bureaucrats forcing immigrants to change their surnames. On the contrary, the new social framework itself encouraged the fabrication of memory. In this case, it was not a damper; it was a lubricant.

Because Le Donne mistakenly believes that social memory nearly always evolves in “a series of slight refractions along a trajectory,” he is predisposed to see patterns that do not exist. From an imagined past to common stories in the gospels, he draws lines that diverge and intersect, like so many Martian canals.


In the next few installments, we’ll look more closely at social memory distortion and how the Memory Mavens deal with it. We will see how easily we humans can accept distortions as long as they help us deal with our changing environment. As it applies to the New Testament, I will focus on what I think is the single greatest event or series of events that affected early Christians, namely the war with Rome waged in Judea, followed by the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Delbanco, Andrew

The Puritan Ordeal, Harvard University Press, 1991

Kammen, Michael

“Some Patterns and Meanings of Memory Distortion in American History” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (pp. 329-345), Harvard University Press, 1995

Le Donne, Anthony

The Historiographical Jesus: Memory, Typology, and the Son of David, Baylor University Press, 2009
Historical Jesus: What Can We Know and How Can We Know It?, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2011
“The Problem of Selectivity in Memory Research: A Response to Zeba Crook” in Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, vol. 11, Issue 1 (2013), pp. 77-97.

Schudson, Michael

“Dynamics of Distortion in Collective Memory” in Memory Distortion: How Minds, Brains, and Societies Reconstruct the Past (pp. 346-364), Harvard University Press, 1995


  • Arnoldo
    2016-01-08 03:43:02 UTC - 03:43 | Permalink

    Le Donne’s assertions are wholly supportable from what I remember of reading his book some time ago.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-01-08 05:35:37 UTC - 05:35 | Permalink

      They probably seemed that way.

      • Mark Erickson
        2016-01-08 06:28:21 UTC - 06:28 | Permalink

        Nice reply and great post. Looking forward to discussing the effect of the destruction of the temple on social memory. Are there any actual memory mavens that can help with this issue? Crook perhaps?

        Btw, did you know the history of the term “maven”? I thought it interesting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maven

        • Tim Widowfield
          2016-01-08 13:39:24 UTC - 13:39 | Permalink

          I’d like to take credit for knowing the etymology, but actually I was just looking for an alliterative noun. Now I like it even more. Thanks!

  • Bee
    2016-01-08 11:22:38 UTC - 11:22 | Permalink

    70AD, when Jersusalem was destroyed, is extremely important. But don’t entirely overlook 64 BC. The year Pompey, Rome, took control of Jerusalem.

    Both of those events were huge disasters for Zionism. And they should have thrown Jews into extreme consternation and dispair. But it’s rather hard to find them mentioned in the New Testament. As if their memory was being simply psychologically denied, or suppressed.

    • Bob de Jong
      2016-01-08 12:02:04 UTC - 12:02 | Permalink

      Zionism first emerged in the 19th century, long after these events.

      The land Israel was dominated by foreign powers (Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, Ptolemaic) since 587 BCE. So the advent of the Romans was a similar phase in history, not a reason for extreme consternation and despair.

      The texts in the Hebrew Bible were written prior to ca. 200 BCE, so they can’t mention Pompey or the destruction of the temple anyway.

      The New Testament sets its story in the 30’s AD, prior to the destruction of the temple.

      No implications for collective memory, I’m afraid…….

      • Tim Widowfield
        2016-01-08 13:54:40 UTC - 13:54 | Permalink

        Bob: “The New Testament sets its story in the 30’s AD, prior to the destruction of the temple.”

        By the same token, the television show M*A*S*H was set in the Korean War, and so there were no implications for our collective memory of the Vietnam War — other than the continual allegorical references.

      • Bee
        2016-01-08 17:57:46 UTC - 17:57 | Permalink

        An early form of Zionist zeal – the hope for a Judah and Israel, a Jewish kingdom- existed from as early as say, the time of Moses and Solomon.

        The NT chose to mostly end its explicit narrative c. 60AD, with Paul. But it was probably still being written or substantially edited after that.

        So there was a decision to forget or not really mention 64 BC… and 70AD. Because of course, their devastating implications for all claims that a Jewish kingdom would soon triumph over all. (A proto Zionist, or ” zealots'”aim).

        These NT texts would at first still be filled with these traditional Jewish concerns and hopes. And their failure would be seen by Jews and Christians alike as a failure of hopes for another Jewish or David if kngdom.

        That is why periods like 70 AD were forgotten, or left out of, a narrative that could and should have recalled and included that crucial time.

        • Bob de Jong
          2016-01-08 20:41:59 UTC - 20:41 | Permalink

          There is no indication in the Hebrew bible that Moses wished for a Jewish kingdom.

          Solomon didn’t need to hope for a Jewish kingdom. He was the king!

          Paul has no historical narrative. He writes topical letters. The gospels and Acts end their stories in the 30’s CE.

          It is not a (proto) zionist concept that a Jewish kingdom would triumph over all.

          So the destruction of the temple was not forgotten or repressed. It just doen’t fit the timeline of the NT narratives.

          Some verses in Paul and the gospels can be read as allusions to 70 CE, but they are not very explicit.

          • Bee
            2016-01-08 21:35:49 UTC - 21:35 | Permalink

            You are thinking far too specifically. Look for the larger class commonalities. Moses led “his people,” the Jews, seeking their own “promised land.” Or generically, kingdom.

            Saul and David and Solomon sought to make that a permanent kingdom in effect. Though that kingdom began to collapse with Absalom. From then on, the recreation of that kingdom of David especially, became the major Jewish dream. It was thought Jesus would accomplish that, for instance.

            Paul mentions few historical points; but he is typically understood to be writing c. 55 to 65 AD. He might therefore be placed in history by many. But if so, then his suppression of much explicit history on Jesus and so forth is curious. .. and significant. Why is so much history being supprressed?

            Zionism proper sought to restore Israel in say the 20th century, as a Jewish homeland. After many losses, Jews had long sought the establishment of a land ruled by themselves, and their idea of God.

            The timeline of the NT I suggest, was deliberately narrowed to leave out the embarrassment of the 70 AD defeat of the last bit of Jewish hi me rule.

            There remained hints of that defeat perhaps, only. But no honest attempt at an accurate history of the Jews, would have left out such a crushing defeat. Only a very selective memory or biased agenda would have mostly cut off the account at 30AD.

            • Neil Godfrey
              2016-01-08 23:46:23 UTC - 23:46 | Permalink

              From then on, the recreation of that kingdom of David especially, became the major Jewish dream.

              I have spent some time looking for evidence for this commonly asserted “factoid”, but without success.

              • Bob de Jong
                2016-01-09 07:48:41 UTC - 07:48 | Permalink

                In the Prophets, some predict the reunification of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But these prophecies were spoken while there was still a Davidic king on the throne in Judah.

                In the Hebrew bible in general, there is very little about a messiah or restored Davidic king.
                Only much later, with the
                Maacabees, do we find indications for messianic elements; the book of David dates from this period.
                One could argue, that christianity evolved out of this stream of Judaism. I do not know how widespread messianism was in 1st century Judaism. Going by the rejection of Jesus in the NT, t was a minority view.

              • Bee
                2016-01-09 09:42:12 UTC - 09:42 | Permalink

                Neil: it often happens in general history that when one administration is defeated, the survivors seek its future restoration. In Judaism even today, David is lionized. In part for his often idealized Jewish kingdom. And in the New Testament, many are still expecting an heir, from the house of David, as the messiah.

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-01-09 12:42:17 UTC - 12:42 | Permalink

                I often read of reasons why we might expect to find evidence but I still find no evidence. Nilch.

              • Bee
                2016-01-09 18:12:40 UTC - 18:12 | Permalink

                You are right if we look for a “MESSIAH.” But how about prophesies of “the Lord” returning? Granted, that’s a bit different….

              • Neil Godfrey
                2016-01-09 22:02:19 UTC - 22:02 | Permalink

                I know of no evidence that the people of Judea in general were collectively motivated by or even mindful of prophesies.

    • David Ashton
      2016-01-08 12:47:28 UTC - 12:47 | Permalink

      Surely not hard to find Jews “mentioned” wherever relevant in the NT.
      The destruction of the Temple influences the writing of much NT material, in my view including reflection on Daniel 9.26.

  • 2016-01-09 03:18:36 UTC - 03:18 | Permalink

    Good post, Tim. I remember the meme of soldiers spit on when returning from Vietnam. While everybody seemed to know someone who witnessed or experienced this, documenting any instances was very difficult, suggesting that it occurred rarely if at all. Another example is the meme that was wildly popular after the invasion of Iraq that Saddam Hussein was the mastermind of 9/11. Though it was untrue, people believed that as a just nation, the US would only violate the sovereignty of another with good reason. The only reason that made sense was 9/11. Still today, I would wager that a significant proportion of the population believes this to be true. In the social memory, it makes sense that Iraq attacked us on 9/11. Certain populations in the US will tell you that Obama has said on national TV that he opposes private gun ownership and wants to ban all guns and plans to take away our guns. This never has happened,of course, Obama has steadfastly expressed support for gun ownership, but you won’t convince some people of that. Social memory is obviously capable of inventing things that never in fact occurred ( just look at urban legend for more examples).

    • Bob de Jong
      2016-01-09 07:33:08 UTC - 07:33 | Permalink

      Well said, Geoff. Reflecting on your comments, I begin to struggle with the validity of the concept of ‘social memory’. Isn’t it just another name for myth, (urban) legend, or even history? History is written by ‘the victors’, and legends arise to suit cultural expectations?

      • Tim Widowfield
        2016-01-09 07:45:08 UTC - 07:45 | Permalink

        Bob, That’s pretty much what this series is about. What is social memory? Is it different from history, oral tradition, etc.?

        Memory Mavens will sometimes bring up Rudolf Bultmann and say, “Tsk-tsk. He never talked about memory.” But if, in the end, it’s not substantially different from oral tradition, then so what? These are the sorts of things we’re trying to grapple with.

        • Bee
          2016-01-09 12:31:52 UTC - 12:31 | Permalink

          There are many interrelated fields that established the unreliability of human ideas, including memories, long before modern memory theory. Philosophy long ago began to question the accuracy of all human notions. More recently, that insight was expanded by Psychology. And then by folklore and oral culture studies.

          For a brief moment, c. 1960, it was momentarily thought that oral folklore could be surprisingly reliable at times. But overall, most research strongly suggests the opposite.

          So if the New Testament was based on earlier oral or written “sayings” ? That means it is still insecurely based.

        • Bob de Jong
          2016-01-12 19:41:14 UTC - 19:41 | Permalink

          Ok, I get it, thanks.
          For me, social memory falls in the category of the supernatural. It is something highly abstract, can’t be disproved, and is invoked to rationalise apparent paradoxes in the real world.

          And let’s remain modest; it is not only ‘others’ who mold history in their likeness, are we immune for this pitfall? If so, how can we know?

          • Tim Widowfield
            2016-01-12 20:05:45 UTC - 20:05 | Permalink

            No, it isn’t supernatural. Nor is it highly abstract. It is clearly definable and the subject of intense study.


            Bob: “. . . can’t be disproved, and is invoked to rationalise apparent paradoxes in the real world.”

            I really don’t understand what you mean by that. You have certain memories that are your own — i.e., you experienced an event, and you can recall that sense memory. You also have memories told to you by your family, or your school, or your country. Those are shared memories. Halbwachs and others have said that even your personal memories are shaped by society, because you have adopted certain frameworks, including language itself, to understand those memories.

            I think it’s important to separate the two basic types of memories, because the internal psychological forces that shape our personal memories are probably different from the sociological forces that shape collective and social memory. But of course there’s probably some overlap, since collective memory is stored in (many) individual brains.

            Bob: “. . . it is not only ‘others’ who mold history in their likeness . . .”

            Yes, we (individuals) have distorted memories, too. Sometimes it’s deliberate; other times it’s a subconscious process in the mind. External corroboration is the only way to verify a memory.

            • Bob de Jong
              2016-01-12 20:40:23 UTC - 20:40 | Permalink

              The definition given in your ref. is “shared pool of knowledge and information in the memories of two or more members of a social group.”. I’m not convinced that this is a useful concept, in that it can be made operative. It assumes that there is such ‘knowledge and information’ that is objectively true, and – worse still – exists identically in more than one person.

              Anyway, knowledge is a highly abstract concept, and hence collective memory is that too.

              To clarify my point on disprovability: I think it was Richard Carrier who talked about Ceasar crossing the Rubicon, after speaking the famous words ‘alea iacta est’. I would say these words are in the collective memory. But did Ceasar really say them? Did an apple fall on Newton’s head, prompting him to ‘invent’ the laws of gravity? Did George Washington chop down a cherry tree?

              My view on human (individual) memory is not that of a computer chip, faithfully, eternally, preserving what we put into it; I think it is a condensation of our individual experiences, evolving with time, emotions, and subsequent experiences. Collective memory can only be even less accurate and more volatile than the individual.

              In sum, I don’t think the definition given is more than an abstract, irrefutable concept.

              • Bee
                2016-01-12 22:41:17 UTC - 22:41 | Permalink

                Social memory is in most ways overlapping with my own baliwick: culture. The shared beliefs and accounts of a people. Many of their in-common beliefs, even metaphysical scenarios, present themselves as based on real historic events.

                Anthropology would insist that these common beliefs, somewhat unique to each different tribe or people, demonstrably exist. However, social science would not insist that those common beliefs are necessarily true historical knowledge. Normally they are presented in value free language in effect, as “Belief,” rather than firm knowledge. Or the word” knowledge” is meant to be read as if in quotes. To signify not what is true, but which is thought to be true, by members of a given culture: a given tribe, or ethnicity, or nationality. But without any implication that the thing thought of as” knowledge” by a given group, is historically true.

                If social memory people missed this, then they (willfully?) missed an extremely important nuance in Social Science. That what is thought by a given culture to be ” knowledge” is not necessarily objectively true.

      • David Ashton
        2016-01-09 11:26:07 UTC - 11:26 | Permalink

        We need a few (more) books and TV programs fairly conclusively exposing such “memories”. They exist across and “outside” the entire political “spectrum”, and even some “exposures” themselves need to be questioned (e.g. Brandon Martinez on Zionist deceptions, Noam Chomsky on Cambodian genocide, the Stalin Society on gulag death-rates, &c.). We are not fishing entirely in the dark here unlike the case with “ancient fables” historically long out of reach.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-01-09 07:48:37 UTC - 07:48 | Permalink

      Geoff there are several distorted social memories surrounding the Vietnam War. The spitting thing is quite amazing, because you’ll still argue with people about whether it really happened. I have never yet met someone who was an actual witness; however, they all know a trusted authority who described it to them — it must be true.

      Unfortunately, the more traumatic the experience, the more likely groups are to rejigger their entire worldview and, as a result, fabricate new memories to fit that new framework.

  • Bee
    2016-01-09 10:35:39 UTC - 10:35 | Permalink

    Better than Paul, consider the New Testament writings often dated after 70 ACE. Acts was late. Luke was once dated with Revelation at c. 90.

    The writings of the various Johns are especially interesting. Are Revelation and it’s apocalypse, really an attempt to deal with or repudiate 70AD, and the apocalyptic moment, when Rome burned Jerusalem to the ground?

    I suggest especially that the whole notion of a “spiritual” kingdom was an apologetic designed to excuse the defeat of the physical one, the burning of Jersusalem.

    • Bee
      2016-01-09 11:52:31 UTC - 11:52 | Permalink

      Were the colonists stretching biblical passages now and then to suit their own preoccupations? Certainly. Though for me, possibly the notion of an ancient Jewish “kingdom” specifically was not a really immense stretch, still the larger point remains useful: clearly the past was being remembered or re-imagined by religious folks, to suit their changing personal preoccupations.

      Most importantly, we can see this especially in the New Testament topspinning the Old Testament, and roughly contemporaneous events.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-01-09 21:34:37 UTC - 21:34 | Permalink

    Just came across this by Thomas Hegghammer in Jihad in Saudi Arabia: Violence and Pan-Islamism since 1979 (2010):

    … Many Islamists and officials today contend that the Arab mobilisation for Afghanistan was massive and immediate; that thousands of volunteer fighters travelled for Afghanistan within months of the [Soviet] invasion [in 1979]. This is in stark contrast to the historical evidence from the early 1980s . . .

    It would seem that the collective Muslim memory of the Afghan jihad has been retroactively constructed to fit the idealised notion of a spontaneous rise of the Muslim nation. For state officials, this myth has the additional benefit of exonerating governments from responsibility for the Arab Afghan phenomenon.

    In . . . reality, Arabs did not rise at once to liberate Afghanistan; their involvement came about in a much less romantic fashion.

    Only very few Arabs ever went to Afghanistan before the mid 1980s (some suggest fewer than fingers on one hand) and then of those who did go to the training camps in the latter 1980s many went on their annual holidays and only a fraction appeared to have actually gone on to the battle front. It was not until the last stages of Soviet occupation and even after the Soviet withdrawal that the majority (possibly around one to five thousand Arabs) visited the region.

  • Mark Erickson
    2016-01-11 16:02:20 UTC - 16:02 | Permalink

    Another example backing up Tim’s point: “History is like that, it’s malleable. Memory changes as your belief changes.” Najam Haider, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Religion at Barnard College.

    This particular example is about the different ways Sunni and Shi’i remember early Muslim history. You can go to 4:30 at this link to hear this quote within a good description of the concept of social memory. But I would recommend everyone listen to the full interview. Lots of great stuff. And in general, The Scott Horton Show is an invaluable foreign policy source.

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-01-11 22:34:52 UTC - 22:34 | Permalink

      Throughout the Memory Mavens’ works I keep finding this notion that what went before constrains what comes after. That is, if someone invented a tradition that was completely at odds with memories that came before, then people would reject it as nonsensical. But no matter how much we might wish this were true, the evidence shows that as long as the invented memory fits within the new social frame, people accept it immediately.

  • Neil Godfrey
    2016-01-11 22:57:46 UTC - 22:57 | Permalink

    Hugh Trevor-Roper showed that public exposure of forgeries and fabrications that were the basis of false social memories made no difference whatsoever to the appeal and spread of those memories. His case study was the invention of the Highland tradition of Scotland. The kilt, woven in tartan colours to represent a clan, the bagpipe, the Scottish ballads, and the belief in their historical antiquity, were all the inventions of James Macpherson in the late eighteenth century and the Sobieski Stuarts in the nineteenth. They were exposed as fantasies and forgeries in the life-times of their authors but no matter.

    “The Invention of Tradition: The Highland Tradition of Scotland” in The Invention of Tradition edited by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (1983).

  • David Ashton
    2016-01-12 00:04:15 UTC - 00:04 | Permalink

    The “honest academic inquirer” as a spoilsport – of religious comfort, narrative imagination, social pleasures, political interest, commercial profit – not an enviable or popular role, and in some cases a ticket to jail.

    • Bee
      2016-01-12 13:09:23 UTC - 13:09 | Permalink

      Or worse. Much of the danger in America comes not from official oppression by government. But from stochastic individuals, criminally acting out what they (in some cases, rightly) believe are the real, inner, violent wishes of their demagogic leaders: their dreams of the violent silencing, even the murder, of their political enemies.

      • David Ashton
        2016-01-12 14:12:32 UTC - 14:12 | Permalink

        Can you give a few examples to illustrate the danger in America and any similar examples in other countries?

        • Bee
          2016-01-12 19:30:27 UTC - 19:30 | Permalink

          A few years ago, immediately after much recent anti-tax, anti government rhetoric from the Tea Party, Joe Stack flew his plane into the Austin Texas federal building. Killing himself and an IRS supervisor.

          A month ago, after a round of violently anti abortion rhetoric from Republican candidates, a Mr. Dear occupied a Planned Parenthood center in Colorado, and began shooting people.

          In both cases, the possible relation between a recent increase in campaign rhetoric, and individuals taking violent action, was noted my the media. But was of course denied by party representatives.

          However, it seems from a 2013 update (Atlantic Monthly?) that the FBI seriously investigated the link in the Joe Stack case. At the time, they wanted to find explicit top-down orders. Today though we would call the link stochastic. Public figures issued inflammatory rhetoric. And private individuals, without direct orders but plenty of inspiration, acted on that, violently.

          Angry imams overseas were similarly given a religious exemption for their incendiary language. Until recently.

          • David Ashton
            2016-01-12 23:36:42 UTC - 23:36 | Permalink

            There is a difference between the expression of hostility towards a social practice and incitement to kill or injure people connected with it. Should we ban such expressions of because a few unbalanced individuals might possibly be influenced by them to commit crimes?

            The anti-abortion statements you cite are described as “violent” and anti-tax statements as “inflammatory”. What was their content? To express the view that the destruction of unborn babies by the usual methods of termination was undesirable or immoral? Should such an opinion be illegal?

            • Tim Widowfield
              2016-01-13 00:33:30 UTC - 00:33 | Permalink

              David, the content of the specific anti-abortion statements to which Bee refers — namely, that Planned Parenthood sells baby parts — turned out to be lies. Various state law enforcement agencies have investigated and found no evidence that such a practice has occurred. P.P. may have been paid nominally for storage and transport, but that’s normal, legal, and already known.

              It’s difficult to believe that every Republican operator is so mentally impaired as to believe the doctored videos that circulated last year. And after the investigations and that embarrassing political show-hearing in D.C. turned up nothing, surely nobody has an excuse to pretend otherwise.

              And yet some of the Republican candidates for president kept shouting “Baby Parts!” in the same way a mischievous adolescent might yell “Fire!” or a 1930s German politician might yell “Stab in the Back!”

              Sadly, inflammatory lies do more than just win votes. Sometimes they reach unhinged, well-armed asshats who take matters into their own hands.

              • David Ashton
                2016-01-13 00:54:06 UTC - 00:54 | Permalink

                Information appreciated. I am prepared to accept the veracity of Republican candidates shouting “Baby Parts” unlike Democrats spitting on veterans.

                Those who think human fetuses are just disposable items should have no qualms about their use for lab experiments or even as particularly nutritious dinner-time delicacies. The “ugh!” factor is clearly “irrational”, like objections to promiscuous felching from “religious bigots”.

                Otto Weininger once said that no woman could ever celebrate her abortion, let alone write a poem to that effect, but I have read quite contrary opinions in the UK “liberal” press in the recent past. For once I felt some sympathy for Sir Cedric Hardwicke’s torticollar sigh in “Things to Come” – “Oh progress! Will this ‘progress’ never end?”

            • Bee
              2016-01-13 11:40:32 UTC - 11:40 | Permalink

              Probably the Joe Stack case is more neutral.

              Joe destroyed about half of the federal government building, after weeks of shouted Tea Party polemic* (/hate speech?). After Stack, the FBI began looking into the connections.


              • David Ashton
                2016-01-13 18:46:16 UTC - 18:46 | Permalink

                “The Guardian” in the UK recently advertised a T-shirt carrying the slogan “Kill All Whites”. An impossible objective, so where’s the harm?

  • 2016-01-22 20:08:40 UTC - 20:08 | Permalink

    Hot off the (British Psychological Society) press: Collective memory is just as fallible as individual memory

    • Tim Widowfield
      2016-01-23 03:05:52 UTC - 03:05 | Permalink

      Thanks. Good info.

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