This was originally published on 7 March 2016 for Pubs and Publications |
The catalyst for this post was an article I saw shared on social media during Holocaust Remembrance Day, talking about the ‘forgotten’ victims of the Holocaust, namely ‘Gays, Gypsies and Priests’. It reminded me somewhat of an ill-advised argument I got into on Twitter (bit tautological really) a while ago about the similarly ‘forgotten’ Indian soldiers in the First World War. What annoyed me then, and then again on the Holocaust Memorial Day, was the inherent contradiction between claiming something as forgotten whilst simultaneously publicly discussing it.
In both cases, those in question could hardly be considered forgotten, certainly not by historians, or by the communities they came from. In both cases I would also argue that there is some broad public awareness as well: I know that I was taught about the different victims of Nazi genocide in school, and the Indian involvement in the First World War has received intermittent yet considerable media and political attention in recent years. It’s not a phenomenon limited to historical events – news coverage is often treated the same way (“a terrorist attack in the West is wall-to-wall coverage, but no one is talking about the car bomb in the Middle East!”, as if the individual had done their own undercover journalism to discover said car bomb). For safety’s sake, I’ll stick to history here.
An uncharitable interpretation of this trend is historians making a lazy grab for originality and impact – they are nobly saving their subjects from the indignity of being forgotten, implying sole ownership of the topic, as well as asserting its inherent importance in halting an intellectual extinction. It might also be viewed as a matter of establishing progressive ‘street cred’, implicitly contrasting oneself with the Eurocentrics/Establishment/Other who are more conventional in their approaches and therefore aiding and abetting forgetting. Yet even if there are elements of this in play, it would be a mistake to dismiss such uses of ‘forgotten’ as being entirely bereft of meaning beyond usefulness for the author.
What I think is really being said in these cases is ‘compared to other things, this thing receives less attention than I think it should’. This subtext makes it simultaneously a powerful critique and utterly meaningless. It is powerful because what we pay attention to as a society or discipline is not unbiased – it is informed by a great many constructs, assumptions and prejudices. Calling attention to these biases can be an important way of reflecting structural inequalities in the way we approach history. These critiques can work. Think the recent outcry over race and the Oscars, where observing and discussing the visible bias in nominations has successfully prompted a rethink on the way in which Academy Awards are judged and raised further questions about how the industry works. Not exactly history, but the same process.
However, the way in which this particular critique is phrased threatens to render it pointless. It is disingenuous, starting from a position which is demonstrably false by its very nature. It is vague and subjective, with no yardstick for what being ‘remembered’ entails, or what we should assign less importance to in order to make space in public discourse. Most of all it refuses to enunciate its own critique, which in turn absolves the viewer from action. Now that it has been remembered, nothing further is needed beyond token efforts at inclusion. A new memorial, perhaps. A brief inclusion in the public pageantry surrounding memory of the event in question. Not bad things in and of themselves, but also not addressing those basic structural inequalities which fuel the problem. Next year, the process might be repeated with a different marginalised group.
Worse, the use of the term ‘forgotten’ can perpetuate a colonial relationship with history. In the case of the Indian soldiers, is it appropriate to call them forgotten in a British context? Can such things only be remembered by European, preferably English-speaking publics? Why is the state of other peoples’ histories still the province of an imperial centre? It harkens back to tropes such as Columbus ‘discovering’ America, as though it had not yet been discovered by those who lived there. Given that the value of the critique is in the way it questions the relationships that underpin our understanding of history, using the term ‘forgotten’ in historical discussion is often not just self-serving, but self-defeating.