The George and Irina Schaeffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights and Conflict Prevention

Figuring Memory: Lea David on the Dangers of Mandating Memory

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Lea David

On Tuesday, November 16, 2021, the George and Irina Schaeffer Center for the Study of Genocide, Human Rights and Conflict Prevention hosted the second in a series of monthly seminars for the 2021–22 academic year, titled “Figuring Memory: Social Practices and Collective Transformation.” The online event was organized in collaboration with Sarah Gensburger and Sandrine Lefranc at France’s national scientific research center, CNRS. Lea David, an assistant professor and Ad Astra Fellow at the School of Sociology, University College Dublin, was invited to discuss her book, The Past Can’t Heal Us: The Dangers of Mandating Memory in the Name of Human Rights. 

David’s work takes the form of a sociological analysis of how we examine the past, drawing on years of field research she has conducted on the memory of the Bosnian genocide. To shape her presentation, David asked three main questions: Why do we think about memorialization in the way we do? Does moral remembrance have the potential to transform individuals in local communities into believers in human rights values and norms? And what are the side effects that moral remembrance can produce on the ground?  

David defined moral remembrance as a standardized set of norms based on human rights values. “It is crucial to understand the standardization of memory,” she explained. “It defines the proper way in which societies are supposed to deal with the legacy of atrocities and mass human rights abuses.” She argued that though NGOs and peace agreements are adopting the idea that moral remembrance comes through different mechanisms, nation states are not necessarily following suit, meaning moral remembrance often clashes with state-sponsored memorialization agendas. As a result, moral remembrance often rejects categories of gender or race, strengthening instead the categories of nation and ethnicity and potentially creating new social inequalities. 

Finally, David argued that moral remembrance does not make people appreciative of atrocities. She discussed the idea of a “duty” to remember, as applied to members of a society, nation state or group. “This vocabulary makes it so we don’t remember victims for who they were; we only remember them because of what happened to them.” She argued that such moral remembrance uses false presumptions, applying categories of mental illness to instances of trauma. “The discourse of treatment and recovery assumes that something is rotten and sick,” she notes. 

Following David’s talk, which you can watch in full in the video below, audience members offered questions on real-world examples in which the dangers of moral remembrance are evident and whether grassroots methods could more effectively accomplish what moral remembrance seeks to achieve. 

Significant contributions to this news piece were made by AUP student and Schaeffer Fellow, Michael Justice.