Monday, July 24, 2017

Forget it

Social media distort your self-image. They distort your personal identity, as well. That’s what we have seen last week. But it’s only an extreme consequence of the phenomenon that we tend to forget our experiences and that we forget selectively. You and I remember mainly only what was important or what made a big impression. Sometimes we explicitly try to retain memories by taking photos and making videos; by writing about our experiences in diaries and letters; or even by erecting memorial stones. The latter happens when a dear one has died, for example by placing a stone on her grave. But we forget much of what we experienced and what happened to us. Maybe it was not important – or we think so –, or it happened so long ago that the memories fade away. In addition, there is the weird phenomenon that someone tells you the story of something she experienced and later you think that it was you who went through it. I’ll leave this further aside, but we can say that all these distorted memories make that actually you are not the person who you think you are. Or maybe you are your self-image, for it’s your self-image that you represent towards others, but the person you think to represent is then not the person you actually lived. It’s why Julia Shaw ends her book The memory illusion with the statement: “Our past is a fictional representation, and the only thing we can be even somewhat sure of is what is happening now.” (p. 255).
This distorted self-image or even double distorted self-image, if we think of the impact of the social media, is not only an individual phenomenon. It happens also on a collective level. What we see everywhere is that groups, groupings and bigger collective units like nations tend to forget their bad and criminal actions in the past and stress what they think they can be proud of, even if the latter is often a clear exaggeration. Many point or pointed after Germany, which was responsible for the holocaust – but which is also one of the few countries that tried to account for its criminal past –, but few countries acknowledge the anti-Semitism within their own borders. White countries try to hide their contributions to black slavery or depict it as less worse than it was. Many countries have persecuted their minorities and but don’t mention it in their historical records. These are only a few big facts. The smaller distorted “facts” are even more frequent. I think that every reader understands what I mean, and I mention it only in order to illustrate that we see distorted identities on all levels: the levels of personal identity, group identity – not discussed here – till national identity.
We find a kind of forgetfulness also on a level where you may not expect it: the level of daily life; the level of the most ordinary things around you. In fact, it’s hardly possible to talk here of forgetting, for if you see but don’t watch, you don’t notice. Nevertheless there are many things around you that you know they are there and nevertheless, when they are out of your sight, they are out of your mind, even though they help to constitute the world you live in. Without them, your world would collapse, or – which happens more often if not most of the time – be a little bit more complicated or less pleasant. Following a description by Sarah Bakewell, I mean the things that make up your “barely noticed social, historical and physical context in which all our activities take place, and which we generally take for granted.” Look at the photo at the top of this blog. Probably most of you have seen a thing like that. Maybe there is one in your street. It took me some time to find out what it is, but it is a distribution box for electricity – if I am right! Nevertheless, if I would ask you to describe your street, you would probably forget to mention it, even if you know that there is one. It seems so unimportant that it doesn’t pop up in your mind. Nevertheless, how unpleasant would your life be today without electricity, so without such distribution boxes. But you have walked often along it, maybe you have bumped into it, and still you forget that it is there. It makes up your life world a little bit but mentally it doesn’t belong to it. So it is with much in your life world and with your personal identity as well. You pass it over, for it doesn’t stir your mind. Forget it!

Sources: Sarah Bakewell, The existentialist café. London: Vintage, 2016; p. 130; Julia Shaw, see blog dated July 10, 2017.

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