Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sunday Essay - "Eish babba": time, memory & vengeance

This poster came via a South African Ndarala colleague, Philip Van Zyl. It was pure accident that it made sense to me.

A week back, I happened to read a South African Broadcasting story on the failure of some South African schools to open because there were no text books. More precisely, the schools in question had no text books. If you don't have access to history books, then you don't have access to history. As the girl says, "Eish babba! Don't know this Verwoerd. I don't have a History text book yet...."

Just at the moment, my reading has taken me in the direction of time and our perceptions of time. Central to that is the process of forgetting.

Some of my somewhat older Australian Labor Party friends, essentially those in the fifty plus bracket, are sometimes distressed to find that the younger generations have no real recollection of the events surrounding the dismissal of the Whitlam Government. To them, the 1972 It's Time campaign that elected the Whitlam Government and subsequent events have achieved iconic status.

In fact, they are a little lucky, for those events are better remembered than many simply because they were important to people who wrote or filmed.

I have written before that three generations is about the maximum for any event to remain in living memory. That's true, but its also true that only major events or broad impressions remain alive. In practice, we only really remember events that happened after we were born because they are the only things that we have experienced. Our memory of earlier events is always second hand.

In the hunting and fishing or agrarian communities that between them constitute 99 per cent of the human experience, historical memory was largely passed from one generation to the next through personal contact, although written texts became more important in the most recent centuries.

In Aboriginal Australia, the young listened in the flickering light of fire beneath a vast dome of sky made brilliant by a million stars. Today, the sky is dimmed by bright city lights, while young people's busy lives leave them little time for verbal learning or even extended casual conversation outside immediate peer groups. "Eish babba, I don't have time to listen!" The experiences that all Australians once had of the broader natural or even human life are compressed into obligatory excursions.

To be human is to forget. The present always crowds out the past, even that past that we have ourselves experienced. There are good practical reasons for this. Among other things, our memories would become unbearably crowded if every single experience was retained in front memory.This hold especially true for bad memories. "Eish babba, I don't want to remember."

In a very strange way, current life gives us the worst of both worlds.

According to research, our positive memories do have a practical physiological effect. A remembered quite scene that we loved, the sound of water falling on a tin roof for example, slows our brain waves, Equally, a continued bad memory recreates the physical reactions we had at the time. Today, there is little quiet time for the good, while we reinforce the bad through constant publicity and obligatory counselling.

When Shakespeare wrote "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones" he wasn't far wrong. Any reading of history shows that the memories of the bad carried down through the generations reap awful subsequent results. Mind you, I would also argue that the good carries on. It's just that we forget the good, accept it, while vengeance stains the human record in a very visible way.

The King James version of the Bible states: "Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord". We live in a modern secular world in which many regard the very concept of a God as an arrant superstition, so let me phrase this another way.

If you seek vengeance as opposed to justice, if you make vengeance your personal responsibility, then you can be pretty sure that the evil you do will live after you. We remember Nelson Mandela because he put vengeance aside.  

"Eish babba, you have become far to serious." I think that's right. I really hadn't intended to turn this Sunday Essay into a sermon!  


In a way, this particular post has taken me in directions that I hadn't wanted to go, although the issues were on my mind because of my latest train reading, David Christian's Maps of Time: and introduction to big history (University of California Press, 2005), as well as subsequent developments linked to the Father F case (Four Corners, the Armidale Express and Father F).

At the time I wrote the post, I hadn't properly focused on a somewhat related piece by Winton Bates, Should punishment be about retribution or deterrence?. Winton has now added a postscript linked to this post.

I fear I have very confused views on some of these issues. I just can't see things in black and white terms, something that means that I am very out of touch  with, or at least at variance from, current attitudes. I also have severe problems with some of the more abstract discussions.

My end discussion on vengeance, on the sometimes advantages of forgetting, partly reflected but my own values. But it also reflected an empirical judgment based on my understanding of history that vengeance or revenge carried down through the generations wreaked havoc on those generations.  

If we look more broadly, all groups, all societies, have ways of punishing wrong doers defined as those who break that group or society's codes. This was true in Aboriginal Australia and is equally true today. In human terms, the idea of either justice or the rule of law is a relatively modern phenomenon linked to the rise of the state. In those ideas, an abstraction is created that exists independent of the individual or the group or even the state. This is an important ideal in limiting the growing coercive power of the state. Yet as soon as you scratch the surface, drop below, instant messes emerge.

The idea of deterrence, of the use of punishment to deter wrong doers, is a very old one. Yet it has also been a very limited concept, for the idea that punishment should deter is actually a purely empirical issue. Does it do so? If so, at what cost? It is also a complicated issue because it is inexplicably entwined in practice with the idea of retribution, of sanctioned revenge. Winton defined this in these terms: "Retributive justice is concerned primarily with giving criminals the punishment they deserve – the crucial variable is the degree of moral outrage the crime engenders." Now Winton qualified this a little later, but to my mind it is still sanctioned revenge.

Things get more complicated still because we need to add to the mix the ideas of contrition, rehabilitation and redemption. These are linked but different issues that actually sit oddly within the justice system.

Some years ago, a friend was found guilty of a significant white collar crime connected with the collapse of his company. I was interviewed as part of the pre-sentencing process. Did my friend display contrition for his crime? They didn't think so.

I really struggled with this. My friend had pleaded not guilty, and still believed that he had not committed a crime. So he wasn't contrite in that sense. However, he was certainly sorry for the losses inflicted and wondered what he might have done better to avoid the collapse. But this was not contrition as defined in the criminal justice game.

If you look at the history of the NSW child welfare system, you will find a constant tension between the weighting placed upon deterrence, retribution and rehabilitation. You will also find a continuing tension between the child welfare system and the criminal justice system, between a system concerned with the welfare of children and that concerned with the punishment of children.

There are no right answers, just a constant balancing over time. Today, we regard the English criminal justice system that transported young petty criminals to Australia as inhumane. In practice, I am not sure that there is much difference between that and the Northern Territory's three strikes legislation. At least the convicts had a chance of a better life.        


Winton Bates said...

The distinction between seeking justice and punishment is sometimes not all that clear

I get the impression that when some people talk about justice, what they have in mind is vengeance eg. G W Bush talking about ensuring that terrorists face justice.

When some people talk about punishment they might not have much more in mind than having criminals face court, and hopefully acknowledge guilt and express remorse. For example, I can understand in those terms why some people are still keen to ensure that old men who committed horrific crimes 70 years ago should not escape punishment.

Evan said...

Winton, it seems you are pretty clear on the difference between vengeance and justice.

I think 'Restorative Justice' is very promising.

A couple of remarks. Oral memory was quite codified and reliable - in the form of songs and stories.

Memory is impregnated with meaning. See if you can recount an incident that sticks only to the sensory data - it is incredibly difficult.

Jim Belshaw said...

I agree with Evan, Winton, re your position. I'm not sure that I agree with you Evan re the reliability of oral memory, in part because of your next point (memory is impregnated), but also because of the time factor. By time, I mean perceptions of time. This affects the way things are viewed.

Anonymous said...

Evan, I won't bore you with the details, but I have very strong memories of a particular car my parents owned; the vehicle leading our family to many pleasant places and trips.

I can think about that car, and visualise it quite clearly, and still remember exactly where I sat - in the back, between two older brothers. Boring, I suppose, because probably everybody has fond memories of fond times - but why mine are centred around that particular car, I don't know.

But what I do know for sure and certain is that the family car in question was owned for three or four years, but was sold by them well before my birth.

My 'memories' are simply the family photo album, expanded and reinforced by the repeated retelling of a particularly happy time for my family - before I joined it.


Jim Belshaw said...

That's an interesting example, kvd, and illustrates one problem with oral history. Nevertheless, it's interesting just how accurate some stories and songs have proved to be from developed oral cultures. Not always and definitely not on points of detail, but they were taught and taught in such a way that a particular telling could pass through multiple generations in similar form.