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"Memory is vulnerable, easily distorted to fit beliefs and modes of action that are more expedient than accurate. When the process of remembering becomes collective, such distortion may be greatly increased. Collective memories are acquired and transmitted in a social context, and are therefore the modifiable property of many people (De La Ronde & Swann, 1998; Hardin & Higgins, 1996; Rosenthal & Rubin, 1978; Snyder, 1974). The tendency towards social modification, which can serve positively to unite the members of a group, has a very negative, dangerous, underground aspect. Individuals appear somewhat constrained in their willingness to inflict destruction (or at least in the power to do so). Groups of individuals are not. The dangers of self-deception about past events, far from trivial in the personal case, are tremendously magnified in the social arena. The careless use of memory can lead directly to the grave abuse of people.
Complete and accurate historical accounting might contribute to genuine reconciliation between individuals and groups previously or presently in conflict, at least in principle, and help to prevent outbreaks of future violence. But several obstacles, philosophical and practical, stand in the way of such completeness and accuracy. The only truly comprehensive representation of an event is the event itself. Any memory of an event must be, by contrast, incomplete, motivated and reconstructed. In consequence, there appears to be a fundamental conflict between the twin aims of coherence or comprehensibility of representation and correspondence with reality in memory construction. This conflict exists because of the necessarily paradoxical relationship that obtains between the tremendous complexity of remembered events, and the inevitably filtered and narrowed viewpoint of the limited individual observer. The very idea of historical truth has therefore has become subject to serious questioning.
Furthermore, even if the existence of some transcendent and absolute historical truth is granted, provisionally, it is still very difficult, practically, to set up the circumstances so that the truth can be discovered – so that all the participants in a given cultural or historical circumstance have the opportunity to tell their particular stories, and to have them incorporated into some coherent and accurate representation of the past. It therefore becomes a simple matter to deem all the participants in a given conflict as equally right, pursuing their own equally valid historically-determined visions of reality and justice. Since the Nuremberg trials, however, civilized societies have adopted the idea that certain modes of behavior are wrong – axiomatically wrong. This means that individuals and groups do not all necessarily stand equidistant from the truth, although they still retain some unspecified but implicit right to their own idiosyncratic views of a given event. So how might truth be conceptualized, in some manner useful to a discussion of truth and justice, given the troublesome problem of historical veridicality, the necessarily motivated stance of the observer, and the absolute impossibility of full “objective” representation?
THE FRAME AND THE PICTURE: WHO CALLS THE SHOTS, AND WHY?
Every account of any event inevitably utilizes only a tiny fraction of the information that originally comprised that event. Even a video camera must have an operator – must have a motivated, active director who calls the shots. Calling the shots, in a particular situation, means continual determination of what processes and objects will be included in the record, and what elements will be ignored. “What to ignore” is precisely the most complex of cognitive problems, in the real world, since almost everything has to be ignored. This problem of “relevant object” and “irrelevant background” – and the problem of the biases any solution necessarily introduces – could apparently be solved by random sampling of the “environment” that is to undergo representation. However, the immense database that comprises the real world is so vast that a sample of appropriate representativeness would still be far too large to be manageable. How do you sample appropriately from a population of infinite size? Practically, therefore, randomness is of less than no value. Anyone who has switched a video-tape recorder on accidentally during a family event, for example, soon learns that the snippets of unfocused scenery and fragmented dialog thus registered manage to be simultaneously uninformative, uninteresting, incomplete, and incoherent.
The human solution to the problem of sampling is motivation. We are always engaged with the environment – are always “being-in-the-world” – and are never dispassionate observers. We are always pursuing the limited goals we construe as valuable, from our particular idiosyncratic perspectives. We pay attention to, and remember, those events we construe as relevant, with regards to those goals. We do not and cannot strive for comprehensive, “objective” coverage. This process of motivated engagement allows us to extract out and remember a world of productive predictability from the ongoing complex chaos of being."