Moving on: the cult of forgetfulness

Memory is so burdensome to many of us that moving on and not looking back has become a kind of value in itself. The argument is that responding to present challenges is demanding enough, we should not compound it by dredging the past. This attitude, so prevalent in our culture, typically rides on the religious notion of forgiveness as forgetting and freeing oneself of a grudge. I argue that while a sense of forgiveness may lead us to disregard a wrong, forgiving does not mean forgetting.

There are two reasons why we should remember, and they are particularly relevant to our context. The first is quite obvious: many of our present problems are practically the same ones we encountered in the past. They recur because we have not taken them seriously enough – meaning, we do not use them as occasions to affirm our basic values, laws, and standards. We are content to catch the small fry hired by the real culprits. Because of the latter’s power, we stop short of calling them to account, or of punishing them. We seldom take the trouble of determining the nature of these problems so as to prevent their recurrence.

The second reason for remembering is that where there is no recognition of wrongdoing, or where there is no remorse and atonement, there is no duty to forgive. The offense is bound to be repeated, if not by the same person, by others who are emboldened by the community’s lack of will to enforce its laws. But, more than this, when a wrongdoing is unacknowledged and altogether blotted out, and the wrongdoer survives in memory without stigma, cynicism displaces idealism. The community loses its capacity to judge and to distribute social esteem. Before long, the unpunished wrongdoer may even come back to claim esteem. In our forgetfulness, we then wonder why, in the first place, it was denied him.

In his book “The ethics of memory,” the philosopher Avishai Margalit wrote of forgiveness in these terms: “The central metaphor is not erasure but, rather, returning.  The sinner who has become distanced from God because of his sin now returns to Him. The first step in correcting the wrongdoing is not God’s forgiveness but the sinner’s act of returning to God.”

This is accomplished, Margalit writes, first and foremost by the offender showing remorse.  Why is remorse so crucial to the return of the offender to the fold, and to the reconciliation between the wrongdoer and the community that forgives?

Margalit’s insight is instructive: “Remorse offers us a non-magical way of undoing the past. Although it is impossible to undo what has been done, since the past cannot be changed, it is possible to change our interpretation of the past. By expressing remorse the offender presents himself in a new light, a light that can be projected into the past.  His ability to feel remorse attests that he is not basically evil, even if the act that he performed was abominable. The sinner does not deny the badness of his deed, as then he would not be expressing remorse, but his very assumption of responsibility for the deed is supposed to create a rift between the act and the doer. Thus, an offender can be forgiven even if the offense cannot be forgotten.”

Let us apply this insight to two of our past presidents, Ferdinand Marcos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who were accused of committing acts considered abominable by society but were never punished. Marcos died in exile before the cases filed against him could be heard and decided. He was defiant till the end and never admitted committing any wrongdoing. A large portion of his wealth was nonetheless pronounced ill-gotten and was confiscated by the government.

A US court declared his regime guilty of human rights violations and awarded compensation to the victims. But the rest of his family had no problem returning to the country from exile after his death. His wife Imelda is now a member of the House of Representatives, his oldest daughter Imee, the governor of Ilocos Norte, and his son Ferdinand Jr., a senator of the republic.  Feeling perhaps vindicated by electoral success, they now want a hero’s burial for the former dictator.   There is not even a hint of remorse here, no confession, and certainly no atonement.  By demanding a hero’s burial for Marcos, they want the nation, in effect, to confess that it had made a mistake in deposing him as president.  That is what moving on means in this context.

Gloria Arroyo’s case is slightly different. After claiming the presidency a second time on the back of a highly-disputed electoral outcome, GMA did everything to cover up the criminal acts that went into ensuring her dubious victory at the polls.

The issue came to a head in mid-2005 when recordings of conversations between election operators and politicians, including Arroyo, surfaced. The “Hello Garci” tapes plunged the government into a crisis and prompted the carefully crafted “I-am-sorry” statement of GMA on television. Was this a gesture of remorse that merits reciprocal forgiveness? I think not. This was an attempt at evasion, not atonement. By re-describing her act as merely “a lapse in judgment,” Arroyo sought to decriminalize it. Her subsequent statements were a virtual denial of her participation in these taped conversations.

Now that witnesses have come forward, and the trail of evidence and testimony seems to be leading to the doorstep of the Arroyos, we again hear that tiresome refrain about moving on. It is not forgiveness they seek, but, rather, forgetfulness.

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