The World is Throwing a Fit of Collective Amnesia

The right is spreading memory ignorance.

The World is Throwing a Fit of Collective Amnesia
Photo by Edwin Hooper on Unsplash

If you can control history, you can control anything.

It's that simple.

You might be wondering how we could've possibly forgotten everything we learned barely four years ago, forgotten it so fast, and why we're repeating all the same mistakes as we head into yet another pandemic. It's even worse than before. Now our leaders are trying to prevent us from protecting ourselves, whether it's senators in one state revoking the right to mask or a mayor of a large city demonizing and scapegoating public health.

Psychology provides a lesson here. When someone goes through a traumatic event, a large part of them wants to forget it. They want to forget anything associated with it. This happens on the individual level, and it can happen on a larger scale with entire societies willfully forgetting the recent past because it's too painful to remember. The elites and the powerful know that.

They're using it against us.

Look at any authoritarian regime. They constantly rewrite the past. They erase famines and genocides. They erase plagues. They write a version of it that makes them look like the good guys, even if they did nothing but let everyone die while helping the rich profit off our suffering.

Right now, we're doing the same thing. In the U.S., the far right is mad at work rewriting the history of public health, slavery, civil liberties, and freedom. They're rewriting the history of the failed coup on January 6. Even among liberals, those in power are authorizing one history while invalidating another.

There's a term for what's happening.

It's called social amnesia.

It happens on its own, but authoritarian regimes can take control of it and ramp it up for their own political agendas. That's what they're doing. Every institution from education to the media is helping them. They do it every single time they present "two sides" to issues like public health.

They facilitate social amnesia.

Russell Jacoby popularized the term social amnesia in the 1990s. Jacoby describes it as the tendency "to ignore history and precedent when responding to the present or informing the future." It's a perfect diagnosis for all the insanity we're witnessing now. Almost nobody pays attention to actual history or precedent anymore, only the version that serves their interests.

As a society, we flounder and flail. We spread hate and disease. We spread violence and fear. We go to endless war.

We smile about it.

We forget.

As Jacoby explains, "society remembers less and less faster and faster... it scorns the past as antiquated while touting the present as the best. The forgetfulness itself is driven by an unshakable belief in progress." Once society forgets its actual past, anyone can write a new one in its place.

Jacoby says in the vacuum of authentic history, "Discarded ideas are repackaged." That's something worth remembering. Once you kill history, you can repackage whatever failed ideas and ideologies you want and then sell them like new. Racism. Slavery. White supremacy. Misogyny. Social Darwinism.

They all got a facelift.

Ignorance has made a major comeback. We've got mayors and senators running around touting failed policies of public health like natural immunity. They're mad at work convincing the public that the best way to protect yourself from disease is to catch the disease. They're mad at work telling everyone we've always just lived with these diseases. They want us to forget that humanity spent a thousand years fighting diseases with everything they had, and losing until finally they discovered antibiotics, vaccines, and sanitation.

That's the history they want us to forget.

This social, collective amnesia has sabotaged our response to emergencies at every turn. Craig Stephen describes it as “the tendency of societies to recognize a new potentially catastrophic threat, react to it for a few years, and then move on.” That's exactly what we've done with Covid. It's what we've done with climate change. It's what we've done with racism and police brutality. We react and move on. The problem doesn't just persist.

It gets worse.

Everyone wants to forget these things happened. They don't want to learn the lessons from our traumatic past, not even the recent past.

Alessandra Tanesini describes the violent side of collective amnesia in Socially Extended Epistemology. As she writes, “Communities often respond to traumatic events in their histories by destroying objects that would cue memories of a past they wish to forget.” Dominant members of a group “spread memory ignorance." In other words, our leaders push amnesia in order to erase the mistakes they made and suppress dissent. This memory ignorance serves as “a form of self-deception or wishful thinking in the service of self-flattery." They cook up a story that makes them feel good about themselves.

In fact, you could say the worse our leaders feel about how they acted (or failed to act), the more pressure they'll feel to spread memory ignorance. It's the only way they can stay in power and avoid accountability.

So, our societies are having a fit of collective amnesia. They're targeting anything and anyone that cues memories of trauma, corruption, or incompetence. That would include masks and air purifiers.

They're memory cues.

The greater public is happy to play along, because who wants to remember the last four years? They've been awful. They're also targeting masks and air purifiers. They want them gone. They want to forget.

That would be bad enough if the disaster, trauma, or plague were over.

In this case, it's not.

The Covid pandemic rages on as the planet burns, floods, and bakes. Covid spreads all year long now. It spreads through the air. By your fourth or fifth infection, you're virtually guaranteed chronic illness no matter how healthy you are. The science on this is irrefutable now, and people are finding out the hard way. Every day our leaders push memory ignorance, the more death and disability they create.

So what role are you playing? You're what Tanesini calls a memory rebel. You spread the truth. Michel Foucault talks about collective amnesia and memory rebellion in his 1980 book, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice. He offers a tool to fight against it.

He calls it the counter-memory.

The counter memory is “an individual's resistance against the official versions of historical continuity.” Basically, you tell your own story. You make your own historical artifacts. You share them.

Every time you wear a mask or plug in an air purifier, you're doing counter memory. You're reminding people that masks and air purifiers don't symbolize danger or loss of freedom. They symbolize health and protection. They kept us safe. They keep us safe now.

We never politicized these tools.

Let's set the record straight:

Four years ago, a dangerous new virus started spreading. Nobody knew anything about it. We had no choice but to use masks and social distancing. They protected us. We wore masks that were okay but not great. We got vaccines, but not great ones. Now we know better. We have better masks. We have better air purifiers. We're developing better vaccines. We have nose sprays. We could actually control Covid instead of submitting to constant infection that results in inevitable disability and slow death. We don't have to accept it.

The entire time, ignorance has gotten the better of many people. They've fought every single tool we have. They spent the last four years ignoring science and finding their own contrarian "experts," mainly disgraced doctors and scientists who have to grift for a living. They've taken advantage of every opportunity to spread ignorance and misinformation about masks, vaccines, and air purifiers. They've protested. They've rioted. They've mobbed schools and school boards. They've attacked teachers. They've harassed children. They've threatened healthcare workers with death. They don't even truly understand what they're doing. It's simply an impulsive reaction to a perceived loss of freedom. Their impulsive behavior has killed people.


The government we elected has turned its back on us. They've caved and conceded to ignorance, even when they didn't have to. They've secretly spent millions upon millions of dollars on ventilation and treatments to ensure their own health and safety. Even government offices have installed high-tech UV lights and upgraded their ventilation. They've abandoned everyone else, happy to spread memory ignorance and make false assurances about our safety, all so we'll continue working and consuming.

To keep the economy going...

It's a terrible plan. It's blowing up in their faces. Worker productivity is dropping. Test scores are dropping. Life expectancy is falling. Businesses are failing. Stores are closing. Nobody can afford to buy anything, because nobody can afford to make anything. Our leaders have made a terrible mistake by endorsing and embracing a policy of mass infection over commonsense protections. Instead of taking responsibility, they blame the only group who has consistently done the right thing the entire time: us.

That's why corrupt politicians want to take away our masks. It's why mayors go on television and try to paint us as criminals. It's deflection. They can't admit they're wrong. So they're just going to try and erase everyone's memory.

Memories are the bedrock of civilization. It's how useful information gets passed on, especially about threats. If you want to see a civilization collapse, look at what happens to collective memories.

We know we have to remember.

Even if it hurts.

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