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Is it possible for history to be recorded in more than one way even when looking at exactly the same event? The answer is a resounding yes. In fact, maybe you've had such an experience. Perhaps you recall that you beat your brother at a game of 21 when you were kids but he recalls that he actually beat you.
This is where the concept of historical memory and its associated potential biases come in. Let's go over these concepts in this lesson.
History vs. the Past
Before we jump into the topic of historical memory we need to be clear about the concepts of history and the past. The past is the entire collection of absolutely everything that has ever happened anywhere in the universe prior to this moment. This could be wars, supernova explosions, your cousin Tim getting married, Brazil wining the FIFA World Cup, and Julius Caesar thinking about what he should eat for breakfast the day he got killed. All that is the past.
History is often used synonymously with the past but it should actually be distinguished from it. History is the study, interpretation, and recording of past events and their recollections in a way that gives meaning to people. That game of 21 you played with your brother is in the past. It is part of the past. Your interpretation of who won is a part of history. Think of the part of the word ''story'' to help you remember that history is a story or perception of the past.
Now that you can distinguish between the two, let's define the concept of historical memory. Historical memory refers to the way by which groups of people create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events. Historical memory is sometimes called collective memory or social memory and is a dependent upon things like:
- Familial memory, which are memories that family's create and then pass down of their own experiences.
- Religious memory, when a religious entity is important when it comes to a group of people's storytelling, and thus, creation of memories.
- National memory, which is like the official memory recognized by a nation.
Historical memories help form the social and political identities of groups of people and they can be changed with respect to present moments.
Examples of Biases
This is where the whole notion of bias and historical memory comes in. Historical memory is fluid because history is not the same thing as the past. History is the interpretation of the past, and because it's an interpretation, the past can be skewed in a different light based on present moment and personal biases in time. These can later change and so history can be re-written and recalled differently once again.
For example, think of how differently Confederate statues are recalled by people in the U.S. For one group of people, those Confederate statues are tributes to fallen Southerners or an acknowledgment of the past, good or bad. For others, their historical memory is very different and those statues represent pro-slavery and racism.
Or what about the ways by which historical memories of the Korean War are depicted by North Korean museums, where the U.S. is shown as an aggressor vs. U.S. museums, where the opposite is true?
Changes in power can also bring about changes in historical memory. Some in the U.S. recall the days of George W. Bush far more fondly once President Trump came to power than they did in the days of George W. Bush himself.
Identity also plays a big part in historical memory and biases. For example, individuals who identify themselves very strongly with a group of people have been shown to recall negative acts associated with their group of people far less than those who do not associate themselves as strongly with the same group.
The past is the entire collection of everything that has ever happened prior to this moment. This is different from history, which is the study, interpretation, and recording of past events and their recollections in a way that gives meaning to people.
Note the interpretation part. This is the reason for why history is re-written and for why historical memories are so fluid. Historical memory, or collective memory, refers to the fluid way by which groups of people create and then identify with specific narratives about historical periods or events, sometimes based on present circumstances. Historical memory involves a collection of familial memory, religious memory, and national memory. Biases can change the presentation or recording of history depending on factors like nationality, changes in rule, or being a part of a group.
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