Learning from history
May 12, 1999
" History is never fixed and final. There will always be disagreement over the meaning of past events depending on the evidence available and the perspective of the historian. History is, after all, only the refraction of evidence through the prism of human insight".
Speaking to an NGO workshop on conflict resolution last December Canadian High Commissioner Alan Bowker suggested that George Santayana's aphorism "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" was therefore at best a half-truth.
"History can teach us powerful lessons but only if we in the present have the wisdom to learn them correctly and use them well. History can provide a third dimension to the present which helps us to understand who we are, where we are going and where we want to go".
Referring to the Canadian government's Statement of Reconciliation with the aboriginal people of Canada which formally apologised for the detrimental effect of past treatment he said that immigrants to Canada from all over the world in the present generation have benefited from "the qualities of the Canada our forebears built and the tolerance and understanding Canadians have derived from their experience. We have remembered the past and vowed that we will not repeat it".
"But" Mr. Bowker continued: "history can equally be a prison house of the mind, where people dwell exclusively on past injustices.
To those people in this mindset, healing is hypocrisy. If wrong has been done, only absolute justice will do. Full recompense and reparations must be paid. The guilt must be purged. The scales must be balanced".
Noting that the "culture of complaint" can go beyond and cheapen the search for justice the High Commissioner said:
"This view of history as oppression, endlessly repeated, becomes received truth for people who, in a perverse way, appear to derive a sense of purpose and identity from celebrating their status as victims, and who will accept no other version of the truth than that purveyed by the grievance-mongers. This use of history does not heal but only entrenches grievances and deepens wounds".
"History becomes a trap, not a guide, when it is used solely to brood on grievances and seek endlessly to balance scales that will never balance. In Northern Ireland, the Middle East and former Yugoslavia, ethnic rivalries have congealed into mutual hatred which has made each side incapable even of seeing the other side as human beings. Atrocity breeds atrocity, crime begets crime, wrongs done (or believed to have been done) a hundred years ago are thought of as though they happened yesterday. The past is not prologue to the present, it is the present, in this case Santayana is profoundly wrong. It is not those who cannot remember the past who are condemned to repeat it, but those who can do nothing but remember".
Referring to what had happened in South Africa and what he described as a key instrument in the healing, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, he said:
"In the end, the reconciliation that has begun in South Africa is the only way that history can truly resolve conflict. It is not the reconciliation of the show trial where the victor judges the loser. It is not the denaturing of the past to show that everyone suffered, that no one was really to blame, that they didn't know, or that they were all just following orders. It is not the voluntary amnesia of burying the past and letting bygones be bygones, It is not a litany of endless demands for redress by self declared victims for real or imagined wrongs.
It is amnesty based on a frank and fair assessment of the past and free acknowledgement of responsibility and guilt wherever they may fall. It is the relief that comes from learning, and accepting, the truth; the catharsis of confession; the liberation of genuine apology, and the uplift of forgiving and or being forgiven. It is the deeper wisdom that comes from knowing that wrong and right are not all on one side or the other, that all humans are imperfect beings who can do evil without being evil, that demonisation creates only demons while truth can set you free".
Guyana too is seeking peace and conflict resolution. Though situations are never the same it can certainly learn something from what has happened in other countries that have faced similar difficulties. So far there has been little forgiveness, only endless accusations. So far there has been little effort to work out who we are and where we are going. As Mr Bowker put it:
"As autonomous individuals in a democratic order, each of us must make the conscious choice whether to use history to reconcile and resolve conflicts or whether to perpetuate grievances and exacerbate conflicts. And we are accountable for that choice".
A © page from: Guyana: Land of Six Peoples