The memory ladder

THERE APPEARS TO be a deep attraction to the naive idea that we can re-create ourselves and our societies at will, with no regard to who we are and where we’ve come from. A veritable Everest of blogs and posts and articles and books and speeches reinforce our desire to believe that ‘today is the first day of the rest of your life’ – that the goal of never-ending happiness requires only a few days’ study of mindfulness manuals (or any of their predecessors) to effect a seismic shift in our wellbeing.

This fantasy permeates politics as well. Even a cursory look at the language and images embedded in politics and public policy shows that asking serious questions about what the past can tell us about the likely effectiveness of proposed policies is rare. Even more uncommon is any deep exploration of what we know about human behaviour and how social structures are likely to influence it. This deficiency is nowhere more obvious than in the political class, who seem to be rendered tongue-tied – or resort to soothing, infantilising babble – whenever uncomfortable truths are broached.

In a course I teach at the University of Western Australia about the relevance of psychology to understanding contemporary social problems and policy solutions, I stress to students that in order to judge what people are likely to do in the future, we need to know a little about where they’ve been, what forces are acting on them and how they see the world.

No analysis of policy is possible without a thoroughgoing understanding of human psychology. Psychology should be at the heart of good public policy – but often it is not. In fact, many policy makers assume they know, because they are human and live in society, all that they need to know about human behaviour. Or they assume that economic theory will provide all the critical insights necessary to underpin effective policy. A moment’s thought should make it clear that success in addressing complex problems requires, at least, a rudimentary understanding of human behaviour and cognition, not to mention the biological and social forces that shape us.

In teaching this program, I try to lift my gaze – and that of my students – beyond our borders and our times, and to live with doubt. In attempting to understand the sources of extremism, social conflict and state-sanctioned murder, for example, the route we take necessarily traverses the globe – from Germany to Rwanda, Argentina to China.

The legacies of the Holocaust, while deeply troubling, are knowable, having been traced in many ways – in literature, film and poetry, in biography, in political and historical analysis, in psychology and sociology. Probing questions have been asked about how the normal processes of human thought and emotion could be so manipulated and deformed that ordinary people became ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’. About how so many ordinary Germans could stand by as their Jewish neighbours were first branded and excluded from normal life, then herded into ghettoes and cattle trucks – and then say that they did not know what was happening. And about the enduring effects on the Jewish people and on German society of the murderous project that was the Holocaust. While satisfactory answers to these questions may be elusive, they are, at least, asked. And although the doors to exploring Stalin’s Gulags have been closed again, the brief period when the Soviet archives were open allowed some insight into the minds of the decision-makers who presided over the torture and deaths of so many.

THE CONTRAST WITH the exploration of postwar Communist Chinese government atrocities is stark. The more I read about recent Chinese history (and I freely acknowledge my ignorance in this field), the more it strikes me that contemporary accounts of the ‘miracle’ of Chinese industrialisation appeared to treat the Chinese government and its people as having sprung into being just yesterday, with nothing relevant in their past to provide understanding or insight. It surely cannot be that the profoundly disturbing experiences of the Great Leap Forward, for example, which produced mass starvation and resulted in the death of an estimated thirty-six million people between the late 1950s and early 1960s, are not still shaping Chinese society. Many of the protagonists are still alive and their children in positions of power, while many of the victims and their children still live with the consequences of the malnutrition – and collective madness – they were forced to endure. But there has been no acknowledgement and no reckoning. Successive Chinese governments continue to ascribe the deaths to natural causes.

In Tombstone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), his account of what has been described as the worst famine in history, Yang Jisheng, formerly a journalist with the state-run news agency Xinhua and a loyal party member throughout his life, used official archives and interviews with survivors, witnesses and officials to forensically detail the unnatural causes that killed so many. At the core of the Great Leap Forward was the setting of higher and higher targets for agricultural and industrial production. In the effort to meet these increasingly unrealistic targets driven by ‘the winds of exaggeration’, local cadres tried to outdo one another in delivering massive harvests to the government’s grain stores, leaving local people with nothing to eat. This was compounded by the truly outlandish attempts to boost steel production by melting down virtually anything and everything available – farm equipment, cooking pots and household implements. As the death toll mounted, people resorted to eating bark stripped from trees and filling their bellies with clay to stave off excruciating hunger pains. Comparably wacky agricultural practices were urged on collective farms: turning over the soil to a metre deep (thus losing the nutrients in the top soil) and planting crops so close together they withered and failed.

Those who had the temerity to object to these policies were tortured and killed for questioning the Communist Party’s ‘maniacal economic plans’ that caused the catastrophe. Yang Jisheng describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still being felt half a century later. He, like others who’ve tried to chart these events, clearly holds China’s political system responsible for the deaths and the continuing devastation of many regions.

But as Zhou Xun, a young woman who interviewed the country people who bore the brunt of this monstrous experiment, reports in Forgotten Voices of Mao’s Great Famine, 1958–1962 (Yale University Press, 2013): ‘Unlike the history of the Holocaust in Europe, in China there is no collective memory, no public monument, no museum, no remembrance day, and no mention of the Great Leap Forward under Mao in any school or history textbook.’ This is why Yang Jisheng’s explicit goal in writing his book (published in Hong Kong but banned on mainland China) was to erect a memorial, a tombstone, to his father and to the many who died victims of the state’s economic policies. In the preface he writes:

A tombstone is memory made concrete. Human memory is the ladder on which a country and a people advance; it is the road sign on mankind’s journey. We must remember not only the good things, but also the bad; not only the bright spots, but also the darkness. The authorities in a totalitarian system strive to conceal their faults and extol their merits, gloss over their errors and forcibly eradicate all memory of man-made calamity, darkness and evil. For that reason, the Chinese are prone to historical amnesia, an amnesia imposed by those in power. I erect this tombstone so that people will remember and henceforth renounce man-made calamity, darkness and evil.

THE LESSONS FROM our own history are no less important; the monumental scale and determined brutality of the events in China – as well as other places – cannot absolve us from thinking about the origins of our own nation; of the displacement and killing of many of the First Peoples and the continuing refusal by many of us to acknowledge the legacy of that incursion, made in the name of a deliberate government policy to expand the reach and influence of a colonial power and to solve the problem of its growing ‘felonious’ underclass.

Concealing the bleak side of our history and seeking to wipe it from memory is, as the German philosopher Theodor Adorno observes, the antithesis of what is needed in a truly civilised country: a serious working through of the past via an act of clear consciousness that enables us to see how we are shaped by our history.

Airbrushing the past also means that we are rendered incapable of properly devising policies that are likely to succeed in reducing Aboriginal disadvantage in particular. Imposed solutions, such as the ‘intervention’ and ‘welfare cards’, are unlikely to be real solutions at all. In fact, they simply reinforce the sense of powerlessness that is already so pervasive among those subject to such policies. This, after all, is not the first time they’ve been subjected to the will of others with painful consequences. Decisions about their lives have been taken from their hands many times before: the appropriation of land, the removal of children, the forced relocation of families and communities, the attacks on language and culture.

It is well understood in psychology that when people repeatedly experience unpleasant events over which they have no control, they will not only experience trauma, but will come to act as if they believe that it is not possible to exercise control over any situation – indeed, that whatever they do is largely futile. Attempts to remedy the social disadvantage of Aboriginal people depend, fundamentally, on understanding the effects of past trauma and its potentially cumulative effects.

Perhaps less obviously, a lesson from China is there to be read, too, of the dangers of absolutist prescriptions for how to live our lives and organise our societies, of the perils of the ‘winds of exaggeration’ – a flaw that is obvious in others, but less visible when we are the offenders.

It seems to me, that, almost imperceptibly, we have become enamoured with absolutism with a Western flavour; intolerant of nuance and subtlety, always seeking the ultimate in satisfaction or performance – cascading ‘likes’ and stars and ratings driving our decisions. Shouting at ourselves in every space and staring at tiny screens, dangerously unaware of the real world around us. It may be that I’m reaching that stage of life when ‘slow’ and ‘thoughtful’ look more attractive, but I’m not the first to observe that the pace and temperature of public life everywhere seems to be accelerating and becoming more competitive – and without any obvious improvements in the quality of our lives.

One of the more absurd examples, introduced with barely a blush from the administration at The University of Western Australia, where I work, is the direction (I’m told it’s called a ‘brand proposition’) that staff and students should ‘pursue impossible’. Even allowing for the absent noun (a current fad in marketing), what are we being asked to do? The previous, century-old motto to ‘seek wisdom’ was a difficult enough goal, but perhaps one that allowed for degrees of success, or modest progress – a little wisdom being better than none? But ‘impossible’?

The accompanying TV advertisement, directed at potential students, shows a young woman sprinting around the world, through stunning landscapes and iconic city images, finishing up, panting, in a snowy northern-hemisphere forest. (What, you might ask, has that to do with Perth?) As she stops to take a breath, the voice over solemnly intones the bizarre claim that when she stops the world stops with her. I can’t even begin to make sense of that statement, but its overreach is all too familiar – everyone can be the best, the brightest, the fastest, the most impressive, emulating Superman’s planet-reversing stunts.

SUCH GRANDIOSITY IS all too evident in politics as well: there is little tolerance of uncertainty and a shuddering revulsion at modest claims. The current Minister for the Environment, in defending the newly minted Turnbull government’s direct action climate-change policy, said shortly after the change of leader, ‘We have arguably the best and most efficient scheme in the world.’ Perhaps he hadn’t yet registered that slogans were to be a thing of the past and that his new boss thinks ministers should respect people’s intelligence.

What’s wrong with admitting that this is a policy area where much is yet to be learned, that there are many proposed solutions, that most of the serious commentators are critical of his policy or, at least, that while the jury is still out on many of the policy options, any new evidence will help shape future policy? His Prime Minister, captive to those who voted for him in the leadership ballot, is now praising to the heavens a policy he pilloried just weeks ago. We’re expected to respond to this with a straight face – indeed some in the media seem inclined to do so and get impatient with those who want to point backwards and ask questions about whether anything has changed.

This is not dissimilar to the Gillard government’s refusal to countenance the possibility that single parents would be adversely affected by mooted changes to the benefits regime. ‘What we want to see for single parents…is that we are creating the right incentives and the right incentives for getting people into work at the right time,’ Julia Gillard said. Despite evidence of the failure of similar policies in the past and informed criticism, including from a parliamentary committee report that warned the policy could drive more women and children into poverty, the government ignored them and pressed on, certain they were absolutely right.

The warnings have proven correct – the policy has produced no discernible improvement in the employment of single parents and many have been forced into debt-ridden poverty. At least Labor now say they see it was a mistake, although we might ask why they needed to conduct a painful real-life experiment with women and children’s lives first, rather than use a little imagination and a dollop of psychology to reach their conclusion.

There are countless such examples of politicians appearing to be captive to the idea that to admit uncertainty is certain death; that no failure will be tolerated and the only way to speak to people is in simple slogans. I don’t think this will change just because we have a new, more liberal Prime Minister. The new Treasurer quickly and busily began crafting his own version of his predecessor’s ‘debt and deficit’ mantra. Such glib sloganeering, empty of meaning and any pretence of helping to inform the electorate, inevitably diminishes trust in the possibility of real policy innovation and social improvement.

Instead, we’re invited to take part in an elaborate game, one in which the players face off as deadly opponents when they are, in reality, largely indistinguishable; a game that requires us to suspend disbelief and not to notice that not much of value is really being debated. For the most part, we’re treated as spectators, expected to reflexively respond to the emotional button-pressing devised by marketing gurus to create dissatisfaction – the itch they hope to soothe with their unsurpassable products, some of which have lately been found to be a bit wanting – whether it’s with Tony Abbott or VW.

The masters at this game – those who engineer consent – typically possess the resources and the power to do so; the well-connected and the well-protected can work the system, but rarely in the interests of the ordinary citizen. Ironically, the increasing dominance of marketing in the political process has helped create a massive image problem for the politicians who rely on its services. In fact, politicians know that they are held in such low esteem that many now build their election campaigns on the pretence that they are anything but professional politicians. Although no one in the media seemed to notice or comment, a slogan typical of this strategy and used by the Liberal candidate in the 2015 Canning by-election – ‘Not another politician’ – needed only an exclamation mark to make it rude criticism, rather than an endorsement of his candidacy. I suspect satire may be the best response to this idiocy.

And perhaps it would reward us to examine what happens when people are repeatedly treated as if they have no knowledge of the past, when history is ignored. In China, rural communities still suffer extreme poverty in relative silence, and those who seek to tell truth to power, including journalists, are jailed. Shutting people up and excluding them from society can take many forms short of imprisonment. Refusing to ask carefully and to take account of how people come to be where they are today means that policies blind to these facts are likely to fail in the long term. Similarly, absolute claims of flawless performance made in the face of evidence to the contrary not only fail to address real problems, but also locate the claimants in the universe inhabited by the Comical Alis of this world.

12 October 2015

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