19
$\begingroup$

In the particular world that I am working on, I am attempting to build a "utopian" society. A major piece of this society is that, effectively, all historical atrocities have been "forgotten" by the mainstream society. Now the vehicle I am attempting to use to accomplish this is something I read about in a social psychology article which states, in simplistic terms, "humans are happy to forget the bad things that society did, provided someone in a position of authority gives them permission." I might be mashing concepts together, if so I apologize.

My question is then, would 100+ years be sufficient for the worst atrocities to be removed from the human races collective historical record? This assumes a global government, not teaching it in schools, etc.

Edit: For clarity, I define a major atrocity as something akin to the Holocaust. Edit 2: My setting assumes an early technological singularity (~2050) and is set 50-100 years after that.

$\endgroup$
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Can you define the technological level of your setting, I don't think this can be answered without that information. $\endgroup$ – James Apr 6 '15 at 15:30
  • 10
    $\begingroup$ We still talk about slavery today, and that was over 100 years ago. We still talk about that massacre of natives by early Spanish explorers, and that was 500 years ago. We still talk about the Black Death, and the devastation it caused 700 years ago. 100+ years would likely not be enough time. $\endgroup$ – Nick2253 Apr 6 '15 at 16:37
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ Most religious people make a habit of studying atrocities from several thousand years ago. (~6000 years for Jews) $\endgroup$ – Mooing Duck Apr 6 '15 at 17:29
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Why would you want to erase past atrocities? If you don't remind yourself of what went wrong in the past, you won't have a Utopian society for long. $\endgroup$ – corsiKa Apr 6 '15 at 17:47
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ It depends. French and German people don't blow each other up over the World Wars, although both wars happened less than 100 years ago. And there are people who hate each other and blow each other up for things which happened more than 500 years ago. The World Wars are not forgotten in the sense that nobody knows about them or there are no consequences left over, but they are erased enough that the average Europeans don't hate each other because of them. And this "erasure" happened pretty soon after the war, there were no terror attacks between the former combatants after the war. $\endgroup$ – vsz Apr 7 '15 at 6:19

15 Answers 15

44
$\begingroup$

This depends on how hard the government works to hide things. If the only thing the government does is say "this was not a crime" then no. Books and literature and histories and historians will remember the events because humanity doesn't really 'forget' about anything. Unless the government explicitly bans discussing it the knowledge of the event will continue to be maintained.

For that matter a good part of China is fully aware of Tienanmen square despite China's doing everything they can to erase it. That was only a quarter century ago, but the point is that it's hard to erase knowledge. If you try too hard to erase details they will become a rally call that everyone remembers in order to spite your control.

I think the key difference between your question and the psychology you mention is the word "forget". The event can't be forgotten easily. However, people can be convinced to forget that it was an atrocity. It can be whitewashed and remembered more forgiving then it really was. The facts are known, but the cultural memory of the event is not one of an atrocity. Some may look up the actual facts from history books and say "you know, that really was a lot worse then I had been taught", but most won't bother to do so. 95% of society will remember things as justified and right at the time, as they have been told and taught.

It's possible that the public as a whole would be so indoctrinated that even if someone came to them and said "look, here are the facts of what happened, see how horrible it is" the average person will still argue blindly that it was not horrible at all. They may ignore the facts, refuse to believe them despite those facts being clearly recorded historical works, or claim that the provider of the facts is exaggerating them and/or ignoring other details that made it 'justified'. In short once you're taught something is right for long enough you resist any argument to the opposite, even in the face of logic.

It's therefore possible for the public memory of an event to be wiped out, even when the actual facts and details being clearly recorded. Some may have realized the truth after taking the time to learn the actual facts, but the majority of the population can be kept in their utopian idea of everything being perfect and wonderful while being ignorant of facts that are right under their noses. Somehow I think it makes a story even better to have the knowledge easily available and yet still ignored, and it makes it easier to have some dissenters without them needing to stumble upon a mass grave or some other deep-dark-secret to do so; they're simply the ones who were unbiased enough to research the raw facts and come to a proper conclusion.

To give you an example of how the public memory can be adjusted consider this scenario:

You're trying to colonize lands and having trouble defending them from the indigenous people and other colonizing countries. Your government puts in a massive expense to protect and defend you from those indigenous people, costing it massively. After protecting you the government realizes it suffered so heavily in doing so that it can't afford to cover it's other expenses, so it asks you to help repay some of the cost spent to defend you. In response to being asked to pay for your own defense, via taxes placed only on non-mandatory luxury goods that will not harm those who truly can't afford them, you protest by destroying a third-party's cargo of supplies without repaying them while trying to place blame for it on the indigenous people. Then you start a war that kills over 50,000 and strikes a blow to your home country that will cause it to suffer many other losses in future decades.

Welcome to the US revolutionary war, which those of us in the US are all taught was 100% justified and right and totally-not-at-all-selfish-waste-of-life-to-avoid-repaying-or-own-debts!

Now I admit I may be exaggerating the situation above to make a point, since most of the real atrocities of the US are recognized as such so I had to settle for more of a moral grey area. However, my point still stands. Even though we know all the actual facts of the war, anyone can look them up any time, if you ask the US people no one will consider any nuance beyond "we were being controlled and had to be independent". We are told it was justified, and so that's what we accept, no one even bothers to look up history or wonder about any complexity. To repeat I am not claiming that the war was a clear atrocity or wrong, only that discussion of it as anything other then purely 100% just seems limited by our education and dogma.

This is also, by no means, limited to the US or this one war. Look at any war your country (any country) fought and the schools will teach it as completely just, and that you were the most important factor in winning the war; oh and you clearly 'won' even if other side claims they were the ones to win. The World wars are unique in that WW2 is kind of believed that the allies were 'in the right' in most places, Hitler was just so wrong that even Germany doesn't try to treat him as a hero. Still, a certain degree of whitewashing of history happens in every countries education system, usually not to the extreme of hiding atrocities, but perhaps removing the 'grey' of more ambiguous situations, and for the most part their citizens accept these 'facts' as truth despite the easy of getting the actual historical details.

EDIT:

Out of curiosity I ended up Googling what England taught about the revolutionary war, to see if they taught it as us horrible US folks wanting to have our tea and drink it too. Turns out that England barely covers the war in their classes. Partially because it's merely one of many colony upraises (admittedly the first major one), and as such gets thrown into a general time period of unrest rather then being singled out, partially because it simply wasn't as critical a battle for them and they don't have time to cover wars that aren't imperative to their history, and partially because it looks like many countries tend to focus far less time on studying wars which they 'lost'. Not relevant to the question, but interesting to me non the less :)

$\endgroup$
  • 6
    $\begingroup$ Good answer. And I like to add: The writers almost always get to be the "Good Guys" in their own history books. No matter what atrocities they committed. The colonial history of various nations is full of examples. A lot of white-washing has been done over the centuries. $\endgroup$ – Tonny Apr 6 '15 at 16:13
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And if government bans discussion of the topics then that will guarantee another 500 years and make whatever happen, legend. $\endgroup$ – blankip Apr 7 '15 at 4:44
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ And remember, history is always written by the winners... $\endgroup$ – pdolinaj Apr 7 '15 at 9:09
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ +1 for having the knowledge easily available and yet still ignored $\endgroup$ – Ángel Apr 7 '15 at 17:36
  • 7
    $\begingroup$ +1 For the US revolutionary war example. As for history education in Britain, most of it is about the royal family (Henry VIII, Victoria), things that happen way before the New World was even discovered (i.e. the Norman Conquest, which incidentally is kind of a war we lost), events that weren't wars (the Fire of London) or are about ancient civilisations like the Egyptians, the Romans and the Greeks (though oddly not the Mesopotamians, the Mayans or the Babylonians). The only major war that gets covered is WWII. $\endgroup$ – Pharap Apr 7 '15 at 19:58
9
$\begingroup$

Won't work at all. When I was deployed to Bosnia in the 1990's, I had Serbians telling me about the Battle of Kosovo Polje in such vivid detail that you might have thought it took place in the early 90's as Yugoslavia disintegrated.

It took place in 1389

Many of the myths that underpin our culture date back even farther; the myths of King Arthur apparently date to the 800's, and we have an unbroken string of political ideas that can be traced to Classical Greece and the Res Publica Roma. Trying to erase history or significant parts of history will leave strange gaps in the historical narrative.

The other solution (which has been mentioned upthread) is to actively supress history using something like Orwell's Ministry of Truth. Of course then you need to actively monitor and police the censors in an ever widening circle.

$\endgroup$
8
$\begingroup$

Any attempt to suppress evidence will make some people remember even harder, and teach their grievances to their children. A better strategy might be to seek reconciliation and then remove the knowledge from mainstream history teaching into specialist courses.

Who remembers the atrocities during the Franco-Prussian War these days?

$\endgroup$
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Good point about the F-P war, but it's still easy to find information these days with a quick search. Perhaps it depends somewhat on what technology/information is easily available to the citizens. $\endgroup$ – thanby Apr 6 '15 at 15:18
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Then again, "crusader" is still a hot-button term in parts of the Middle East. After more than 750 years. $\endgroup$ – WhatRoughBeast Apr 6 '15 at 23:51
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @thanby, would you have been aware of the Franco-Prussian war if I hadn't given you a reason to google? Could you tell me anything about the Crimean War besides the Charge of the Light Brigade without looking it up? $\endgroup$ – o.m. Apr 7 '15 at 5:28
  • $\begingroup$ I guess the question was more about "forgiven", so "forgotten" in the sense that there are no grievances left, not that no one can find any information about it. For example, the punic wars are not forgotten in an information-related sense, but Tunisia and Italy have no enmity because of it (even if the war "officially" ended no so long ago) $\endgroup$ – vsz Apr 7 '15 at 6:14
  • $\begingroup$ @o.m. I was generally aware but needed a refresh since it was a long time ago that I took a history class. Either way your point stands that despite the fact that it was a documented event on which we still have easily-accessible information, it's far from the front of our minds (at least where I live) and has virtually no effect that I know of on daily life. After re-reading the OP's question I'd have to agree that your answer effectively covers what they're asking. $\endgroup$ – thanby Apr 7 '15 at 14:59
5
$\begingroup$

In general no. It's been 150 years since the civil war and we are still dealing with the fall out of what happened before that. It's been 70 years since the holocaust and Hitler is still used as a boogy man.

However, if you are talking about a government intent on hiding and forgetting about such a thing, pretending it never happened, then yes, 100-200 years would be possible. It also depends on how many know of the atrocity (and survived). If the targets of the atrocity are completely wiped out, it would be easier to hide and forget. There would always be some who would know but 2-3 generations could really erase a lot of knowledge if it was actively suppressed.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ Exactly the same examples I planned on citing. Without heavy suppression of history, it would take numerous generations to "erase" such events from the public consciousness. However, it should also be noted that certain individuals/groups go out of their way to keep such events in the collective mind as well. $\endgroup$ – Omegacron Apr 6 '15 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ The holocaust might not be a good example, because as you point out he is still being used as a boogeyman -- people are actively working to make sure we remember. $\endgroup$ – Hurkyl Apr 7 '15 at 12:22
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Hurkyl exactly. Many atrocities are going to have people actively working to remember so it doesn't happen again. $\endgroup$ – bowlturner Apr 7 '15 at 12:24
5
$\begingroup$

You mentioned in your question that we are in a post-singularity world. Depending on what specifically that means, here is one way that you could explain everyone forgiving or forgetting the atrocities of the past in a relatively short amount of time...

Assume the a post-singularity AI has access to all online information, including scholarly work, future Facebook, text, email, and even phonecalls and streaming video. Further assume that (almost) no one reads non-digital books and that their contents are not considered to be respectable or reliable.

This AI is customizing all data that everyone sees online to suppress knowledge of past atrocities. But it knows that if you completely erase knowledge of an event, you will create a backlash. So instead it minimizes the severity of pay atrocities, emphasizes how far in the past they occurred, and scapegoats groups, individuals, or systems that no longer exist (so that there is no target for lingering anger about the event).

Let's take an example: Thucydides mentioned that Serbians remember the Battle of Kosovo Polje in gory detail > 600 years after it occurred. If an American (of non-Serbian descent) tries to look up the Battle of Kosovo Polje, the AI can safely suppress almost all information about it. If a Serbian tries to look up the same info, they will find it, but the accounts they read will emphasize that this happened a long time ago, and that the "bad guys" were the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman empire is a safe group to blame because they no longer exist. This can even become part of the narrative: the Ottomans got their comeuppance when their empire collapsed. The important point here is that no one receives any information that is really shocking to them or that contradicts what they already think that they know. Everything is a gradual cooling of tensions or redirecting anger in a safe direction.

Eventually, these different versions of history will be noticed, but it might be surprisingly difficult to reconcile. Any electronic comunication is subject to further editing, so if you make a FB post about the shocking truth you just learned about a past atrocity, all tour friends will see a different version of it (or not see it at all), depending on what the AI thinks they can handle without feeling outraged. Offline interactions can't be controlled, but they also can't be verified. If your friend or parent tells you a gory sorry about the Battle of Kosovo and you go to look it up online, you will read a whitewashed version and believe that your friend was exaggerating or wrong. The only way you can ensure that two people see the same info isif they are looking at the same screen at the same time, and even then the AI tries to produce a version that appeals to both of them.

Academic historians would need to be handled more carefully, but the AI could subtly change their texts to be more boring, less verifiable, and more fringe/crackpot. Over time, troublemakers would lose influence with their peers as well as the public. A dominant historical narrative that all the wrongs of the past are distant and unimportant (or never occurred at all) arises.

In 100 years, 2-3 generations have lived under this subtle but constant suppression of information. All significant government, religious, entertainment and educational figures have been quietly vetted by the system. Any dissent is suppressed with the same subtlety as the original history. Any investigation into the AI's activity is also suppressed. Current social/racial/religious/political/economic tensions wane in the face of massive resource prosperity. The atrocities of the past are forgotten, or remembered by only a small group more as myth than history, with no one left to blame.

Does this sound plausibe to you, assuming a peace-loving, post-singularity, world-spanning AI?

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Something that you can try and do is going the 1984-route: change the records of history that are taught during education so that, instead of it being an atrocity, it's actually a major victory.

For example: suppose you have a Holocaust-style event where your nation completely eradicated an entire ethnic minority. People will not forget that easily. However, with enough control over history and your Internet, you can actually say that the Holocaust was actually a well-deserved punishment for "evil actions" by that minority. Especially if you have some well-timed incidents (say, a hyperinflation or the systematic murder of a large amount of politicians) preceding your own major atrocity, you can make your citizens actually believe it was A Good Thing, and even take matters into their own hand. However, due to the scale on which this rewrite of history needs to happen, we wouldn't really consider this a true Utopia. However, you can use that to your advantage: make it seem like the perfect world isn't that perfect.

$\endgroup$
3
$\begingroup$

Any attempt at suppressing history is an atrocity in itself. Unless we are acutely aware of the history of the human race, we stand no chance of not repeating the mistakes of the past, even though this is rather idealistic. Even major catastrophes such as the holocaust, Stalin's purges of the 1930s, or Mao's Great Leap forward are weighed with different measures even though in each case the cost of human lives, the destruction of human potential is unparalleled. Only the motives behind these atrocities may be looked at but a differentiation in terms of severity would not serve any purpose. All were crimes against humanity and all must equally be condemned but never forgotten.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Hand-waiving all the very legitimate points about society, history, culture, government, education, etc, that other posters have mentioned:

From a pure historical fact/memory perspective, let's assume that to "forget" means that the people alive today are people who have never had contact with any primary sources related to the atrocities. Since you give the year 2050, let's be optimistic and say that lifespans for the average human will be 100 years by then. Let's say the average child will be born to parents who are 30 years old.

Based on this logic, you would need to wait 190 years for all primary sources to die. You then need to wait another 90 years for all the secondary sources to die.

P - Generations who either are or had access to primary sources

S - Generations who either are or had access to secondary sources

  • 0 years: The people alive during the the atrocity (P0)
  • 30 years: The youngest P0 have children (P1)
  • 60 years: P1 have children (P2)
  • 90 years: P2 have children (P3)
  • 100 years: P0 is dead
  • 120 years: P3 have children (S0)
  • 130 years: P1 is dead
  • 150 years: S0 have children (S1)
  • 160 years: P2 is dead
  • 180 years: S1 have children (S2)
  • 190 years: P3 is dead (all contact with primary sources dead)
  • 220 years: S0 is dead
  • 250 years: S1 is dead
  • 280 years: S2 is dead (all contact with primary and secondary sources dead)
  • ... only 3rd sources from here on out

So no, 100-200 years is not enough time.

$\endgroup$
2
$\begingroup$

Taking a real world example here it would be more than enough time for the events of the past to be out of the public consciousness. This can be done not by exclusion but by inclusion.

Take, for example, the way history is taught in Japan. The rule is that all history must be covered and evenly. The result is that much of the general population has little understanding of why their neighbours hold such strong negative feelings towards them as a nation. Atrocities of quite some significance can only fill no more than a small paragraph and sometimes are little more than a footnote, if that.

It is not that anyone is trying to deny that anything happened but that no one topic is given any more focus than any other. Lets face it no one can have a strong awareness of anything with that much history without specializing in some area of it.

After a few hundred years (and at least a few generations, I imagine) the past would, despite good teaching, be a closed book to most people in your story.

As pointed out in other answers there would be some specialized folks that would remember but society as a whole would have forgotten. The facts are not so much suppressed but drowned in the noise of everything else.

If on the other hand you are asking if the situation could arise where learning about an event 200 years ago would come as a surprise to everyone then, no some people would not be surprised. That said, going back to the Japan example: Too much information can make almost any information hard to be aware of.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

In a communistic society, where the government distributes income equally and there is a lack of private property and the government also controls the flow of information, it's possible. In most societies which have private property and enterprise though, the economic effects of an atrocity like the Holocaust, slavery, wars, etc. can be felt for many centuries later because the economic disparity can snowball over time.

$\endgroup$
  • $\begingroup$ What does communism have to do with it? Control of information/totalitarian certainly makes it easier to keep secrets, but I don't see how private property independently affects this. $\endgroup$ – user243 Apr 6 '15 at 18:24
  • $\begingroup$ The economic effects will be long-reaching in any capitalist society (where inheritance is possible, which right now is all of them). The affected families will be starting from a significantly lower position than average, while the unaffected families will be comparatively much better off. Since wealth snowballs, this can last for hundreds of years, meaning that the atrocity would not be "erased". Communism bypasses that, by keeping everybody close to the median regardless of past wealth. $\endgroup$ – David Rice Apr 6 '15 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ That's an interesting idea. Put the other way, inheritability reinforces economic disparities caused by atrocities. However, in so far as the perpetrators are punished and forced to pay reparations, the effect could easily go the other way. Someone should write a dissertation on the subject. $\endgroup$ – user243 Apr 6 '15 at 19:14
  • $\begingroup$ Yes, it's widely known that inheritance can exacerbate economic disparity. Why do you think that the average (median, not mean) white family in the US has a net worth of 20 times more than the average black family? $\endgroup$ – David Rice Apr 6 '15 at 19:56
1
$\begingroup$

This will go against mainstream thinking but, I believe it's correct. The prominent beliefs going around in a society where technology / mass communication rule, are dictated by repetition. By that I mean, people will believe anything you tell them, if they hear it enough times. Political and social opinions thus aren't necessarily based on truth, but on the number of occurrences events are addressed and massaged in television and music. So, you don't have to say, 'The event did not happen.' You only have to have a few thousand episodes / songs referring to the event in a less-than-tragic light for it to disappear in short time.

$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

Active Suppression is doomed to failure. The act of suppressing certain information will also spread that information.

There are some effective strategies that get around that:

  1. Re-branding. This requires an extremely subtle touch, but you could make a low-level effort to change the wording and descriptions of atrocities in such a way that the impact is lessened over time. Using euphemisms, or changing the name of events in such a way that the visceral impact of what happened is lessened. Note that if you get caught actively doing this, you could get a really bad PR backlash, so you want to be very careful, only slowly change things and have plausible deniability (an excuse that doesn't start with "I want people to forget this atrocity").
  2. Ignore it. Humans (including myself) are sadly very good at ignoring bad things that don't happen to them. There are modern day genocides - events that occurred in the past few decades - that the average person on the street has probably only vaguely heard of. Ignore an atrocity long enough and it will become a dry historical footnote. 100 years might not be long enough for that however, especially with the singularity you'll likely still have people who were directly impacted. You might need a couple of generations for this to work.
$\endgroup$
1
$\begingroup$

While I think that 100+ years are enough time to make it possible to erase and sufficiently suppress some knowledge I see a certain problem with a supposedly "utopian" society in doing so. A hundred years or better to say a human lifetime (make sure no eye witnesses survive) is enough time to alter both historical records and public memory, make up new facts and redefine overall public perception of past events (whitewash is a nice term) by means of propaganda and indoctrination. Of course this requires quite some effort by the government and the ruling elites which is where the trouble starts.

Obviously victims and persons concerned with the events in question might actually not want to let go of that knowledge. The phrase "never forget" expresses the feelings quite well. I would not expect the Jewish community to forget about the Shoah (to name one significant example) no matter how politely your new elites insist. The undoing the remembrance of atrocities would therefore always require some serious and resolute enforcement to silence those choosing to be intractable.

How hard do you want to make your "utopian" society push before this fact alone becomes quite a bad start in itself?

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

I am imagining a setup like V for Vendetta where they restrict information. But in my post I'm going to focus on topics that you can research further so you can figure out the best strategy for your writing.

There is the real life example of China blocking out the Tienanmen Square Massacre from all media including their internet among many other things that China Blocks out.

In Ancient Egypt they carved in stone a straight lie about some battle that they supposedly won.

There is also Russia's coverup of the Holodomor.

The approach that I see used more often in history however is focuing on a single specific atrocity to occupy the public's attention to control them for a specific purpose, for example: The Reichstag Fire which was pivotal for allowing the Nazi's to gain power in Germany. There is also the Sinking of the Lusitania where America was secretly giving weapons to the British during WWI by smuggling them on passenger ships this gave America a way into the war. Similarly there was Pearl Harbor for WWII and the president+government knew about Pearl Harbor before it happened and purposefully delayed that information. Similarly Nixon sabotaged the Paris Peace Talks in Vietnam extending the war, the twist being that President Johnson also knew about it and said nothing. There is also the Rwandan Genocide sparked by the murder of the President by supposedly the minority which ended up being a lie. Similarly there was "9-11" that got the middle east wars started again.

Basically the idea of having one good very detailed atrocity every few decades is a very valuable thing when information is asymmetric and the public is unaware.

I think the most successful way for this approach is to find something truly horrifying like how you specifically mentioned the Holocaust as your main and only example, but then do a Judo move. Slip the information of it into movies and television, expose people to the content at an early age. For this Holocaust example, by emphasis you can give the impression of importance and if you are nefarious then for example a benefit is that you can limit and even negate the total amount of media exposure that is put on Israel's treatment of Palestine and it's people such as bombing schools and hospitals. So you can redirect the focus of a current atrocity by reminding people of a different past atrocity. More or less put the fnords everywhere.

Mind you there are many examples and approaches that I haven't covered, but I feel like I've given a good selection for historical events from which you can draw inspiration.

$\endgroup$
0
$\begingroup$

Memories of atrocities are kept alive because some group of people want to keep them alive.

They do so for political gain. There are (at least) two mechanisms here. One is "That group did something bad to our group in the past. We should do something bad to them in the present. No, it is not theft, it is ... repossession." Another is "Our society is threatened by that group! Just look at what they did in the past! We need a strong leader! I am a strong leader!"

If the post-singular society has a generally wealthy and happy population they would have no need to plunder their neighbours. They would also feel that their society is a safe and stable one that does not need a strong leader.

So, the political gain of dragging up the old stuff is gone and everything is kept in the history books were it belongs.

Strictly speaking, things would not be forgotten, but people just wouldn't care anymore.

$\endgroup$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.