Thick and Thin: An Interview with Avishai Margalit

Thick and Thin: An Interview with Avishai Margalit


Memory can be a complicated matter. Sometimes, the ethical imperative to remember is quite clear while in other situations forgetfulness is the first step toward reconciliation. Giancarlo Bosetti talks with Avishai Margalit, author of The Ethics of Memory, about the important ethical and political facets of memory.

Giancarlo Bosetti: You make a distinction between ethics and morality, the near and the far. What is the premise of your ethics of memory?

Avishai Margalit: According to its Socratic sense, ethics is how we should live our lives while morality is how we should live our lives with others, without any distinction between the near and the far. Hegel’s sittlichkeit is in a way conventional law, or better, the conventional ethics in a community. My distinction is different. My basic idea about ethics and morality isn’t about the question of how I should live my life but about what kind of relations I want to have with others. There are two types of relations: thick relations, with family, friends, lovers and thin relations with people that are strangers, people who we are not in contact with. Starting from this distinction, different notions are developing: for example, the notions of betrayal and infidelity are ethical, not moral, because they underline thick relations; on the contrary, the notions of cheating and lying are moral because they refer to thin relations. And this distinction also applies to the field of memory.

GB: This perspective stresses the relevance of the community. Isn’t it a communitarian theory, as opposed to a liberal and universalistic one?

AM: I don’t think so. Obviously there is a similarity of sorts but it’s not a common term. All I am saying is that there are two types of human relations and the obligation to remember is not moral but ethical. I try to make memory and communities of memory a basic unit. The notions of nation and community rely upon the idea of community of memory. I think that the discussions about what is a nation and what is ethnic, if a nation is ethnically based or whatever, should rely upon the idea of whom we think belongs to the same community of memory. An identity, namely a group identity, for me depends on the idea of a community of memory.

GB: Today, ethical and moral connections seem to have become more volatile. Art and literature try to understand and oppose the affections of the prevailing mind of today, which seems to have a stronger tendency to forget. Is that a false impression? Maybe all ages believe to forget too easily.

AM: I think it is very much the modern sensibility that is future oriented rather than past oriented, and therefore creates communities with future destinies, in any case, that is the American idea. The past is usually a threat more than a promise, because it means privileges, beaten memories, civil wars, even nightmares. However, I think it is a mistaken attitude and nothing can be really meaningful and thick without an acknowledgement of the past. So the idea of an active policy of forgetting is wrong. Forgetting is a bad idea. Forgiving is another thing: it means that you don’t act on the past.

GB: Is that what you mean in your book when you talk about the Stasi files in Germany, or the historical transitional stages?

AM: Sure, in transitional justice the idea is not to act on the Stasi files, on what happened in the past as they were current crimes and betrayals. There is a strong relation between amnesty and amnesia, but I am for amnesty not for amnesia, forgiving not forgetting.

GB: But sometime it is the memory itself that doesn’t let you forgive. In your book you say that memory doesn’t necessarily bring about reconciliation. What is the point of balance between remembering the past and going toward a more peaceful future?

AM: When you say “forget it” to someone it is usually a reminder that he has to remember. Just telling ourselves “let’s forget it” is not a guarantee that we’ll do it. Forgetting is not always something that you do at will. So the issue is what kind of policy you want. Overcoming bad memories is a noble thing to do, but I believe that asking a community of memory to forget undermines the relations on which the community is built. So I think that the main thing to do is first of all struggling with memory, and not actively trying to forget. But if memories are a burden on your life and you are haunted by bad memories like bad nightmares, then that’s an issue for therapy not for morality and that’s maybe what you should do for good.

GB: In your book, you mention Primo Levi and his tormented memory of the holocaust. How can the nightmares of memory help to forgive?

AM: Well, I think that Primo Levi’s nightmares were very, very important. Even though he suffered, it was crucial that he conveyed his thoughts and nightmares to all of us. Suppose that Primo Levi would have been given a pill so that he could forget, I think that would have been a terrible loss for humanity, for all of us because his nightmares were so meaningful. So, again, I believe that one should not forget, but, at the same time, one should not act on the memory of the past.

GB: Why do you say that, at the moment, it isn’t possible to have a collective memory of humanity and that there can be only different communities of memory, and not a global memory?

AM: The world is not one community. I mean that there are some events that I think all humanity should remember. Those are exemplary cases for humanity like Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Buchenwald, the gulags, samples of general human failures. However, every community has its own memory. Europe and Indonesia have different memories that cannot be diluted by saying that Europeans and Indonesians should have the same reminiscence.

GB: And what about different communities that have different memories about the same past?

AM: That’s I think an important fact about our life: individuals have different memories about their past. The issue becomes politically more important when you have a contested past, between two communities that are intimate enemies, like Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs, or the Polish and Germans. So I believe that, after they saw the political conflict, the communities should deal with the past together in order to avoid future irredentism.

GB: Someone is proposing the model of South Africa and in your book you mention the Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. Is it difficult to find a balance between justice, forgiving and forgetting? Is there a guide?

AM: I’ve always had a desire to bring together historians from different communities that claim different memories about a contested past by gathering them in an Institute where they can work out a shared history and come to a version, or to more than one version, that isn’t along ethnic lines. As a result one would have a shared textbook to teach in schools. I think that the best way to deal with a contested past is to have historians working on it. The account of history is part of the struggle, this is the reason why it is very hard for two communities to deal with a contested past. However I believe that it’s time for historians to move in.

GB: Are you saying that historians should have a political role?

AM: They can play a role as historians, not as politicians. I make a sharp distinction between the politics of memory and the ethics of memory. The politics of memory is all the tricks and devices that governments or those in power use to deal with memory, to create different sides of memory. There is a tremendous literature now, a proliferation of writings on the politics of memory. I am less worried about the politics of memory and more about the ethics of memory. The question of how to deal with the past, what is the best method to do it, is more for the politics of memory and, for that reason my advice is, in many cases, to leave it to the historians.

GB: We talked about Primo Levi and his important contribution to our collective memory. We also said that in contemporary times we are more future than past oriented. However, in contemporary art there is a strong interest in remembering. What is the contribution of contemporary art to memory?

AM: I think that art can be a tremendous force because a great deal of the collective remembering is imagery. Historical monuments and artworks, and, generally, all the fine arts not only writing, are so vivid and strong so as to shape the collective memory. They are usually controversial and some people dislike them. I don’t give assignments to art, it already has all sorts of things to do, but I believe that the ethics of memory should pay attention to art because artists are among those who carry the collective memory. They are like shamans of the community of memory.

Giancarlo Bosetti is the editor of the Italian periodical, Reset. Martina Toti contributed to this interview. This interview was originally published on Reset: Dialogue on Civilizations.