Susan Sontag: Remembering The Past
A common saying is that history is written by the winners. Who’s to say what the history books might reflect if, say, the Germans had won WWII. Might Hitler and the Nazis be revered instead of used as an example of perhaps the biggest atrocity the world has seen? Would Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address even be remembered if the South had won the Civil War? When preventing the horrors of the past from reoccurring, remembering becomes ethically essential.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” is an often quoted line from renowned philosopher and Harvard educated professor George Santayana (Williams & Bowman, 2007). This is where ethics comes into play with remembering, or as Susan Sontag writes, “Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself” (Sontag, 2003, p. 115). It’s difficult to argue with this sentiment. Throughout history, cultures have had oral and written traditions, legends, and lore that taught lessons from the past as warnings for the future. These tales and stories, besides providing valuable guidance, tell of where a culture comes from, who the heroes are and their acts, the pain and suffering, and the celebrations. Ancestors have meaning and their lives provide context to the time and place they lived. It’s important to know who President Lincoln was, his accomplishments when he lived, and the reasons behind his death, just as it’s important to know who our relatives are so we know our personal histories, good and bad.
I’m not sure that the act of remembering is one of the things that makes us human, but being able to pass down memories from one generation to the next seems to be a unique trait. It’s also been said that those who control the past, control the future. This speaks directly to the ethical ramifications of remembering past events. Sontag (2003, p.115) wrote, “Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together.” Isn’t one of the tools used to control the masses and suppress thought propaganda? Some of the most brutal regimes in history have used such methods to alter the past so that the memories don’t comport with reality. In this case, amnesia of true events is directly linked to the heartless actions desired by dictators, authoritarians, and despots. Sickened by the Vietnam War, Sontag famously stated, “The white race is the cancer of history” (Whitfield, 2015). This extremely provocative quote would be nothing but hyperbolic without proper historical context. Yet, in remembering numerous past atrocities, the quote has relevant meaning in the present as well as in the future.
Sontag’s position on remembering as an ethical act aligns perfectly with any ethical code. In almost every code, including the APA’s Code of Ethics (2010), “do no harm” (beneficence) is a foundational principle. Without remembering the past, it’s difficult to avoid causing further harm. Imagine if America’s sins of slavery were never recorded or passed down. It would be probable that the systemic abuses would be much worse than today and also presumable that the Civil Rights Act never even made it into a bill, much less law. Therefore, those sins, without any cultural memory, could still persist to this day.
Yet, it’s easy to see such extreme cases and how they pertain to ethics. What about principles such as fidelity and justice (APA, 2010)? How can proper care, treatment, and oversight be applied when there’s no history of improper care, mistreatment, or neglect to be used as examples or learning lessons? If past psychological contributions and procedures, beneficial or not, can’t be referenced, how do we know that proper methods and helpful techniques are being used for the greatest benefits to clients and society? The duty to provide help and not cause harm is virtually impossible without remembering past errors and mistakes or successes and breakthroughs.
A case can be made for every APA standard, but the third standard, human relations, is probably the one with the most consequences (APA, 2010). How would we have any precedent to acknowledge and remedy sexual harassment or exploitative relationships without a memory of others’ past experiences? Might multiple relationships be more frequent if there’s no knowledge of the harm they could cause? Without examples and anecdotes, one might not see the harm in helping a client with out-of-therapy personal issues, like finances or employment. It’s easy to see how conflicts of interest can become much more prevalent when the past is forgotten.
Susan Sontag was considered a modernist in that she viewed the past, with its history, laws, teachings, cultures, etc., through the lens of the present (Delaney & Dreeuws, 2015). She believed that as times change, so should the modern day understanding and implementation of the past. Are medicine and armaments the same as they were hundreds of years ago? Should our modern day interpretations and usages of them reflect the thoughts and feelings of centuries ago or should they be viewed in terms of their present-day applicability? This is also how Sontag viewed cultural aspects like art and sexuality. She cared less about the historical context (which could be viewed as contradictory to “remembering the past”) and instead saw the value in how those works influenced the present (Whitfield, 2015).
Finally, Sontag criticized many injustices throughout her life, such as the Vietnam War, 9/11, and Israel’s expansion into the West Bank among others (Whitfield, 2015). Her human rights activism stemmed from understanding the past and where it could lead. She had the foresight to blame international terrorism, like that which occurred on 9/11, on the history of American foreign policy (Whitfield, 2015). But most of all, Susan Sontag understood cause and effect. Events usually don’t occur in isolation. Without remembering the past, the causes are being ignored while only the effects are being considered and analyzed. This is the incubator which births injustices and atrocities. Ignoring history eliminates the nearly infinite causes that are responsible for today’s effects. That’s like buying a new wardrobe in 1815 without understanding the harvesting practices of cotton.
American Psychological Association (APA). (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct.
Delaney, B., & Dreeuws, D. (2015). Susan Sontag. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia.
Sontag, S. (2003). Regarding the pain of others. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Whitfield, S. (2015). Daniel Schreiber, Susan Sontag: a biography. Trans. David Dollenmayer. Society, 52(2), 195-197. doi:10.1007/s12115-015-9883-5
Williams, R., & Bowman, J. (2007). Civil service reform, at-will employment, and George Santayana: are we condemned to repeat the past? Public Personnel Management, 36(1), 65-77.