Ways of Thinking

As the decade of centenary commemorations begins, we need to think about the issues, commemorations and symbols that have influenced our identities and to consider the type of troublesome thinking, challenging questions and cognitive conflict involved in examining these influences and commemorations more objectively. Enabling young people to see how and why historical myths and significance are attributed to events and personalities aims to equip them to become mature and critical citizens of the future.

Thinking about Commemorations

Commemorations can be a powerful force for unity and for division. It all depends on what is being commemorated, by whom, and for what purpose. The following reflections are quoted at length because of their relevance to the decade of commemorations

The notion of identity depends on the idea of memory and vice versa. The relationship between memory and identity is historical; and the record of that relationship can be traced through various forms of commemoration.

The core meaning of any individual or group identity, namely a sense of sameness over time and space, is sustained by remembering, and what is remembered is defined by the assumed identity.

We need to be reminded that memories and identities are not fixed things but representations or constructions of reality, subjective rather than objective phenomena.

We are constantly reviving our memories to suit our current identities. Memories help us make sense of the world we live in and are embedded in complex class, gender and other power relations that determine what is remembered (or forgotten), by whom, and for what end.

Identities and memories are highly selective, inscriptive rather than descriptive, serving particular interests and ideological positions. Just as memory and identity support one another, they also sustain certain subjective positions, boundaries and power.

At this particular historical moment, it is all the more apparent that both identity and memory are political and social constructs, and should be treated as such. Identities and memories are not things we think about but things we think with. As such they have no existence beyond our politics, our social relationships and our histories. We must take responsibility for their uses and abuses, recognising that every assertion of identity involves a choice that affects not just ourselves but others.

(Gillis, 1994: 3-5)


Populist commemorations are often:

  • Constructed from a selection of evidence and interpreted for a specific audience, community and purpose.
  • Purposefully linked back to seemingly related issues in the past to create a type of historical legitimacy and justify “grand” historical narratives, formulated by particular parties, individuals and even by the state to justify particular outcomes or actions or and to present a perception of inevitability
  • Involves the coordination of individual and group memories, whose result may appear consensual when they are in fact the product of processes of intense contest and struggle
  • Emotionally and symbolically aligned to the identity and society they have been used to shape so that communities are naturally disposed to see these events through the lens of their own background
  • Simplified to reflect one-dimensional stereo-types and community myths
  • Used to reinforce cultural pride in the identity they symbolise and to maintain a vested interest in preserving them,
  • A response to changes in identity, for example, when identity is insecure or threatened
  • Subject to change as subsequent events shape how and why they are remembered.