Essay 28: The World Understood As “Grievance Machine: Missing Education in Symbolic Wounds”

Standard textbooks on history always give a narrative of kings and battles, routs and rallies. Some mention various vested interests.

Books never seem to grasp the deep truth that history everywhere is a national and personal “dignity quest” while food and job/wage insecurity are certainly co-factors that cannot be ignored.  Slogans like “Make America Great Again” play to this hunger for another “championship season.”

Amartya Sen of Harvard gives us a useful overview of this “dignity story” when he writes:

“The devastating effects of humiliation on human lives can hardly be exaggerated. The historical ills of the slave trade and colonization (and the racial insults that were added to physical and social injury) have been seen as ‘the war against Africa’ by the Independent Commission on Africa, which identifies Africa’s principal task today as ‘winning the war against humiliation’ (the chosen title of its report). As the Commission argues, the subjugation and denigration of Africa over the last few centuries have left a massively negative legacy against which the people of the continent have to battle. That legacy includes not only the devastation of old institutions and the forgone opportunity to build new ones, but also the destruction of social confidence, in which so much else depends.

“Africa which gave birth to the human race and was responsible for many of the pioneering developments in the growth of world civilization, was turned into a continent of European domination and the hunting ground for slaves to be transported like animals to the New World.”

(Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, 2006, Allen Lane Penguin Books, page 86.)

This has also led to the proliferation of counter-narratives which are perhaps too “Afrocentric” and thus distort things going the other way.

The 20th century psychologist Bruno Bettelheim and others use the phrase “symbolic wounds” and it must be seen that such wounds lurk everywhere in human society and memory and world history, past and present, which cannot be even remotely grasped without acknowledging the centrality of these scars.

The contemporary French thinker Pierre Nora has tried to explore these nightmare-memories in the collective mind and should be considered in this humiliation/dignity epic tale that governs much of human “thinking.”