We shouldn’t try to eliminate discourse that we hold to be disturbing.

Share

Memorial Candle

Expert panel assess the role of law in determining collective memory of defining national events

19 January 2018

The FLJS events programme for 2018 was opened at Wolfson College last night with a Book Colloquium in which an expert panel met to discuss the emerging legal regime governing collective memory.

Emeritus Professor Denis Galligan chaired the discussion of the recent collected volume entitled Law and Memory: Towards Legal Governance of Historyedited by U. Belavusau and A. Gliszczyńska-Grabias, which considered the nature and role of so-called ‘memory laws’, designed to penalize the denial of recognized genocides and other speech acts that might incite hatred.

Dr Uladzislau Belavusau from the University of Amsterdam outlined the rationale for and genesis of the book, which emerged from the Memory Laws in European and Comparative Perspectives (MELA) Project at Queen Mary University of London.

Professor Eric Heinze, from QMUL, who wrote the book’s epilogue on the theoretical basis for memory laws, examined the significance of the proliferation of scholarship and wider public interest in such law-making, citing high-profile and emotive cases around Holocaust denial, and the increased engagement with restrictions imposed on free speech.

He argued that, in an age of social media, dictators worry a lot more about public knowledge and conceptions of traumatic and other nation-shaping events, and that such concerns have emerged alongside the increasing judicialization of politics with the rise of constitutional rights regimes.

Dr Félix Krawatzek from the Oxford Department of Politics praised the scope and diversity of case studies covered in the book, thanks to the number of contributors able to overcome language barriers and engage in a thoroughgoing comparative analysis. He framed the crucial question to be addressed in terms of the archetypal ‘chicken and egg’ conundrum: Is the law constructing memory or is law conveying memory?

Dr Ioanna Tourkochoriti, NUI Galway, concluded the panellist presentations by describing the legal cases she has studied in France and Greece, including the Law on the Atlantic Slave Trade in France, under which an intellectual was put through legal proceedings by the descendants of people subjected to slavery on the grounds that he had questioned whether the slave trade should be considered as a form of genocide. Although the case failed, Dr Tourkochoriti demonstrated the potential pitfalls of such laws, which she argued posed a significant threat to academic freedoms and freedom of expression more widely. “We shouldn’t try to eliminate discourse that we hold to be disturbing.”

In the ensuing audience Q&A, the discussion explored the overlap between collective memory and the formation of national identity in post-Communist states, as well as how such laws, despite the danger of perverse effects such as the stimulation of hate groups, were serving a purpose in shaping school curriculums and state media.