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Sometimes I recall in horror a remembered faux pas – something I said or did that was really stupid or thoughtless. Perhaps out of ignorance or maybe when I opened my mouth when I should have kept silent. There are some action’s I took that I’m now ashamed of.

Every now and then I find myself saying: ‘oh no!

And there are some beliefs I once firmly held that I no longer subscribe to. Life and experience and education have taught me how wrong I was when I tarred whole races; or religions; or sexual orientations; with a single brush - not seeing the trees for the forest.

Yet am I really still that young man who’s bedroom pin-board was headed: ‘Never be afraid of admitting you are wrong – it is but saying that you are wiser today than you were yesterday?

Philosophers and scientists talk about the ‘illusion of the self’ and I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere on this website so I won’t reprise it yet again.

Suffice it to say that it is clear that I and you are defined, to ourselves, by our memories. The beliefs we hold the abilities we have and the experiences and knowledge we have accumulated are all stored in our brains, as connections between synapses, just as these words are stored on my computer as strings of electronic states, like switches, represented as 1s and 0s in computer memory.

If my computer hard-drive crashes and I have no back-up not only will these words be lost. All my photos and movies and calendars and messages will be gone too. Yet that’s not all. My computer’s ability to do anything much, beyond blinking at me, will be lost. Unless I can get a new memory device and reinstall all my applications it has become a useless black box.

Thus we have all noticed that when they suffer severe memory loss, perhaps through brain damage or old age, our acquaintances and loved ones cease to be the person they once were.

Yet small changes in memory take place all the time. We don’t notice because our memory is our principal reference. So we're inclined to believe our own memories, even when they are contradicted by others or by the physical reality.

I have an example that brought me up short:

In the early 1970’s I spent some years in London and lived and worked within cycling distance of the Tate Art Gallery, a favourite place that I visited frequently.

Around twenty years later I was in London and decided to revisit the (old) Tate. Confidently walking along The Embankment to its location I was amazed. It had disappeared! I soon found it again, several hundred metres away, but was absolutely convinced that they’d moved it. I even questioned the people at the reception as to when this had happened.

Of course it hadn’t moved. It was my clear and certain memory that had changed.

From that moment on I became a little less inclined to insist that my memories, while generally reliable, are always a true record of past events.

Of course even in childhood I’d noticed that others I’d shared an experience with had a slightly different version of what happened. On a school outing friends would notice different things and even ascribe different meanings or reactions, like fear; joy or surprise, to those events.

That people experience the same event differently exercises psychiatrists dealing with Post Traumatic Stress on a daily basis and as a theme it has a long literary tradition. For example it’s the basis of Akira Kurosawa's classic film Rashômon and several later movies.

So this too masks the tricks our memory plays on us over time. We can’t even rely on others to provide confirmation of remembered details immediately after the event, let alone decades later.

It’s obvious to everyone that we change physically as we age. And when we suffer injuries or disease healing leaves us a little different, perhaps with a scar or a limp. Indeed none of us has the same body we did a decade ago. A mature adult loses and recreates about 60 billion replacement cells every day. So in ten years almost every cell in our body has been progressively replaced. We are like a corporation in which every staff member has changed.

It was once thought that brain cells, neurons, must be the exception. Else how is memory and thus knowledge; belief and skill preserved? But it seems that these cells too die and are replaced, with the previous connections and their switches more or less reinstated, almost perfectly. Yet it is small imperfections in these reconnections in my brain that lead to the disappearance of the Tate.

Thus our memories are not perfect records and we are no longer who we once were.

In the past week or two we’ve been treated to the theatre around the United States Senate hearing into the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. The United States is said to be disunited; divided as to those who believe Dr Christine Blasey Ford's testimony that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in their teens and those who accept his denial.

Of course there is a hidden agenda. In addition to living in England I've lived in the US, where my eldest child was born, and for her sake I too would prefer that Brett Kavanaugh is not appointed.

But I find myself torn, because as I've just argued, neither Kavanaugh nor Ford is the same person that they were back then. So I can accept that each has an entirely different, perhaps perfectly honest, perception of what actually took place.

For me the question should be: ‘Who is Brett Kavanaugh now?’

If past experiences have, through arrogance or compulsion made Kavanaugh into a serial offender then he's not a fit person to be judging others; on any court.

If back then he knew he was overstepping the line but was out of control, due to hormones or other substances, even if he was subsequently remorseful, it should still be a barrier to his appointment, not because of a long past moment of animal weakness but because he’s a liar and now a perjurer.

But if Ms Ford has sincerer, yet false, memories or if young Brett Kavanaugh truly had reason to believe that the events were consensual, even if mistaken, it’s a different matter.

But can even they tell all these years later?

One thing is certain: all those people in the street don’t know any more than they saw on TV; in a newspaper; or on their electronic device. It’s not just on the right that we seem to be at risk of being ruled by social media, demagogues and the mob.

 

 

 

 

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