Last week I referenced the Orwellian concept of unpersons, those (in the words of Wikipedia) “whose past existence is expunged from the public record and memory, practiced by modern repressive governments.” Though Orwell saw the making of unpersons through the lens of totalitarian governments, many of us can comprehend how the practice applies equally to private and non-profit organizations.
In fact, it was an online exchange with a friend regarding the creation of unpersons in the non-profit sector that led us to consider the role of institutional memory, defined as (and thanks again to Wikipedia for this):
a collective set of facts, concepts, experiences and know-how held by a group of people. As it transcends the individual, it requires the ongoing transmission of these memories between members of this group. Elements of institutional memory may be found in corporations, professional groups, government bodies, religious groups, academic collaborations and by extension in entire cultures.
The two ideas are closely related. Bad organizations choose to “forget” less flattering events of their institutional history, especially those that conflict with their self-generated mythologies. Sometimes that process requires them to create new unpersons out of individuals associated with those events.
Those who try to remind organizations of these transgressions are criticized for talking about “the past,” even if the events in question occurred very recently. If they bring up that past too frequently, they risk being turned out and rendered unpersons themselves.
Rinse and repeat
Of course, any discussion of institutional memory should recall the Santayana chestnut that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Bad organizations often fail to heed that advice. In fact, when less-than-wonderful events do repeat, the purging of institutional memory often guarantees that no one will remember the original disaster.
Easy as 1-2-3
Today, with websites often serving as the public face of an organization, the creation of unpersons and the emptying of institutional memory is as easy as editing a web page. Entire biographies and histories can be deleted in a few keystrokes. One day, all links lead to your page; the next, you don’t even exist (at least virtually)!
From abstract to concrete
Okay, this discussion has been rather abstract. But I’m guessing that many readers familiar with workplace bullying, sexual harassment, whistleblowing retaliation, and other forms of mistreatment can identify readily with the ideas here. Hopefully I’ve provided a modest backdrop for understanding the accompanying institutional responses.