Erase and forget: “Unpersons” and institutional memory


(image copyright Aaron Maeda)

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.

7 responses

  1. Our federal institution goes one step further than just erasing a persons career. Everything that a person has done, for which they have even won outside awards, is subtly badmouthed and their accomplishments denigrated when they leave. The next person to take the job is then praised for turning things around — even if they are disasters. This mostly happens to women, but occasionally to men who have bucked the sysem and won — that is until they leave.

    • Trish, hah! I’ve thought of writing about that common phenomenon of a dissenter being pushed out, followed by someone who is a total screwup yet is the recipient of relentless praise! It’s sooooo common!

  2. I had it happen to me years ago when I didn’t even really buck the system. I just expressed my opinion which differed from my boss. To me it was related to ethics, but I didn’t present it that way. I was respectful — just voiced my opinion. She did express to me that she needed people who thought like she did. My performance reviews were excellent.

    I was pushed out of my job by mobbing and even ended up getting sick.

    My boss was the DIRECTOR of Human Resources. My whole career in Human Resources has been a major disappointment. I did have one good (and ethical) HR Manager along the way, but all the other years (30+) were fraught with inner conflict — and a lot of stubbornness on my part because I kept thinking I could make things better — and I never did.

    All of the people who have bullied me through the years (in different jobs) have continued to flourish in their careers. BTW – I was never the only one bullied. They were all cultures of bullying coming down from the top.

    • Mary,

      I would be VERY curious to see if there’s a pattern of ethical, forthright HR folks being bullied within their profession, because I’ve heard these stories on numerous occasions. I’m sorry that your experience was so awful.

      I’ve been criticized in other circles for being hard on HR when it comes to HR’s responses to workplace bullying, but it’s oh-so-rare when a bullying target tells me they had a good experience working with HR.


  3. Right off the top of my head I can think of two facets to the problem of ineffectual HR representation.

    1) HR has no real authority to manage other people in the workplace. They can only advise and influence.

    2) HR Executives want so badly to be in the board room that they have lost the desire (and maybe the ability) to walk the tight rope between management’s needs (bottom line) and the employees’ needs (a respectful and productive work environment). And, of course, we know who wins that battle.

    3) Well….I have thought of another one. The work place is run typically so unfairly that not all people are held to the same standard of performance and accountability. Therefore, management (including HR) would rather keep a blatantly bad employee rather than do the strenuous work of removing that employee appropriately. By this, I DO NOT mean pay them thousands of dollars to go away. I mean really hold them accountable for their performance and/or behavior. The mere threat of legal action is enough for all concerned to roll up in the fetal position — which is an indication of the maturity -level of most executive managers of today.

    The crux of the matter is that executives don’t care how there people are treated — as long as the bottom line can be manipulated in such a way that THEY themselves can keep their million dollar salaries and bonuses.

  4. I realize this is an older post, but my reading of 1984 during college in the mid 60s has never left me and I want to respond. What is so disturbing about the idea of unpersons is the acceptance of the public for the action. Reggie Bush, who played for USC(SoCal) was censured by the NCAA for violations. One of the things the NCAA required of USC was to expunge any reference to Bush’s playing career at USC. The issues surrounding Bush and the NCAA are his to deal with, but that the organization thought it OK to rewrite history was very unsettling.

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