Parul Sehgal, in a piece for the New York Times Magazine earlier this year, examines how practices of “erasure” operate to ignore or marginalize people or groups:
‘‘Erasure’’ refers to the practice of collective indifference that renders certain people and groups invisible. The word migrated out of the academy, where it alluded to the tendency of ideologies to dismiss inconvenient facts, and is increasingly used to describe how inconvenient people are dismissed, their history, pain and achievements blotted out. Compared with words like ‘‘diversity’’ and ‘‘representation,’’ with their glib corporate gloss, ‘‘erasure’’ is a blunt word for a blunt process. It goes beyond simplistic discussions of quotas to ask: Whose stories are taught and told? Whose suffering is recognized? Whose dead are mourned?
Although Sehgal’s piece addresses erasure primarily in the context of diversity and difference, it has broader applications to any individuals or cohorts who find themselves marginalized or forgotten. In this way, it relates strongly to the Orwellian concept of “unpersons,” i.e., those whose existences have been expunged from institutional memory and records.
Of course, there are differences between individuals and groups being rendered invisible when they are present in a place or time, versus being extinguished from institutional memory. The former is often more of a felt, immediate, in-your-face insult and injury. The latter can be, too, but perhaps less so after a point of separation. The common bond between erasure and the creating of unpersons is that they are potential manifestations of the eliminationist instinct, that facile ability to regard other human beings as objects to be tormented, excised, or forgotten.