Collective and Constitutive Memory

by Bradford Vivian

Associate Professor
Dept. of Communication Arts & Sciences

I teach and conduct research in the rhetoric of collective memory, or how communities interpret, debate, and shape their understanding of the past in different modes of strategic communication. This process is often contentious; members of the public inevitably disagree on which stories from the past should be commemorated, why, and to what ends.

I regard much of current public dialogue about the Second Amendment, and its relation to the First Amendment, as an expression of competing public memories. The Constitution in general, as we discuss, admire, or critique it, involves the rhetoric of collective memory: a mythology surrounds it, and the document symbolizes, for many, a story of who we once were as a people and of how we came to be a freer, more perfect union in rejection of tyranny and outmoded forms of government. Hence the ongoing debates about whether the Constitution is a living document, the meaning of which changes for successive generations in response to ongoing and variously remembered events, or a static and essentially unchanging set of laws.

Contemporary debates over the meaning of the Second Amendment symbolize, perhaps most vividly, our collective inability to tell a harmonious story of rights, responsibilities, and the friction between individual freedoms and state authority—a story which would harmonize conflicting memories of the Constitution as a simultaneously evolving and static document. The distance between the First and Second Amendments seems especially poignant in our current era of gun violence awareness: the right to free expression and assembly and the right to own and use firearms in the United States currently exist in palpable tension. Horrors of gun violence beg the difficult question of when codified forms of speech turn into, or help justify, disturbing acts of violence or, conversely, the question of how one might counteract the anger and fear that leads to gun violence, and mitigate its traumatic effects, with words.

Members of the public habitually struggle with these questions by telling stories—stories of how our rights were won in the first place, of how their meaning has either changed or endured over the intervening centuries, and of the perceived historical goods and evils that such rights allowed, all in an effort to align those stories, despite the persistent social, political, and ethical tensions that they manifest, into a more perfect collective memory.