Anyone following Australian politics over the last two years will be wearily familiar with this phrase. Anyone working in an Australian corporate will have noticed it seeping into email chains, like a wet sandwich through a paper bag. I was thinking about what exactly it was supposed to mean: my best guess is, in that carefully image-managed corporate style, that it is designed to do a few things. It should acknowledge, yet dismiss, the past without criticising or critiquing it. The phrase should direct the reader to the attached PowerPoint presentation, which outlines our strategy and core values for the next five years in the form of a bulleted list. It should encourage positive feelings about the future, leaning upon that idea of progress and a ‘brighter tomorrow’. It is a kind of stage direction, quickly black-bagging yesterday whilst trotting out tomorrow, all while inducing a thorough-going ennui in the reader. I suppose there’s a kind of intricate, diabolical mastery of language inside it. I hope my rising nausea is coming across clearly.
Let’s reflect on some of those intricacies. The phrase ‘moving forward’ relies on a particular metaphor of time. Specifically, that time is a straight line where the past cannot be revisited and a gleaming future is always just one second away. We haven’t always thought about time this way, and it really is a metaphor. The physics of time are incredibly complicated and, as far as I understand them, don’t include this directional notion. The metaphor isn’t based on some immutable scientific fact, it’s how, as a culture, we grasp time. We could debate whether we should take that as given so quietly, but I’d like to leave that to one side. What’s more important for our current purposes is how we choose to know time given how we grasp time.
The past is out of sight, and that means it can easily be out of mind. However, our mind is a greasetrap in the stream of our experience. In order to forget, we must once have known. That has two implications – firstly, one must have been attentive and noticed something as it occurred. You might think that would encourage paying attention and a watchful eye. Secondly, one must make a decision about what they have noticed and relate to it. Does something matter? Do I have any strong feelings about this? Do I understand its importance, if any? There is a massive scope for individual ignorance to make decisions here over any thoughtful consideration. That’s simply because of a lack of exposure, experience or recognition. You might think that would encourage one to own their ignorance and do what they can to reduce it. If something passes these twin hurdles, it might make it into memory. Most things don’t.
The past is of great importance to us. We live in its shadow and by its consequences daily. The overwhelming pressure it exerts on the present is actually quite impossible to overstate. Consequently, it matters a great deal what we recognise in the present and how we remember it as time turns it into the past. As a proof, I would point to the incredible shock, even hysteria, which rises out of small changes in politics, business or international affairs. A continuity of conditions is assumed to be the same as stability, and so, change provokes a visceral reaction. Therefore, in many ways, we live according to the past. When we relate to a past which is dear to us we do not enjoy seeing it trampled in the present or the future. That is where something like our sense of justice comes from – just because an unjust event is out of sight will never be good reason to put it out of mind. Some crimes are indelible.
There are many ways of relating to the past, not all of them will be as ‘high stakes’ as justice. Having said that, one’s ignorance about the importance of an event doesn’t constitute a good reason to have no relation to it at all. Some things are worth caring about and when you don’t, you are remiss. Therefore, I would encourage you to think carefully about what one is being asked to move forward from. The phrase itself is encouraging you to forget what, if you thought carefully, you might actually care very much about. In a way it cannot possibly conceal, to be told to ‘move forward’ is to be told to believe something. It can be an insult to you, and a tragedy of varying proportions, to be lead forward unthinkingly by the hand – so don’t be.