From socially motivated lay historians to lay censors: Epistemic conformity and defensive group identification


Memory Studies2017, Vol. 10(3) 334 – 346© The Author(s) 2017Reprints and permissions: 10.1177/1750698017701616 /from

Yechiel Klar - Tel Aviv University, Israel
Michał Bilewicz - University of Warsaw, Poland


This article examines why people cooperate with the silencing and censorship efforts of authorities that deprive them of historical knowledge. We analyze two motivational factors that account for people’s adherence to the “official” historical narrative and their willingness to serve as lay censors silencing and suppressing alternative historical narratives of the group. The first factor is epistemic conformity which is the motivation to believe in the veridicality of the consensual ingroup’s historical narrative. The second factor is a defensive form of identification with the group in glorifying and narcissistic ways. Polish and Israeli examples are discussed to illustrate societal backlash to historical discoveries that present the national ingroup in a negative manner.


The dismissal, suppression, and silencing of noncompliant historical accounts, and the harass-ment and persecution of their proponents are commonly identified with totalitarian and authori-tarian regimes (e.g. Stalinist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), Nazi Germany, see De Baets et al., 2011) or church dogma (e.g. the Inquisition, see Bethencourt, 2009). However, a compendium published in 2002 entitled “ Censorship of Historical Thought: a World Guide, 1945–2000 ” by historian Antoon De Baets suggests that the repression of unwanted historical accounts is a worldwide phenomenon. De Baets painstakingly recorded hundreds of cases of historical censorship, harassment and persecution of proponents of alternative histories in no less than 130 countries in the post–World War II (WWII) period (i.e. 1945–2000). Although this list includes countries under dictatorial and/or authoritarian regimes (such as the USSR and the Eastern Bloc countries, China, some African and East-Asian countries, Greece, and certain South American countries during periods of dictatorship), it also includes almost all democracies (e.g. Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, India, Italy Japan, Mexico, The Netherlands, Norway, post-Franco Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and the United States). The information most liable to censorship and repression deals primarily with colonial eras or the history of wars, and the most sensitive areas are those intended for school textbooks. The nearly universal spread of historical censorship and the wide range of topics it encompasses clearly indicate that this is more than the whim of tyrannical rulers, governments, or special interest groups.In this article, we look at the ways in which ordinary members of groups acting as “lay histori-ans” and sometimes as lay censors can support, sustain, and at times actively initiate historical censorship. More specifically, we present, in this article, two social motivations, namely epistemic conformity and defensive identification that are conceived to be implicated in historical censor-ship. In doing so, we apply an individual-differences approach to historical cognition, exploring the relations between the levels of these two motives among individual group members and their endorsement of and participation in historical censorship. Such a social psychological perspective may add to the existing broader historical and political understanding of historical censorship.

From lay historians to socially motivated lay historians

Lay historiography is generally a collective rather than individual endeavor (Halbwachs, 1992). Hammack and Pilecki (2012) recently noted that

As opposed to residing within the mind, these narratives exist in the material world, such as school textbooks … and are embodied in cultural practice, such as commemorative celebrations … Individuals engage with these collectively constructed stories through their own cultural participation. (p. 78)

Liu and Hilton (2005; see Liu and Hilton, this issue) developed the notion of “group charter” to account for the ways in which group members strive to depict their group history in a distinctive, positive light. With regard to the group’s proclaimed origin , they tend to portray their group as an integral, coherent, and continual (and in many cases also primordial and ancient) entity (Kahn et al., 2016; Sani et al., 2007). Furthermore, they depict their group as having a special historical mission or role in the world (see also Smith, 2003) which makes them morally superior to other groups (Brewer, 2001). Within this glorifying outlook, the group is sometimes victorious and sometimes the victim or martyr, but it is always just and justified (Klar, 2016; Noor et al., 2012; Volkan, 2001). Historical content that coincides with these elements of the picture acquires the status of “wanted histories.” These will be readily engaged and endorsed by the group members. These wanted histori-cal accounts are also solicited by group authorities and their institutions (e.g. the education system, the army, the media, arts, museums, and commemoration sites), and are widely propagated, trans-mitted to newer generations, and celebrated (e.g. Bhabha, 1990; Müller, 2002; Zerubavel, 1995).In contrast to “wanted” pieces of historical knowledge, “unwanted” pieces that negate the group charter or suggest alternatives to it are rejected, denied, suppressed, censored, or silenced. The variety of ways by which this is done is described elsewhere (see Bilewicz, 2016). However, such information may nevertheless surface or appear as a result of negligence through sources outside the group or via noncompliant group members. When this happens, socially motivated lay histori-ans group members may turn into lay censors.

Challenges to historical narratives and lay censorship in Israel and Poland

Our research efforts on these issues grew out of the social tensions that trouble our respective soci-eties, Israel (Klar) and Poland (Bilewicz), which stem from challenges to specific components of the ingroup’s hegemonic historical narrative. These challenges have been met by much public resentment and outrage, and have led to vociferous demands to take restrictive measures against them. We discuss some of these societal disputes below. It is noteworthy that these social contro-versies concern either the “origin” or the “historical mission” 1 element of the charter.

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