I came across this word while browsing and could not browse its definition. I understand amnesia, have heard of retrograde amnesia,but cultural amnesia appears jarring to my mind.

4 Answers 4


The expression "cultural amnesia" would likely come from the lips of someone who bemoans the tendency of some people to forget about their roots, particularly the values, customs, mores, taboos, and ideals which may have once been embraced by a people-group as a whole but have now been forgotten and replaced by different customs, mores, taboos, and ideals.

Generally speaking (i.e., painting with a very broad brush), conservatives are more likely to miss the "good old days." On the other hand, liberals are more likely to embrace change, pointing out that the "good old days" were not necessarily that good, just old! To them, it's time to get with it, to go with the flow, and so on.

This is not to say that liberals might not say the same thing, particularly if they are appealing to an ideal or value which was once embraced by the culture but has since fallen by the wayside and now needs to be revivified and embraced.

Either way, whether from the mouth of a liberal or a conservative, cultural amnesia has a negative connotation, and could be a rallying cry of someone who claims the culture at large is missing something important.

By the way, the simplest and best definition of culture I've ever come across:

Culture is the way we do things around here.

Cultural amnesia, then, would be revealed in a widespread ignorance of what used to be important but has now fallen into desuetude.

  • This covers one side of it, but another popular side of this is that the past cultural history that was forgotten was a negative aspect of the past, that the culture at large is missing some guilt about past misdeeds. For example, in the US, people tend to remember the Soviets disdainfully, the Cold War enemy, but don't remember that they were the strongest ally in WWII (and had the most casualties). Pardon the politics; the term 'cultural amnesia' is almost always used tendentiously so it's hard to come up with a non-controversial example).
    – Mitch
    Oct 31, 2014 at 11:42
  • @Mitch: Good point. To compromise and meet somewhere in the middle without establishing some common ground is difficult. Tendentiousness is part and parcel of the universe of discourse on virtually every topic. The argument from definition can be a useful anitdote if each side is willing to take off their blinders. The white man, e.g., acted shamefully toward native Americans, disrupting and even destroying a way of life he couldn't--or was unwilling to--understand. By the same token, however, some native Americans outdid the white man in cruelty, savagery, and unwillingness to compromise. Don Oct 31, 2014 at 14:06

It does prove to be surprisingly hard to Google. In general, my sense is that it primarily means social amnesia, the collective, often deliberate forgetting of something important by a group, with additional connotations of both a culture of amnesia (meaning a culture that represses memories), and the forgetting or abandonment of things of specific cultural importance (long held social values, for example).


It is hard to guess the author's intent without seeing the context, but I would assume it is referring to the failure of a society or group of people to remember important aspects of their history, or a willingness to pretend that their cultural history is other than it is.


I think it is related to the repeated mistakes during the human history. We should learn from these mistakes, trying not to do it again, but it doesn't happen. However there's this book from Clive James with the same name. It's about ''destroying'' the conception we have about notable people '' to burnish these memories of a Western civilization that James fears is nearly lost'' (from goodreads).

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