The Duty NOT to be Forgotten: Tales from My Son’s Grandfather

Fools learn from experience. I prefer to learn from the experience of others.

Otto von Bismarck

It started innocently enough. For more than a decade, my family tried unsuccessfully to get my nearly 80 year-old father to write his rather colorful life story—a ripping good yarn of a doctor’s riches-to-rags-to-riches journey through wars, women, drugs, mental illness, homelessness, and redemption. So, I suggested that my son Pierce (a high school junior, musician, and budding filmmaker) take it on as a documentary film project.

It had disaster written all over it. My dad could clam up, Pierce could lose interest, or things could just get plain weird. But, on the contrary, something quite magical and unexpected emerged—a ten episode message in a bottle to future generations. Here’s the trailer of Tales From Grandpa:

As the final cut took form, I began to see why this attempt to capture my dad’s story had succeeded where others had failed. Through the camera, my dad was speaking not just to his grandson but across the generational divide—sharing the hard lessons learned at the University of Hard Knocks. David Brooks’ Life Reports project similarly gathers life lessons from our society’s most experienced.

I think something profound is going on here. In this era of privacy vertigo, with the European Union proposing legislation for a right to be forgotten, it’s important that we understand our responsibility not to be forgotten. Cautionary tales need to be told without fear of scorn. As Jeff Jarvis has chronicled in his book Public Parts, that’s how we collectively learn, grow, and keep from repeating the mistakes of our forefathers. As famed marketer and venture capitalist Geoffrey Moore said way back in 1999: “If you’re going to fail in the future, please have the courtesy to do so in some new and interesting way.” How can we possibly fail in novel ways unless we socialize our failures?

This right to fail (and, by corollary, the rights to embarrassment, empathy, and forgiveness) is strongly American. As I’ve discussed, Americans hold disclosure rights (like speech, assembly, and press) above discretion rights (like privacy). Privacy rights amongst us citizens are defined around William Prosser’s four privacy torts, and courts have tended to broadly decide in favor of the public’s right to know over harms to an individual’s privacy.

For example, Schwartz and Peifer discuss two kiss-and-tell cases, one in the U.S. and one in Germany, where book authors were sued by the subjects of their fictionalized characters. The cases are complex, but the upshot is that the case against the U.S. author was dismissed because the public’s right to know (and learn) trumped any harms endured by the plaintiff. In Germany, however, the plaintiff won and the book was banned.

Europeans do value freedom of speech but tend to hold privacy higher in what German law calls the right of personality—the source of the E.U.’s right to be forgotten. But there may be a hefty cultural price for broadly discouraging disclosure. By outweighing the private over the public, we will lose our personal histories. Can our sons and daughters really afford to be denied the lessons of their grandparents if they’re not encouraged to tell their tales?

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