By Joachim J. Savelsberg, author of Knowing about Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles
The past week marked historic recognition of injustice and suffering. In Minneapolis on April 20, a jury found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murdering George Floyd, one of many killings of African Americans by police in the United States.
In Washington on April 24, Joe Biden became the first US President to recognize mass violence against the Armenians of the Ottoman Empire during World War I as genocide. His recognition of a horrendous chapter of history is courageous in light of the threats of non-cooperation in military and economic affairs regularly pronounced by Turkish officials.
The recognition is especially important given the Turkish government’s international and domestic spread of “alternate truths,” its pursuit of an Orwellian order. Turkey’s leaders back up their disinformation campaign by threats of criminal prosecution against those who dare challenge the state. Many courageous Turkish intellectuals have been standing up against such threats, and many paid the price of exile, prison or even death.
The recognition is equally important for the descendants of the victims. Armenians in their home country and in the diaspora, particularly in France and the United States, have been fighting for acknowledgement for many decades. The number of countries, especially in Europe and the Americas, following their call has grown in recent decades, always after internal struggles and under Turkish threats. Like the recent verdict in Minneapolis, recognition of injustice and violation brings relief and dignifies the claims of the victimized.
Recognition is also crucial for the fight for human rights generally. It impresses on perpetrators that their misdeeds will not go unnoticed. It shows perpetrators that denial of atrocities in an era of a—albeit partial—human rights hegemony, is often counterproductive to their aims.
The struggle over genocide knowledge and the counterproductive effects of denial are subject of a my new book, Knowing about Genocide: Armenian Suffering and Epistemic Struggles. In the book, I describe how victims and perpetrators generate conflicting knowledge about genocide. Focusing on perspectives of Armenians and Turks to the Armenian genocide, I examine strategies of silencing, denial, and acknowledgment in everyday interaction, public rituals, law, and politics. Drawing on interviews, ethnographic accounts, documents, and eyewitness testimony, I explore the social processes that drive dueling versions of history. I reveal counterproductive consequences of denial in an age of human rights hegemony, with implications for populist disinformation campaigns against overwhelming evidence.
Below is an excerpt from the introduction of Knowing about Genocide. Access a free, open-access version of the book here.
This book sheds light on seemingly paradoxical times. Heads of state increasingly apologize for atrocities committed by their countries, and humankind builds institutions to prevent, or to respond to, mass violence. Some even speak of a justice cascade. Yet mass violence, silencing, and the denial of genocides continue. We also live in an era in which populist leaders deny what overwhelming evidence documents. They tell their followers, for example, that “global warming” is a hoax, even a Chinese conspiracy, advanced to damage the American economy. In countries as diverse as the United States, the Philippines, Brazil, China, and Russia, they present themselves as saviors and spew falsehoods, “alternative facts,” that fly in the face of solid scholarly evidence.
Closer to the theme of this book is denial of repression, mass atrocity, and genocide. We encounter this denial, against overwhelming evidence, in places such as Burma (Myanmar) with regard to the Rohingya; in Sudan with regard to the Fur, the Masalit, and the Zaghawa; in China with regard to the Uighurs; and in Turkey, where, despite great historical distance, political leaders continue to deny the genocide against the Ottoman Armenians committed during World War I. Populist political leaders are not alone in their denial. The populace often follows suit and at times encourages politicians’ denialist practices. At times, silencing takes the place of denial. The long American history of silencing the near extinction of the American Indian population is but one example. The silencing of the Holocaust in this author’s native Germany during the 1950s and 1960s is another. Even victim groups often silence the violence they experienced, albeit for different reasons, and this book speaks to that too.
In this contradictory and puzzling context, I ask how we know about genocide. Why do various collectivities and their leaders deny, silence, or recognize the same event of mass violence differently? Why do some insist on defining events as genocide, while others forcefully reject the label? This book is specifically about the emergence of radically distinct repertoires of knowledge about the Armenian genocide, which moved from broad acknowledgment to denial among Turks and from silencing to determined recognition among Armenians. The time span of more than a century during which this drama played out allows for insights into historical shifts and their drivers that the study of a more recent event would not grant.
This introduction summarizes themes, central theoretical ideas, and the chapters organized along those ideas. It speaks to empirical evidence, the data I use to illustrate and examine the validity of theoretical ideas. It specifies for whom I wrote this book, and it finally offers a brief historical overview of the Armenian genocide.
KNOWLEDGE ABOUT GENOCIDE—THE SUBJECT OF THIS BOOK
As I engage with the sociology of knowledge, I draw on and contribute to classical and contemporary strands of this sociological perspective. I show that each of them also applies to knowledge about genocide. Throughout this book, knowledge does not mean certified knowledge. Instead, as noted in the preface, the term simply refers to that which humans take for granted, to the perceived “certainty that phenomena are real and that they possess specific characteristics” (Berger and Luckmann 1966: 1). Repertoires of knowledge are clusters of such certainties that pertain to a particular set of phenomena, for example historical events.
Interactionist traditions in sociology show how humans produce an understanding of social reality (knowledge) in their daily interactions, communications, and thought processes. The literature, biographies, diaries, interviews, and observations of those who were touched by mass violence—as victims, as perpetrators, or as their descendants—serve as data. They document the unfolding of silencing, denying, or acknowledging when members of families, neighbors, friends, or humanitarians address (or avoid) the topic of genocide, as chapter 1 shows. Inner conversations supplement social interactions. They unfold, in George Herbert Mead’s terms, between the I and the Me, the part of the self that assumes patterns of attitudes among others. Going beyond Mead, I see these patterns as embedded in social fields.1 Such inner conversations become visible in correspondence and diaries kept by humanitarians and other observers, which I examine in chapter 2.
Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in The Social Construction of Reality, show how knowledge constructed through self-reflection and millions of interactive situations becomes sedimented. It solidifies into knowledge repertoires of collectivities, “carrier groups” in the words of Max Weber and Karl Mannheim. Yet, where Berger and Luckmann suggest harmony, we may in fact find disagreement and—importantly—diametrically opposed sets of knowledge across social groups. Such an outcome becomes visible in debates about mass atrocities, including—with particular intensity—the Armenian genocide.
We also see that not all actors have equal chances to contribute to the construction of knowledge, a point overlooked by Berger and Luckmann. Asymmetries in power and communicative capacities affect outcomes. Knowledge entrepreneurs, acting from privileged institutional positions, shape and spread their group’s definition of social reality to wider audiences. They also seek to manipulate, intensify, mobilize, or alter knowledge repertoires of carrier groups with which they are associated. Constructionist social problems theory, and scholars of reputations such as Barry Schwartz and Gary Fine, highlight the role of entrepreneurs in the construction of knowledge, in instilling in larger publics a specific definition of reality. These insights also apply, as Jeffrey Alexander has shown, to the role of entrepreneurs in the processing of horrendous experiences that threaten the existence or self-understanding of a collectivity, in the generation of cultural trauma after genocide. Finally, knowledge is not as stable as Berger and Luckmann suggest. It is at times dormant. Entrepreneurs may mobilize and alter it. In chapter 3, I deposit these theoretical concepts and ideas in a toolbox from which I draw in subsequent chapters.
The process of sedimentation of knowledge about the Armenian genocide among Armenians, in their own country and in the diaspora, is the subject of chapter 4. Chapter 5 examines the evolution and sedimentation of Turkish knowledge. Throughout these chapters, I draw from literature that provides analyses of memoirs, banners displayed at demonstrations, memorial sites, news media, and textbooks.
Where different collectivities generate radically distinct repertoires of knowledge, their encounter with “the other” becomes a challenge they need to address. One option is the enactment of public rituals through which each group seeks to protect and reinforce its identity and knowledge. Armenian genocide commemorations, across the diaspora and centrally in Yerevan, Armenia’s capital city, held on each April 24, provide an excellent example. The Turkish state instead has developed rituals to cleanse the memory of the Ottoman Empire and to celebrate unambiguously its history, disregarding its dark sides. Émile Durkheim and a new school of neo-Durkheimian thought explores the role of rituals in public life: their capacity to evoke a sense of group integration and collective effervescence and to solidify shared beliefs. This literature provides us with valuable tools for the analysis of Armenian and Turkish rituals, the focus of chapter 6. Ethnographic observation is the key method here.
Yet collectivities and their leaders do not just seek to solidify knowledge repertoires within their own groups. They also openly attack those of “the other” in conflictual processes. The Turkish state has attempted, with growing intensity, to challenge knowledge about the Armenian genocide. Armenians have fought, in return, for the recognition of their history. The form such conflicts take, and their outcomes, vary by social fields in which actors carry them out (politics and law, for example). Each field follows, in the terms of Pierre Bourdieu, its own rules of the game. Yet players in these fields also enjoy discretion. They improvise, with at times unpredictable outcomes. They finally act within institutions that differ across countries, while also being connected to world society.
Politics is a central social field in which conflicts over knowledge unfold. In chapter 7, I explore political struggles over knowledge pertaining to the Armenian genocide in France, using interviews and document analysis as key methods. The French case is most relevant, because the country is home to the largest Armenian diaspora per capita and because conflicts over historical knowledge feature prominently in French politics. At stake are “memory laws” promulgated by legislative bodies. They reach from simple statements of acknowledgment to laws that criminalize denialist utterances. Many countries have recognized the Armenian genocide over the past two decades, often through legislative votes. Examining the French case under a microscope sheds light on the specific struggles and mechanisms of power at work.
The legal field is another battleground. Past research has focused on the contributions to knowledge and memory of trials against perpetrators of mass violence. Chapter 8, cowritten with Brooke B. Chambers, deals with a different type of legal engagement, formally a fight over free speech rights. We examine an American court case, Griswold v. Driscoll, in which Turkish interest groups mobilized young civil liberties enthusiasts toward such ends, using a free speech lawyer as a go-between. The plaintiffs insisted that each repertoire of knowledge has to be represented evenly—for example, in curricula or textbooks—for freedom of speech to be secured. We detail the unfolding of this exemplary case in the federal courts of Boston, Massachusetts, and its consequences for knowledge about the Armenian genocide. The United States is a most appropriate setting in which to examine such a conflict in the realm of law, because it is home to one of the largest Armenian diasporas, second only to Russia, and because in the United States, compared to other Western democracies, the legal arena is most prominent in the settling of conflicts. Again, interviews and the analysis of documents provide core evidence.
Finally, chapter 9 examines the counterproductive outcome of denialism in the context of a (partial) human rights hegemony. Here I return to the American and French cases to show the blowback that denial caused those who engaged in it. Their attempts resulted in substantial ethnic mobilization and support by human rights organizations and state actors, who used various means at their disposal toward a solidification of genocide knowledge among the victim group. I supplement these case studies by an analysis of the public sphere, specifically news media and documentary films.