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Theriault: Post-Denial Denial

The Armenian Weekly Magazine
April 2012 

In 2012, we might wonder what the point of engaging denial yet again could be. The best thinking on the Armenian Genocide has moved far beyond it, to the question of reparations; the genocide’s gendered dimensions, including the sexual violence and slavery of Armenian women and girls; attention to the micro and meso levels of perpetration, particularly the complex and varied role of regional1; and the expansion of theorization of the genocidal process to include Assyrians and Greeks.2Why does denial persist at all? Is it just the atavistic stubbornness of some segment of Turkey’s political and military institutions? Is it an embedded prejudice widespread in the Turkish population, especially its growing external component in North America and Europe, a prejudice that continues even in progressive circles and despite much rhetoric to the contrary? Is it a reassertion of genocidal hatred, a mocking of the victims, a refusal to give up the thrill of power and domination that comes from knowing your group has the absolute power of life and death over not just some set of individuals, but entire and ancient peoples? Have denial’s proponents, especially academics in the United States, so boxed themselves into an untenable corner, so deeply compromised themselves in their public advocacy for an odious and duplicitous attack on basic human rights and decency, that their only hope for psychological, material, and status self-preservation is in preserving the lie? Is it the all-too-common genocidal state version of corporate greed and self-interest that subjects all human relations and social commitments to the drive for pure profit, that is, the refusal to give up one iota of the immense material gains from the genocide in land and wealth that endure today as the foundation of the growing Turkish economy? Has denial simply become a habit that those promoting it are just too rigid and lazy to break, a pseudo-religious faith making sense of a complex and changing world without meaningful thought and challenge, even an addiction with its own self-destructive pleasures? Or have its purveyors, its perpetrators, learned from Armenians themselves, who could easily have given up at any point during the past 89 years, stopped fighting tooth and nail to preserve a damned identity that gave no hope or solace to those marked by it, that the refusal to accept the inevitable undercuts and fractures the inevitable?

Itzkowitz pioneered a vulgar postmodern relativist denial that melted all material historical facts into purely linguistic narratives all of equal status because all are equally constructs. Armenians had their narrative and Turks theirs. “Truth” disappeared into multiplicitous ambiguity, and all discussions of mass violence in the present became mutual military conflict, and in the past mutual rhetorical conflict.

Regardless, engaging denial in 2012 is an intellect- and soul-deadening chore, a distraction from the real intellectual and political work that lies ahead for those Armenians and Turks looking forward to a new shared universe in which the Ottoman-Turkish genocidal process has been addressed through a reparative process that reestablishes, in however muted a manner, the long-term viability of its victim groups, and establishes this genocide’s lessons learned, for instance, for the struggle against the contemporary trafficking of women and children for sexual and other slavery and the epidemic of violence against women globally. We’re still dealing with denial in 2012. But I guess there are those who still argue adamantly that the earth is flat, cigarettes don’t cause cancer, the earth’s climate is not getting warmer due to human pollution, and dinosaurs are a myth or lived only after the earth was created 6,000 years ago.

While the tremendous material resources—a benefit of the massive wealth expropriation of the genocide itself—that Turkey and its allies in the political and corporate realms are able to pour into denial mean that the effort can be extended indefinitely on multiple fronts, including public relations/lobbying and academic, given the growing fracture over denial in Turkey itself coupled with the increasing boldness of states such as France in their refusal to give in to political and economic blackmail, legal cases have become the rearguard venue of choice for deniers. The irony, of course, is not lost on those who notice that the Turkish government and its allies continue to parrot the nonsensical insistence that the Armenian Genocide should not be a political or moral issue but should be left entirely to historians at precisely the same historical moment as some proponents of denialist positions take the issue right out of academia and place it squarely in the legal system with lawsuits meant to promote the teaching of discredited denialist material on websites and to prevent denialist editorializing and “scholarship” from being accurately labeled as such. It is not the effectiveness of this new dimension of the campaign against truth and healing that should give us pause, as its only success came as the result of the legal and political ineptitude and moral cowardice of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which instead of taking the heat and consequences itself of its amateurish public statements about Guenter Lewy, simply heaped on the victim group of genocide yet more calumny by retreating completely from its challenge to denial and even promoting and praising Lewy in order to save itself from a lawsuit. When push comes to shove, the line of least resistance is always to sacrifice or harm the victims again. What should draw our attention is the attempt to enforce relativism on the issue, to require that the “second side of the story” be legalistically stapled to the true one side of the story so that the latter can never be uttered without its parasitic other clinging to and sucking the life out of it.

This new legalism has a crucial parallel, which has as yet not been commented upon by even the most sophisticated discussants of the Armenian Genocide. Ten years ago those very few of us present in the public discourse on the Armenian Genocide who insisted that reparations, and not denial, is the central issue, were met with public dismissal and academic rejection, where our work was taken up at all and not simply ignored. We have continued to make our arguments, and one by one academics, religious leaders, and Armenians, as well as many outside the Armenian community, including U.S. legislators, have shifted their views or come to appreciate the importance of reparations where they had not considered it before. But, if one thing should be learned from Etienne Balibar,3 it is that steps forward, particularly in regard to oppression, quite often lead to new veiled forms of the same basic oppressive forces rather than a meaningful supersession of oppression. And so it is with the new attention on reparations, which has replicated among those—even in the Armenian community—who recognize the Armenian Genocide (including some who do not use the term but recognize an unlabeled “that which inflicted great harm on the Armenians”) an emerging structural dichotomy that mirrors the tension between truth and denial itself. The problem is not a function of falsification versus truth, as denial has never been about truth and falsity, but about power and the prevention of rectification of the impacts of and ethical accounting for the genocide. Those who believe that establishment of the truth is the telos of human rights advocacy for Armenian Genocide victims misunderstand entirely what is at stake in any case of genocide, perhaps because they confuse the putative goal of academic research (production of “truth”) with the complex political and ethical terrain in which this research is rightly situated. Denial can be abandoned at precisely the point at which some new means of resistance to rectification can be engaged more effectively, relative to the current successes or failings of denial. Even if it were true that denial as a state-driven political campaign would cease with the end to the possibility of any material or symbolic reparations (and as the opening paragraph suggests, it might not be), that does not mean that the end of denial can only come in this way. The tension at the core of denial can morph into another debate or struggle, which will be all the more effective because so much focus has been placed on ending denial as the key to resolving the Armenian Genocide.

The commitment to denial described in the introductory paragraph suggests deep psycho-social roots that go beyond expediency. The triumph of the Turkish state has been to structure Turkish national identity itself in two key ways. First, it has forced that group identity to be central to individual personal identity—explaining the former’s more bizarre and dramatically ironic manifestations, such as the voting of Kemal Ataturk as the greatest in just about every category of a turn-of-the-century Time Magazine poll—and, second, it has made that identity frail and rigid. This is interesting in itself: The Turkish elites have driven the development of a national identity that is (intentionally?) insecure while making individual wellbeing dependent on national self-esteem, in order to bind individuals to the state seen as the only capable defense of that national identity. Denial is one method used to preserve that psycho-social complex in the face of political advocacy toward rectification of the damage (in its more primitive stage, a simple quest by the victim group to gain widespread acceptance of the truth), but it is merely a method, not the foundational problem, in the way that biological race theories are one form of racism but not essential to racism, with a generic racism existing at a deeper level and fueling a variation of forms. New forms of racism emerge, though we can modify Balibar to hold that the old forms do not simply disappear, but that over time more and more kinds of racism aggregate and become options that impose a comprehensive and even hermetically sealed context in which no matter what resistance and facts are met, there is always another way for racism to function that is not susceptible to that resistance—or the particular ethical commitments of this or that individual. While we can see a temporal progression of forms, this is not a linear but an additive history, a packrat historical trajectory in which no oppressive method that has had success in the past is ever really abandoned.

Is there a new tension, a new form, in addition to denial? We are actually seeing the third such emergence. The first was manifested in the tension over whether the term “genocide” should be used to characterize the “events of 1915.” For those Turks and others for whom denial of the facts on the ground of widespread government-sponsored killing of Armenians grossly disproportionate to any putative cause became intellectually or morally impossible—for this they deserve some credit—but who could not face the full reality of history, a compromise position became recognition of the violence against Armenians—if not its fully systematic nature—coupled with a claim that “genocide” should not be applied to that violence. The reasons included the mistaken notion that the concept of genocide did not emerge until after the Armenian Genocide, so it would be historically essentialist to apply it “retroactively” (conveniently ignoring what is now widely know, that in coining the term in 1943 as well as creating the concept at least a decade earlier, Raphael Lemkin had the genocide of Christians in the Ottoman Empire fully in mind as a major example); the vulgar postmodernist claim that a unifying term such as “genocide” suppressed the complex and polyvalent details of the “events [note the fracturing plural] of 1915”; and that, regardless of whether the term is technically correct, its use would alienate the general Turkish population by offending their sensibilities by characterizing some of their national predecessors as genocidaires. Others and I have exposed the logical fallacies and imperial mentality underlying such approaches, and there is no space here to revisit them. The relevant focus here is, rather, the shift that this turn from outright denial to mischaracterization represented. As denial became untenable for individuals and to an extent for Turkey in general, a rearguard action ensued that saved the refusal to admit genocide by admitting lower-level violence.

Among some Turks, a second shift paralleled or followed the terminological refusal. The fault line here was between one or more of (1) recognition, conflict-resolving dialogue, or apology and (2) a genuine process of repair. Denial could be set aside and even genocide admitted so long as the immediate next step was the resolution of tensions between Turks and Armenians and a supersession of the genocide issue. My forthcoming article in the Armenian Review’s special issue on reparations covers aspects of this issue in detail; here, what is important to notice is the way this shift at once leaves denial or misrepresentation behind at the same time as it resists meaningful and respectful resolution of the Armenian Genocide issue.

But even this dichotomy has not been stable, and some of its proponents have retreated further, accepting that repairs must be made. The latest fault line cuts through the notion of “repair” itself, as what has long been proposed as group repair is facilely misrepresented as individual repair. This dichotomy is present among Armenians, who engage the suffering and material losses of direct family members—sometimes even possessing title deeds—at the same time as they are by communal losses of land, institutions, cultural viability, identify, etc. Both forms of repair address some of the present harms of the genocide, but it is group repair that is the tremendously more significant and necessary for the long-term viability of Armenian identity and statehood. Once more, the issue of why has been covered elsewhere, for instance in the draft report of the Armenian Genocide Reparations Study Group.4 The key point here is that individual reparations do not even address the genocide as genocide. They remedy specific thefts of businesses, lands, etc., in exactly the same way that they would if the thefts had been the result of individual thievery, fraud, or other criminality. Individual reparations are not reparations for genocide, but for some particular loss. While in reality each such loss was part of the overall impact of the genocide, treating the losses as individual dissolves the fact of the genocide itself.5

In this way, the conflating of individual and group reparations entails a conceptual confusion that is the hallmark of denial in its more advanced forms. If explicit denial began as a confrontational disavowal of the facts of history and their proper characterization, it later became not only a demonstration of power over the victim group(s)6 and the perpetrator group’s general population (see above), but also a method of befuddling those outside the victim and perpetrator groups. The function of denial, beyond the dominational (sadistic or imperial) thrills it provides its purveyors within and outside the Turkish people, is the conditioning of the global population to experience intellectual confusion at the mere mention of the Armenian Genocide.

The triumph of deniers has been to present the production of this confusion as the activity of the scientific critical thinking that is meant to overcome such confusion.7 The most obvious is Descartes’ method of critical doubting, by which he subjected classes of beliefs, up to and including mathematical facts such as 2 + 3 = 5, to various philosophical doubts about their certainty. Descartes’ method, of course, was the beginning point of a powerful philosophical progression in which Descartes built up extensive and comprehensive layers of certainty. Deniers, however, stop at the end of Meditation 1, and mistake “critical thinking” for the mere introduction of logical doubt regarding all assertions of fact. They fail to understand that Descartes’ process of destructive doubting, of tearing down belief systems, was the prelude to and had value only as the occasion for a much richer constructive project of knowledge production. By disconnecting the negative or destructive phase of Descartes’ project from the constructive, deniers can situate themselves within the legacy of Cartesian critical thought without following it out to its logical extension. In other words, they simply raise logical doubts, typically not reasonable, against any and all factual claims, no matter how well supported, and remain at that point.

This false Cartesianism has a certain half-life. While it can and presumably will be used indefinitely, over time it becomes less and less effective as information about the Armenian Genocide becomes more widely disseminated and available. As the factual basis becomes more established and assumed, the general population becomes less and less vulnerable to the attempts to confuse them through manipulative misuse of critical thinking principles. Doubt about empirical facts depends to a significant degree on ignorance of the comprehensiveness and internal consistency of the relevant empirical facts.

But since the 1990’s and the work of Norman Itzkowitz,8 a new approach to confusion has also been evident. Itzkowitz pioneered a vulgar postmodern relativist denial that melted all material historical facts into purely linguistic narratives all of equal status because all are equally constructs. Armenians had their narrative and Turks theirs. “Truth” disappeared into multiplicitous ambiguity, and all discussions of mass violence in the present became mutual military conflict, and in the past mutual rhetorical conflict. While this is resonant with some lesser strains of postmodernism, it grossly oversimplifies the complex views of the relationship between text/language and materiality characteristic of such figures as Foucault and Deleuze. What is more, in its relativizing use of the concept of the “other”—another term characteristic of postmodern discourse but actually with its origins in the earlier and politically unambiguous existentialism of de Beauvoir and Fanon—to mean any asserted difference between groups, it loses the core of the notion as a question of power relations: The “other” is properly that population whom the dominant exclude, demean, etc. Yet, in current discourse on Armenian-Turkish relations, the term is applied in both directions, as if Armenians are in the position to exclude or demean the Turkish state and society in a manner that has any demonstrable effects or approaches even partially the devastating impact of Turkish otherization of Armenians.

Similarly for “trauma,” which has become a vague and empty term as it spills out of the pens of many discussants of Turkish-Armenian relations. Following Itzkowitz and his co-author Vamik Volkan, “trauma” has been stripped of its proper clinical meaning as a specific, deep psychological reaction to destructive events, with serious psychological symptoms that can compromise the sufferer’s basic functioning, including such things as physical and mental hypervigilance, flashbacks, panic attacks, and so on. In discourse on genocide and particularly perpetrator-victim relations, the term is misused to designate lingering dislike or discomfort about some aspect of reality or intergroup relations one finds unpleasant or against one’s interests. The dissolution of the meaning of trauma undermines its clinical importance and reservation for those who have genuinely suffered, as opposed to those who might feel aggrieved because they are no longer a dominant empire or find unpleasant being faced with negative aspects of their past and the way that past affects conditions today.9

Postmodern philosophy tends not to be system-building, but rather aims at undercutting claims of unity, essence, and the like. In this sense, it might appear to be an advanced version of the same destructive first movement of Descartes, and it is often treated that way, for instance by Halil Berktay.10 But political postmodernism, as opposed to the lightweight popularized derivative versions that permeate academia and popular culture today, contains within its very destabilization of key facets of modernity attempts to grapple with the results of that destructive process and, if not to build replacement systems, then to fashion some means of living a meaningful existence. The conceptual confusion introduced by decontextualized applications of postmodernism is more difficult to counter than the perversion of Cartesian doubt, as inherent in postmodern work is the uncertain struggle to overcome the loss of the possibility of unity, essence, certainty, etc. As its reductive conceptual framework becomes entrenched in academic study of conflict, violence, and oppression, it becomes a powerful tool because it undercuts the possibility of truth (there is no “truth,” only narratives, each as valid as the next), so that defeat of this kind of denial automatically leads nowhere, means nothing. This misapplication is a kind of metadenial that prevents even the possibility of establishing the veracity of a genocide. It is an end to direct or explicit denial precisely because it renders it unnecessary. By seizing control of the mental framework through which its victims think, it wins the battle no matter what path of analysis they take.

And this threatens to be the case, as well, regarding reparations. As the term is stretched to designate any kind of provision by some element of a perpetrator group of any material satisfaction to the victim group, the connection between what is given and the true damage done by genocide is obscured and confused. The issue is looked at from the perspective of the current status quo and its projection forward, in which no reparations would be made. From this perspective any provision is a positive step. When the issue is considered within full view the extensive harms still impacting the victim group, including its very possibility of long-term viability as a cohesive entity, however, the connection between profound harm and extensive necessary remedy is clear. If in decades past the very framework through which the events of the genocide were engaged undermined proper understanding of those events, today the very framework through which the ultimate resolution of the “Armenian Question” is considered threatens a similar undermining.

The foregoing suggests that the standard dichotomy between denial and non-denial is misleading. Since denial itself has been designated as such, this discrete binary dualistic11 split has been assumed without critical evaluation. This has resulted in an either/or exclusive categorization of individuals treating the Armenian Genocide—and similarly other genocides—as either deniers or not. But denial and truth are poles of a continuum, and the positions discussed above represent different points on that continuum. The enforced either/or has meant that some responsible scholars genuinely trying to understand the issues at stake have been reduced into the denialist category, while some scholars presenting problematic views that stray from the range of accurate possible characterizations of genocide have been put into the truth category and the problems thus shielded from critique. Lest this approach be seen to exonerate any of the resistant positions discussed in this article, it must be emphasized that avoidance of the term genocide remains far from the positive pole. What is more, the denial-truth continuum itself has given way to a cognitive correlate continuum between full impunity for genocide and full repair. If truth is the most that can be attained in terms of knowledge of the genocide, full repair is the most that can be achieved regarding the genocide itself. Both the recognition/dialogue/apology models and the individual reparations models, while not at the extreme of impunity for the genocide, are still far from the full repair pole.

 

Notes

 

1. See especially Uğur Ümit Üngör, “Confiscation & Colonization: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property,” in the Armenian Weekly magazine, April 2011: 6-13.

2. Hannibal Travis, “On the Original Understanding of Genocide,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 7, 1 (April 2012): 30-55 at 31.

3. In “Is There a ‘Neo-Racism’?” in Balibar and Immanuel Wallerstein, eds., Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verson, 1991), 17-28, Balibar argues that the defeat of biologically based racist ideologies did not mean an end to racism, but racism itself morphed into a new form or forms that were not susceptible to the criticisms leveled rightly against biological racism. Indeed, even the term “race” seems to have dropped out, as codes such as “immigrants” make acceptable treatment that if it were explicitly racially based would not be tolerated. The net result is still extremely harmful to the victims of racism, but the form their oppression takes is different from earlier forms.

4. The members of the group are Alfred de Zayas, Jermaine McCalpin, Ara Papian, and myself.

5. As I argued in “Reparational Efforts for Lost Armenian Properties,” presented at “The Armenian Genocide: From Recognition to Compensation,” Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia, Antelias, Lebanon, Feb. 23-25, 2012, on Feb. 25.

6. See Israel W. Charny, “A Contribution to the Psychology of Denial of Genocide,” in Genocide & Human Rights: Lessons from the Armenian Experience, special issue of Journal of Armenian Studies 4, 1-2 (1992): 289-306.

7. See Theriault, “Against the Grain: Critical Reflections on the State and Future of Genocide Scholarship,” Genocide Studies and Prevention 7, 1 (April 2012): 123-144 at 133.

8. For the analysis of Itzkowitz’s denial methods as discussed here, see Theriault, “Universal Social Theory and the Denial of Genocide: Norman Itzkowitz Revisited,” Journal of Genocide Research 3, 2 (2001): 241-56.

9. The analysis in this and the preceding paragraph is based on Theriault, “Against the Grain”: 129-132.

10. See Theriault, “Post-Genocide Imperial Domination,” in Controversy and Debate, special Armenian Genocide insert of the Armenian Weekly, April 24, 2007: 6-8.

11. See Anne Waters, “Language Matters: Nondiscrete Nonbinary Dualism,” in American Indian Thought: Philosophical Essays (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004): 97-115.

5 Comments on Theriault: Post-Denial Denial

  1. avatar Jack Kalpakian // April 30, 2012 at 10:21 am // Reply

    It is time to petition the American Psychological Association to take a clear stance on Mr. Volkan’s abuse of the term “trauma.” The APA is politically vulnerable at this stage in history and should be asked to clarify its position concerning Mr. Vadim Volkan’s arguments. Kudos for the author for basically nailing down his bias.

  2. avatar Sonya Varoujian // April 30, 2012 at 12:39 pm // Reply

    A fantastically written article – covering a lot of very valid points and questions – thank you.

    • avatar Sonya Varoujian // April 30, 2012 at 12:42 pm //

      A fantastically well written article – covering a lot of very valid points and questions – thank you.

  3. avatar Boyajian // May 2, 2012 at 1:26 pm // Reply

    Almost 100 years ago the Ottoman Empire was on the brink of utter disintegration. With strategic foresight, those in charge devised a salvage plan. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, instead of complete destruction, the modern republic of Turkey emerged to carry on the Seljuk legacy. Never mind the ethnic cleansing and genocidal acts utilized to achieve this goal.

    Most Turks take great pride in this achievement and in the triumverate and Kemal Ataturk for leading them there. Survival against tremendous odds is their source of pride. Flourishing while others may denigrate them makes many beam. A national identity based on such dynamics makes bending a knee in humility near impossible. No wonder the tactics for genocide denial continue morphing with every new attempt to pressure Turkey to face justice. Turkey will resist all efforts that threaten its sense of national and territorial security. They are formidable opponents and Armenians should not underestimate this.

    It is not merely denial of a crime. Denial is only possible because the victims and their loss have first been devalued in service of the need to preserve national integrity. Artificial constructs such as mutual suffering have been allowed to pervade the dialogue to diminish the sense of guilt. Black and white has morphed to shades of gray. The obstinancy of denial has given way to individual legal action to prove real loss, but these individual actions threaten to impede full repair of the group damage to the Armenian nation caused by the genocide.

    Dr. Theriault has deconstructed post-denial denial brilliantly. Is it possible for Armenians to regain what was lost? No one can say for sure. But it certainly can’t happen if we Armenians don’t keep in mind that the Armenian genocide, though there were at least 1.5 million individual victims, was essentially an attack on Armenians as a group; the intent being to destroy the group. Our efforts for repair should concentrate on re-establishing the long-term viability of the group. Individual legal claims have their place, but should not be allowed to dilute the larger group claim for compensation and reparation of damage to the Armenians as a nation.

  4. avatar mardehros // May 4, 2012 at 12:40 am // Reply

    Professor Theriault writes:
    …Southern Poverty Law Center, which instead of taking the heat and consequences itself of its amateurish public statements about Guenter Lewy, simply heaped on the victim group of genocide yet more calumny by retreating completely from its challenge to denial and even promoting and praising Lewy in order to save itself from a lawsuit.

    The Armenians could sue SPLC too. it’ll make things pretty interesting and get increased notice for the Armenian Genocide issue.

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