Theriault: The ‘Neutrality’ of Genocide Denial: A Response to Pam Steiner

Theriault: The ‘Neutrality’ of Genocide Denial: A Response to Pam Steiner

For Steiner to refuse to characterize the historical facts correctly, according to the UN definition of genocide, is for her to give de facto support to deniers.

It was with hope that turned to concern that I read Harut Sassounian’s crisp and clear account of the March 31 UCLA event featuring Hasan Cemal, grandson of Cemal Pasha, with commentators Pam Steiner, great granddaughter of Ambassador Henry Morgenthau, and Richard Hovannisian, renowned UCLA Historian of modern Armenian history. Hasan Cemal’s willingness to use the term “genocide” accurately in reference to “the events of 1915” was at once a meaningful step forward for him, compared to somewhat less direct statements of his in the past, and supports genuine progress for Turkey and Turks on this issue. Indeed, as I witnessed first-hand as a participant in the April 2010 Ankara conference on the Armenian Genocide, more and more Turks are willing to confront their history vis-à-vis Armenians forthrightly and honestly. At least for Turks willing to take a principled stand on this issue, the word “genocide” is no longer taboo in Turkey.

My optimism, however, was all too fleeting. If Hasan Cemal’s ideas were evolving forward, Pam Steiner’s seemed to be regressing. For she made a conscious point, which she has since defended in a response to Sassounian in the California Courier, to avoid under all circumstances use of the term “genocide” to characterize the fate of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. As I read this, I felt as if I had been transported back in time a decade to the times of the at ill-conceived muddle of political manipulations known as the Turkish-Armenian Reconciliation Commission (TARC) and even further back, to a time when denial of the Armenian Genocide was actually credible and those committed to truth faced an uphill battle. With a few words—or omission of one word—Dr. Steiner seemed to want to throw us all back there again, and to erase decades of progress on this issue, progress that has in the past five years begun to bear quite a bit of fruit in Turkey itself.

Armenian indignation in the face of Turkish denials of the Armenian Genocide are not the problem, but a reasonable and ethical response to denial which is, as the great theorist of genocide denial Prof. Israel Charny explains, a celebration of genocide and a renewed assault on the victim group.

Dr. Steiner rationalized her avoidance of the term “genocide” by stating that she is now functioning as a “facilitator” of a “dispute” between Armenians and Turks. Because of this, she must remain neutral and avoid any statements that would suggest that she is partial to one side. There are a number of problems with this self-analysis. First, it is impossible to be “neutral” in the sense of not picking a side when facing a disagreement between one group that maintains a true view of the world and one group that maintains a false one. As others and I have long pointed out, the goal of genocide denial is simply to prevent a final recognition of the historical truth of a genocide, to introduce doubt. This is what Bradley Smith, infamous Holocaust denier, tried to do with such things as his Duke University student newspaper advertisement denying the Holocaust. Once denial is taken as seriously as the true facts, deniers have won, because recognition will be perpetually prevented. Denial wins merely by being an equal party to discourse on a genocide, while truth wins only with the defeat of denial. Thus the relationship between deniers and those committed to historical truth is not symmetrical, and a symmetrical neutrality as adopted by Dr. Steiner does not fit it correctly. For her to refuse to characterize the historical facts correctly, according to the UN definition of genocide, is for her to give de facto support to deniers. In this way, she will not facilitate better relations, but will instead facilitate (make easier) denial of the Armenian Genocide. I am sure that is not her intent, but that is the effect of her approach.

This lack of true neutrality is perhaps evident in Dr. Steiner’s call, as reported by Sassounian, for “Armenians to acknowledge that ‘the Turkish people [who] suffered horrendously during World War I…need and deserve acknowledgment for that!’” and that Armenians need to “’consider acknowledging Turkish suffering before they receive an acknowledgment for theirs!’” It is difficult to understand how someone who is truly neutral in a situation of one-sided historical violence would understand that neutrality to consist of minimizing the suffering of one group and aggrandizing the suffering of the other. This is especially true when the suffering of the former group was caused by the latter but notvice-versa. How can Turkish suffering due to completely distinct issues that did not result from Armenian agency at all be seen to balance Armenian suffering due directly to Turkish violence? With logic like this, there is no end to what each group must appreciate of the others suffering, to the point of absurdity. The issue that stands between Armenians and Turks is the Armenian Genocide and its denial. Other issues should not be used as a shield to hide this fact and prevent it from being the focus. Whatever other suffering Armenians and Turks have done is not what is causing difficulties in Armenian-Turkish relations. When Dr. Steiner suggests that Armenians should pretend it is, she not only loses her neutrality but erects a significant obstacle to progress in Armenian-Turkish relations.

Second, Dr. Steiner’s approach shows great disrespect for and is potentially harming the growing number of Turkish people who recognize the Armenian Genocide as historical fact. There is no general “Armenian-Turkish dispute.” On the contrary, many Armenians and Turks see the facts the same way. There is a disagreement between many Armenians, some Turks, and many members of third party groups and those Turks who refuse to recognize the historical fact of the Armenian Genocide. This is not an ethnic conflict, but a conflict over basic ethical principle. The sides are not determined by ethnicity, but by orientation to historical fact.

Third, this begs the question of why Dr. Steiner believes that the key to improved Armenian-Turkish relations depends on Turks who are committed to denial of the Armenian Genocide? Why does she not work with the growing number of Turks who recognize the historical truth and have an ethical commitment to improving their society and its relations with Armenians inside and outside Turkish borders? Why not work with them as the basis for better Armenian-Turkish relations overall—some of us are certainly doing that. It is the progressive Turks who are facing their history who might be the real key to the future of Turkey and Armenian-Turkish relations.

Fourth, if Dr. Steiner is right that there is some potential for improved relations in working with Turks who deny the Armenian Genocide rather than (or in addition to) Turks who recognize it, then two points still follow. One the one hand, it would seem crucial to include Turks who recognize the Armenian Genocide as part of any group of Turks involved in any conciliation project. Not only will that relieve the unfair burden that would be placed on Armenians to advocate for basic historical truth, but it will also offer resistant Turks a model for behavior and thought that will be positive for them and will show them that it is possible to maintain Turkish identity and dignity while recognizing the Armenian Genocide. On the other, if Dr. Steiner supports the status quo of denial and “dispute,” in effect progress will become impossible unless Armenians sacrifice historical truth to appease Turks who deny the Genocide. This might result in tamer relations between the groups, but at the cost of the dignity and well being of Armenians. Have Armenians not lost enough through the Genocide? Do they now have to accept this final burden to allow many Turkish individuals who are behaving in a psychologically and ethically irresponsible way to feel good about themselves without actually doing what is right? Such an approach constitutes harm and insult to Armenians, and brings home to them once more that the Turkish state and society have gotten away with genocide so completely that the only thing left to do for Armenians is smile and stop complaining.

But this suggests that, in the end, such a process will be good for these deniers of genocide. Thus, the fifth problem: Dr. Steiner’s approach actually harms the very Turks who remain denialists and agree to work with her. In effect, this approach is what is sometimes terms “enabling.” By allowing genocide denial to stand as legitimate in the process of dialogue, what Dr. Steiner is doing is to enable genocide denial among Turks who for various reasons cannot or will not face historical truth. A far better approach would be to use the process to help those Turks overcome their issues. Perhaps they deny the genocide out of a fragile sense of national identity that maintains itself in the face of a world in which Turkey has slipped from a major power to a secondary one, to a power inferior to the United States, Russia, China, Japan, Britain, France, Germany, and many others, a power that has lost ground for more than a century. The process of dialogue and conciliation, especially if it involved Turks who recognize the Armenian Genocide, could help these deniers overcome their psychological blocks to recognizing the Armenian Genocide, to teach them how to be proud of their identity while still recognizing its negatives – indeed, to build that identity in positive ways precisely by recognizing and dealing with its negatives, so that its goodness no longer would depend on denial and so be a false delusion, but would be a true goodness that these people themselves have attained. Otherwise, these deniers will leave any process just as they entered it, living in a fragile, tenuous world of denial and fear of the truth. Whatever they might think about the way Dr. Steiner will help them maintain their denialist front, they will not truly benefit from such a process.

There is an ethical dimension to this issue. One of the great ethicists in the Western philosophical tradition, Immanuel Kant, maintained that all rational beings have a responsibility to treat all other rational beings as ends in themselves, not merely means to our own ends. This is one of the important bases of modern human rights: all persons have inherent dignity and worth. One consequence of this was that Kant held that it was always wrong to lie to others, even when we would do so to spare their feelings, make them more comfortable, etc. People have the capacity to deal with the truth responsibly and fully, and to shield them from it is actually an assault on their dignity, is it so lower them to sub-person status, to assert that they are not able to live like persons. We can apply this principle to genocide deniers. We have a responsibility to speak the truth to them. When Dr. Steiner suppresses her own recognition of the Armenian Genocide because it will offend or alienate Turks who are deniers, what she is really doing is treating them as lesser beings not capable of acting and thinking like people. This is no basis for improved Armenian-Turkish relations or the future of genocide deniers as human beings. Genocide deniers are not children, they are people, and deserve to be treated as people. Meaningful facilitation and conciliation must start with acknowledgment of the facts as they exist, out of respect for all parties involved.

This is, of course, not just true of Turks. I was raised a U.S. citizen and inculcated into a simplistic American nationalist chauvinism as a young person. I had no interest in recognizing the negatives of US identity or history—Native American genocides, racism, wars of aggression, imperial conquests, etc. There is much in American society that enabled me to continue with this attitude, but thankfully as an undergraduate and graduate student I came across people, books, and experiences that pushed me to confront reality as it actually was, the good and bad of the United States, with an unflinching eye. The process was not easy, but it has been, ultimately, very productive and has helped me become a person whom I hope helps improve the United States rather than perpetuating its flaws.

I conclude with a final reflection for Armenians. There is no doubt that Ambassador Morgenthau deserves praise for what he did and tried to do for Armenians during the Genocide. There is also no doubt that members of his family have continued to support Armenians in positive ways since the time of the Genocide. But that does not mean that Armenians have an obligation to accept unconditionally anything and everything a member of the Morgenthau family does. We have the right to challenge and dissent from Dr. Steiner’s approach if we choose to, and her family ties should have no bearing on our evaluation of her views and actions. In reality, of course, Dr. Steiner and others like her are members of the power elite of the United States and have access to resources, legitimacy, and connections that most Armenians—especially Armenian scholars and activists like me—do not have. We are never invited to run projects at Harvard, we cannot make our voices heard in high-level policy-making and decision-making circles. We must be aware of this and vigilant about it. Position is not a substitute for ethical rightness, and we must resist the tendency beaten into us by centuries of violence, vulnerability, murder, rape, and destruction to embrace unconditionally any power that offers us some slight hope of rescue, support, a future. However desperate the situation of the Armenian Republic today vis-à-vis Turkey, however much Armenians around the globe still struggle with the legacy of the Genocide, we must face historical reality as well and not deny it: when we have trusted the power elites of the United States, the Ottoman Empire, and other states and societies, we have almost inevitably set ourselves up for harm and even destruction. If Dr. Steiner modifies her approach to facilitation to avoid the kinds of damage and danger to Armenians I have outlined above, then we have every reason to work with her. But if she maintains the problematic aspects, we must recognize the likely negative outcome of dialogue on those terms.

By Henry Theriault

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