The Dangers of Denial

I had the moment of realization when I was fifteen.  I had just returned from my two week trip to visit the concentration camps and I was sitting in my grandparents house recounting the stories of my trip.  They asked which camps I had visited and I dutifully went through the list “Auschwitz, Birkenau, Plashow, Majdanek, Sobibor…” But then I was interrupted by the giggles of my eight year old cousin.  “Those words sound funny.  What are they?” There was a long pause and someone explained that they were just the names of places I had visited in Poland.  There was a collective decision that she was too young for the truth.  But by the time she was old enough most Holocaust survivors had passed away.  That day I came to understand that in my lifetime Holocaust denial would become easier and more common.

Now in the face of the worlds problems I consider myself a relatively calm person.  I have spent the past ten years hearing survivors stories, reading testimonies, reviewing evidence, and visiting genocide memorials.  I have become accustomed to spending my days with some of the ugliest parts of humanity.  I am continually impassioned by my work, but I am rarely angry.  But time and time again the denial of mass atrocities angers me in a way I struggle to articulate.  My body is consumed with the anger that people are denying these events and the fear that their opinions will become common place.

I am brought back to this anger by a recent google search.  My mother is a high school teacher and she is giving a presentation to her students on the Holocaust.  She needs photographs from the Holocaust and asked me to compile those I thought were most compelling.  With certain images in mind, I took to google with a list of key words.  For every ten images I found, there was one image of Holocaust denial.  Then half the image sources came from denial websites or blogs.  I had chosen to forget how widespread this problem is. Spending my time in the academic community, it is easy to forget what “truths” are googelable.

Any person in the world can go online, read these websites, and interpret it as the truth.  Sadly this is a piece of mass atrocity and genocide prevention that often goes un-disscussed.  Typically there are three stages of conflict: the warning, the execution, and the aftermath.  The aftermath, however has an expiration date, and soon enough the international community is on to the next problem.  There is a very precious window after a conflict, when the survivors are still alive and able to tell their stories.  This presents two problems: survivors must be psychologically safe to tell their stories and there must be the resources to collect them.  Sadly these qualifications are not often met.  Many Holocaust survivors did not begin to tell their stories until thirty or forty years after the Holocaust, once they could gain emotional distance.  Survivors of Srebrenica, Rwanda, and Cambodia have not had the same international encouragement or support to tell their stories.  As a result important parts of history follow these people to their graves.  Collecting first hand accounts is one of the key modes of denial prevention – create overwhelming evidence that these events truly happened.

Denial is a process that comes after the aftermath of conflict.  Once the bodies have been buried, the ceremonies conducted, and the reparations paid, there is a silence, a moratorium on the tragedy if you will.  The survivors try to move on to their “new lives” and the deniers have a space to start writing their own version of history.

To me, denial is one of the most vile and offensive crimes.  It completely invalidates the experiences and struggles of survivors.  It tells Holocaust survivors that the endless billows of smoke, the piles of bodies, the years of starvation, and the final conversation with their families were imagined.  It tells survivors of Armenia that the death marches were really “friendly relocations.”  It tell every person who persevered through violence, who survived rape and beating, who stared down death, and who wished they could have died to save their loved ones that they are worthless.

Denial is the final emotional violence of genocide and one that we cannot tolerate.  It is a fruitless effort to argue with every denier, to try to quiet them, or remove their pages.  Instead we must make our voices louder and clearer in the annals of history.  We must be secondary witnesses, committing to memory stories of the survivors we know, and carrying them to the next generation.  So in twenty years, when a person says, “Corie, what is Sobibor, or Auschwitz, or Majdanek?”  I will show them the stone I have from one of the barracks at Auschwitz, I will tell them about my friend Judy, and I will refuse to let genocide denial be part of my future.

Defining Violence

In the field of genocide and mass atrocities, definitions are often a contentious issue.  Many policy makers and advocates feel as though definitions are an arbitrary process that takes up massive amounts of time, while people are dying.  In contrast, academics are typically strong proponents of definitions.  They feel as though definitions provide structure and a universal mechanism for understanding human behavior and conflict.  I stand somewhere in the middle.  Definitions are required, so that everyone can be on the same page, but they also cannot be an excuse for inaction in the face of mass violence.

Take the micro analogy of your own personal health.   Imagine you fell over and seriously injured your arm – to the point where you were blinded by the pain and you could tell, simply from looking that some of the bones were out of place.  Of course the next logical step would be to go to the ER and seek treatment.  So you arrive in the ER and the doctor calls you back.  He looks at your arm and without a physical examination the ER doc says, “You know I think you fractured the bone.  I am not totally sure, but it seems that way.  So heres what I am going to do, I am going to give you a cast, then you come back in a few weeks, you get the cast taken off, and we’ll see if anything is any better.”

Now if a medical professional told you to take the “wait and see” approach you would be furious.  You would demand that he take x-rays, MRIs, and other tests to appropriately examine the injury.  Because if he didn’t, if he sent you home casted and treated for a fracture, when you clearly had a protruding bone, then your arm would heal incorrectly.  And when you came back in a number of weeks to have the cast removed, you would realize that you had lost a portion of the function in your arm since the doctor had misdiagnosed you and suddenly nothing would ever be the same.

On a macro level, in the field of genocide and mass atrocities prevention, the analysis or diagnosis is the same.  When violence breaks out in a certain country there is a tendency to jump to conclusions.  Within moments, a complex situation is diluted into “ethnic tensions,” “age old tensions,” or some other cliched analysis.  Now there is the institutional problem that there is no consensus on how different types of conflict should be defined.  Scholars constantly argue on how genocide, atrocities, and human rights abuses should be categorized.  So some have the tendency to abandon definitions in the name of action.  Whereas other argue about appropriate definitions until all of the bodies have been buried.  Now these are the polar extremes and neither is effective.

Conflict, as most things in life, must be approached with a delicate nuanced approach.  Definitions, used appropriately, have the potential to change the ways we respond to and analyze conflict, but they must be dealt with carefully.  Imagine if we had the same definitional rigor in the social sciences that we do in the hard sciences.  Imagine, when a conflict broke out if analysts, activists, and policy makers were able to quickly asses the type of violence at hand.  Then they would be better equipped to respond to the crisis, since they could sense or understand the trajectory of the problem. On the flip side, misdiagnosis is extremely dangerous in the social sciences as it is in medicine.  If your doctor casts you for a fracture, when you actually have a shattered bone, the injury will not heal properly.  Your arm will be permanently and seriously damaged.  The same is true in war, when conflicts are simplified or misunderstood, they have the capability to do greater damage to the society.

Take Burundi for example, people were quick to call the violence either a genocide or pure ethnic hatred.  As I previously wrote, this analysis is not only wrong but problematic.  The violence in Burundi is a complex power grab by the sitting president, who is not ready to give up office.  This is complicated by other regional actors who are not prepared for a democratic transition of power.  The violence being perpetrated towards civilians is awful, gruesome, and problematic, but it is not genocide.  It is violence of subjugation, meant to oppress the people so that the president can maintain his position.  When we misdiagnose genocide, we give his regime more power, we create greater fear, and we separate the problem as a unique event.  Calling genocide does not acknowledge or address the regional intricacies of the problem.  The international response to Burundi has a direct impact on what happens in the country, so we cannot risk inaction or incorrect assessments of the type of conflict.

In a developing environment of conflict, where traditional states are continually facing less traditional non-state actors it is important to come to a consensus on assessment.  Learning to diagnosis violence is an overlooked field, that many activists consider a stalling technique by policy makers.  That is not the case.  The humanitarian, government, and military communities need to come together and develop a singular language so we can collectively develop creative solutions to complex conflict problems.

The Forgotten Men in Feminism

A few nights ago I was up late, I had sprained a few of my ribs and I was kept up by the gnawing pain.  Crippled by an injury, there isn’t much to do besides watch bad television.  This is how I came to find myself watching a dating program on MTV, at 4 am, where the contestants are all living together in a house in Hawaii.  The premise of the program is unimportant, except to know that twenty young men and women were living together with constant interaction and very little privacy.  A transgression during the course of the program made me realize there is a very important part of feminism that we are not discussing: the abuse and safety of men.

Feminism, at its core is meant to promote a society where men and women are treated equally in all aspects of society.  In most cases, women need to be brought to where men are and afforded the same opportunities/treatment, but in some instances men need to be given the same respect and attention of women.  In current new wave feminism there is a focus on sexual assault, sexually safety, and violence prevention – but only for 50% of the population.  The abuse of men is not a widely discussed or respected issue, nor one that I am forced to think about very often.

So there I am, at 4am, watching this program when a violent seen breaks out between two of the contestants.  There was a man and a woman, we’ll call them Chris and Ally (since I can’t remember their names) who were romantically involved and had a highly volatile relationship.  One evening the members of the television program are sitting around and drinking.  Ally, intoxicated, begins verbally harassing Chris.  He tries to walk away and diffuse the situation.  She follows hip and starts to hit him, jokingly at first, but then every time he tries to speak she hits him in the face. Chris walks away again and returns to the communal bed room.  Ally follows him and yells obscenities.  She follows him into the bedroom where she begins kicking him, hitting him, and screaming.  He asks her to walk away.  She continues.  She pulls the sheets off his bed and hits him with them.  Chris, also intoxicated, stands and pushes her.  She pushes back and he then pushes her again.  He sends her falling backwards onto the bed and she then falls to the floor.

The other house members, previously apathetic, become enraged.  They come to the defense of Ally and start screaming at Chris.  Chris is removed from the situation and the producers of the program intervene.  He is sent to a hotel for a night so the situation can be addressed.  The next morning Chris announces that he has decided to leave the show.  He is crying and saying how he never meant for this to happen.  He says he has brought shame to himself and his family, that he is not that kind of man.  The other contestants say that they can no longer be friends with Chris now that he’s shown his true colors.

After Chris leaves, the program continues and Ally’s actions are never addressed.  Now I am the first person to speak out against violence.  I firmly believe that violence is not the answer to conflict and individuals must work towards non-violent deescalation, but no one is perfect.  In the case of this television program, Ally instigated the violence.  She repeatedly hit Chris, while he tried to walk away and diffuse the situation.  She was the catalyst.  He should not have responded to the situation with violence, but this is not the case of “woman beater.” I mean run through the series of events and switch the roles.  Imagine a woman had tried to walk away from a mans repeated acts of violence, before eventually responding with her own act of retaliation. How would you react to that?

Now consider this alternative.  A few nights ago I was out for drinks with some friends, they were rehashing the story of their friend who got “mauled” by this girl.  They had been out at bars and this extremely intoxicated woman had made sexual advances on one of their friends.  He tried to decline.  Then she began forcibly making out with him.  My friends were laughing about how he was looking over to them for help, mouthing SOS.  Then the woman asked to go home with him and he declined.  Once again, change the pronouns.  Reread that story with different gender roles.  If a man forces himself upon a woman, for a kiss or something more, and she turns to her friends for aid they laugh and tell her to have fun.  That story reads completely differently, but it shouldn’t.

Thinking about these two micro experiences, I realized that on average men are excluded from the discourse on abuse and assault.  They are the attackers, never the victims.  If they are the victims however, then they are weak and unmanly.  Somewhere in the search for gender equality, masculinity and victimhood became mutually exclusive terms.  There is not a conscious or safe space for men in the current mainstream feminist movement.

Often times my male friends ask me questions about female safety.  They are good kind men and they want to know how they can make their female friends feel safe.  They want to know if they make women uncomfortable when they walk behind them on the street.  They want to know if they should cross the street when they women walking alone at night.  They want to know how they can approach women in spaces without seeming predatory. There are so many men who are actively committing themselves to being better allies to women, but are we doing the same for them?

I think there is a tendency to say that men have lived on the comfortable side of history.  They hold the social power and their bodies are not used as extended battle grounds of violent conflict, they are the lucky ones.  Once we decided that men, as a category, are privileged, we exclude them from this dialogue.  I am guilty of this, I do not spend time thinking about how I can be a better advocate for my male friends.  I do not take steps to make sure they feel safe or pressured to be masculine.  Gender support is predominantly one sided and that needs to change.

Information about the assault of women is readily available and well organized. It is easy to discover that 1 in 3 women in the US will experience assault in some way and 1 in 5 women will experience rape.  It is much harder to discover that 1 in 10 men in the US have experienced intimate partner violence and 4% of men have experienced serious harm as a result of domestic violence.  We are only having one half of the conversation right now.  Not only are we ignoring the male component of partner violence and sexual assault, but we also have a tendency to mock and insult men who can’t “handle” their women.

Now I am not blaming the MTV programming or my friends, but I am trying to point out a flaw in the discourse.  Think about the fact that priests who sexually assault children, target young boys from working class families.  These boys, already in already challenging and hyper masculine environments, are in a situation where they believe they would be shamed for discussing the assault.  We have created an environment that does not allow men to maintain their masculinity while simaltaneously being honest about their experiences.

This is problematic and this is not the brand of feminism I signed up for.  I know many men in my life who have vocalized their concern for the my safety and the lengths they would be going to protect that.  These men would move mountains for me and feminism encourages that narrative.  On the other hand I would go to every length of my power to protect the men in my life and save them from the pain of interpersonal violence.  Often times I hear men say “I want to be a feminist because I love my sister, mother, girlfriend, etc” but you also hear men say “I want to be a feminist because women are humans who deserve to feel safe.” Well in the simplest form, men are humans who also deserve to feel safe and loved. And its about time we designed a wave of feminism that includes them.