IDEA research seminar

From historical to long-term injustice: genocide denialism and the perpetuation of epistemic oppression

Speaker Melanie Altanian (University of Freiburg)
When it comes to unacknowledged, un-redressed and moreover, systematically denied historical injustice, the term “historical” may invoke a problematic claim: the claim that it would be better to “forget the past” in order to focus on important issues in the present. As a consequence, current generations’ struggles for recognition of and redress for historical injustice are downplayed and demonized as malicious attempts to entrench social conflict and division. This, however, twists the causalities. If struggles for recognition of and redress for historical injustice in fact lead to heightened social conflict and division, this is rather a sign of prior failed redress. I argue that claiming it is “better to forget” entrenches denialism and obscures a socially unjust status quo where claims for recognition and repair are really acts of resistance to ongoing oppression. Making such a claim thereby functions not only to divert attention from the fact that the injustice continues to be denied or justified, but also to obscure its unjust legacy. Hence, in relation to historically denied, distorted and obscured injustice, the term “historical injustice” takes on a rather distinctive meaning.

I elaborate on these concerns by reference to collective atrocities such as colonial and imperial genocide. I build on Henry C. Theriault’s insight that denial is a constant feature of the genocidal process: Spanning the preceding and execution phases, denial can even continue in genocide’s immediate and long-term aftermath and thereby constitute a long-term legacy, where it functions to consolidate relations of domination between perpetrating and targeted groups. Drawing on the example of the Armenian genocide, I show that impunity in the aftermath of the genocide and the ideological and institutional continuity from the late Ottoman imperial to the Kemalist Turkish-nationalist government provided not only a robust basis for long-term, consolidative denialism, but also recurring collective and state violence. I then turn to the ethical and epistemic dimensions and implications of genocide denialism. Employing conceptual and theoretical tools from critical social epistemology, I argue that genocide denialism is a substantive epistemic practice involving forms of active, privileged ignorance that perpetuate a particular kind of wrong, namely epistemic oppression. Against this background, current generations’ struggles for recognition and redress of historical injustice must be understood as epistemic resistance to ongoing injustice perpetrated against them in their capacity as epistemic agents.

All welcome – this event is online only.

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