Saturday, May 17, 2014

reflections on a genocide studies class

I came to this class the first time in the spring of 2012, just a few months after my husband died.  At that time I was a Psychology major/Anthropology Minor/ and LGBT Studies Certificate student.  I originally signed up for the class because I knew that my interpretation of genocide, and especially the Holocaust, had been skewed by the atrocious memories of my mother and mother-in-law, both of whom were German, both driven from their homes by an advancing Russian army.  I wanted a scholarly perspective that went beyond rhetoric.  Over the course of the first time through the class I was horrified to discover how few episodes of genocide I had actually been aware of and the causes and outcomes of each haunted my thoughts and put me on a search for a meaning behind such madness.  Over the ensuing two years my life has gone through many personal changes – much of it upheaval in the most intrinsic sense.  As I watched my life implode little by little I continued to think back on the catastrophic effects genocide produced in individuals for whom, it can honestly be said, the world as they knew it was obliterated forever.
I returned to the class this semester with the same academic aspirations, but with a new perspective on life.  I saw even the most all-consuming tragedy as an amoral event given moral valance by the actions (and inactions) of each individual involved – however indirectly.  I began to dig deeper into the information presented throughout the class, always searching to ascertain where individual agency manifested itself, and what resulted from it.  I especially centered on issues of complicity – both for those that become perpetrators and for those that stand by and do nothing.  Throughout the readings, and in conjunction with the research I did in preparation for the two APBR projects, I delved deeply into both the effects of collective ideology and the psychology behind individual agency.  At times I brought controversial opinions to the discussion because I want a forum where such things could be openly debated – and I was not disappointed.
Prior to coming to Northern I had graduated from an intensive two-year Lay Ministry certification program through the Catholic Diocese of Rockford.  It was there that I found my true passion in the study of belief.  Not just religious belief, but belief as a human construct and intrinsic dimension of our make-up.  This class has not only fueled that passion but given it a present-day immediate relevance as well, as every episode of genocide was expounded via the perspective of what did the parties involved believe as these events unraveled.  As a result I plan to take the knowledge gleaned from this class and funnel it back into my own research in order to give voice to the importance of individual responsibility and the power of agency.  I am confident that once the history vaults are thoroughly scrubbed of shaded interpretations, a method can be found that will enable social scientists to begin the daunting task of reminding the world what it truly means to be a socially-situated human creature and world citizen.  I want to be part of that process – through writing, research, speaking, and engagement.
Many years ago I read Karl Menninger’s “Whatever Became of Sin?” in which he examines the consequences of losing touch with individual issues of accountability and recompense.  In this class I have had been privileged to bookend that lesson with what happens when this occurs among large groups of people.
This has left me convinced that the asking of forgiveness must not be accompanied by amnesia.  It is vital that we continue to remember and learn from each genocidal event so that these incidents can one day be finally relegated to the pages of history.  But not a history cloaked in either polemic or whitewash.  But a history that is ours to bear and bear up.  If I would erase the tragedies of my own individual life, what would become of the person I am today?  If we attempt a revisionist view towards the darker aspects of our collective history, what part of our humanity will be sacrificed in the process?  This class has taught me in graphic and unforgettable terms what happens when good people forget, and the voices of evil are the only ones remaining to be heard. 
Time and again areas of the world have descended into serial episodes of intractable horror only to emerge with the belief that forgetting is the best path to healing.   Generations grow up not knowing their collective cultural history or the responsibility bequeathed to them because of it.  There was a time when I truly wished my mother could forget, and I harbored a deeply-seated but unspoken rage at the unspeakable events she survived.  Today I know that had I succeeded in forgetting I would have been no better in preventing the continued existence of such evil as if I had personally succumbed to it.  We must stand together as one voice for justice – no matter the location, the people; the time.  We must accept the harsh reality that for every possible crime within the constellation of genocide it could be us and move toward bringing that reality and the implications of its truth to the wider audience of the world.
The last time the Honors group met you said that in your work in Cyprus you had “managed to make both sides angry, so you must be doing something right.”  I smiled then, but that statement profoundly summed up what must be done by everyone with breath so that bringing to light the realities of these tragedies can be a path to reconciliation, forgiveness and education.  I would like to believe that genocide is something we, as a species, can someday prevent forever.  But rather than focus on that, this course has taught me that the more important concentration must be on “what can I do today to make sure it isn’t happening on my watch?” 
I wish there was a part-two to this class because I feel there is so much left to learn, but another benefit of this experience is that I am now aware of a myriad of resources where I can continue to study on my own and where one day I hope to have some small measure of impact.  Beyond the various disciplines that define my intellectual passions, I am a writer by heart, and it is through that vehicle that I hope to leave my mark in the ongoing struggle for Human Rights and Justice.  This class has armed me with a wealth of information and a more astute understanding of some of the most horrifying and tragic world events and how the consequences of these continue to influence the world today, and a deeper belief in the importance of the individual in all aspects of this reality. For that I am profoundly grateful.