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After Genocide: Examining Legacy, Taking Responsibility

How do we teach the unthinkable, asks Warren Crichlow?

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1 May, 2014
By: Warren Crichlow
Associate Professor, Faculty of Education, at York University

Today, we are faced with many challenges when teaching about genocide. In an empirical sense we can define genocide, but given all we know, how do we explain the failure of the international community to act with responsibility when faced with genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994? How do teachers create a curriculum or locate pedagogical imagination to help students fathom the refusal of the United Nations Security Council to interpret available information from multiple sources—including its own on-the-ground UNAMIR peacekeeping commander, General Romeo Dallaire—as evidence enough to name the killing “genocide,” and thereby authorize humanitarian peace enforcement to save the lives of almost a million individuals? How do educators make this political failure to act responsibly “thinkable” for students coming to the study of genocide today? What kind of pedagogical practice might move the difficult knowledge of this failure beyond the mere “thinkable” as a delimited intellectual exercise, to a mode of thinking for taking responsibility to recognize and prevent genocide as it may arise in the future?

I cannot answer any of these troubling questions in a sufficient or satisfactory way. My sense is that teaching genocide after Rwanda demands all of the pedagogical sensibilities we can muster, what I will call below “sensory depth” to work with and through this enduring difficult knowledge.[i] As many have said, the Rwanda genocide is a permanent scar on the face of humanity. However, we are not entirely captives of this disfigured past. “A tree can be straightened when it is young”: as human species on this old planet we are still relatively young. We can learn from this tragedy to illuminate pathways to futures that are still possible.[ii]

As history tell us, the use of the word “genocide”[iii] and the necessity of responsible action on the part of the world community had, at the political level, been defined and assured by signatories to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948).[iv] In 1994, by defining the situation in Rwanda as “genocide,” the UN Security Council would have been obligated to activate the expansion of support to greatly diminished UNAMIR peacekeepers already on the ground and initiated additional reinforcement of peace-keeping man-power from the Organization of African Unity (OAU)—now the African Union. Acknowledgement of genocide would have done much to mitigate the world of violence unleashed by a political ideology of a more perfect “Hutu” society created via the annihilation of the “Tutsis” marked as the “other.” Lives could have and should have been saved.[v]

In teaching genocide, pedagogical thought and imagination founders on what David Bryer, Director of Oxfam from 1992 to 2001, observes as the procrastination, bickering, and cynical pursuit of selfish (aka “realist” or realpolitik) foreign policy interests that occupied Security Council members in those early crucial days when the genocide began. Rather than taking responsibility for even modest action to intervene in the rising bloodshed—to even dull the force of the unfolding violence against the Tutsis directed by extremist within the government—nothing was done.[vi]

Although others named it, the use of the word “genocide” by the Security Council and its member-states was withheld and action that could have saved hundreds of thousands of lives was deferred, and then deferred, and then deferred. As we know, the UN Security Council did not act until mid-May, nearly six weeks after the genocide against the Tutsis began. Even at that late date, action was tragically slow to materialize, rendering the catastrophe much worse. As Bryer observes, “The genocide did of course eventually end. But in the aftermath, when huge numbers of refugees fled to Goma, creating a massive humanitarian crisis that, again, distracted attention from the genocide, particularly those among the refugees who had been involved in perpetrating the genocide.” 

Twenty years on from Rwanda’s genocide, it is sobering to reflect on what it is we think we should know, or do know, about genocide today? [vii] What are the paradigmatic claims we think we should make in teaching genocide? And what means do we have available to us, pedagogical, analytic, conceptual, political, or moral to reassess our claims to teaching genocide and to broaden our frameworks beyond consensual perspectives?[viii] Indeed, genocide is often regarded as a regrettable spectacle that happens within discrete borders elsewhere. Of course, we need to challenge this simplistic viewpoint. Genocide happens, is happening, and it is not outside of our everyday interests, activities, and responsibilities—social, cultural or economic—just because it is not happening to us in our back yard.

Just as importantly, given our teaching over the past twenty years, we might well ask: how is the world responding today to appalling and widespread attacks on innocent men, women, and children? In short, are the world’s politicians and government officials any better educated to take responsibility when faced with genocidal violence today than they were in 1994 in the face of Rwanda’s crisis? Are they—we—any more able to set aside, as David Bryer worries, “selfish interests—or indeed selfish lack of interest—to act responsibly and decisively on the evidence to protect civilians from mass atrocities?” 

Twenty years later, how do we talk about genocide in the classroom? I speak from Canada where we have our own collective histories—histories of the First Nations peoples, for example—underwritten by genocidal loss, displacement, and trauma that accompanied the colonial project of “new world” nation formation. But our historical experience in Canada is not the specific experience of Rwanda. Our different, though not necessarily mutually exclusive histories, leads me to consider what it means to learn from the cataclysmic 1994 Rwandan genocide of the Tutsi and what it might mean for me to teach about the specificity of Rwanda’s genocide as an interconnected part of my own history? As a university professor, I belatedly began to draw on Rwanda’s genocide to generate a broad ranging, critical perspective on teaching genocide, and particularly the after effects of genocide for people and for our global political culture—insofar as it can be said to exist.

For many of us who attempt the task of teaching genocide, the physical violence and emotionally overwhelming trauma of genocidal action against us—our identity, whatever it may be—is a foreign and unthinkable experience. And while I am not at all suggesting that to teach genocide requires intimate lived experience of genocide, I do want to suggest that teaching genocide, including its future prevention (an even more uncertain outcome of teaching), requires something more than just teaching the “facts”. [ix]  I suggest that this “something more” entail a spirit of open-mindedness, a creative, committed, generative practice that aims beyond teaching genocide in a merely consumptive approach (i. e., concerned with information distribution), or a conservative approach (in the sense of being mired in the melancholic, the empirical, and simplified “equal time” explanation that clings to value freedom or neutrality or teaching that locates genocide as existing elsewhere far from our own homes and disconnected from us personally—about “them” or “those people or cultures over there”).

Instead, teaching genocide demands interdisciplinary engagement with knowledge of genocide in human history (perhaps a life-long process of in-depth inquiry), including careful study of both well-known and more obscure histories of genocidal violence, and the problem space of genocide within social and political thought.[x] We must also develop what I call “sensory depth” regarding multifarious human consequences of mass, state-sponsored violence against targeted groups, including the socio-psychic affects and after-affects of such violence on the interior lives of women, children and men: the death of victims and the dispossessed lives of survivors, as well as the perpetrators with whom survivors must continue to share a world and together—through the difficult demands of truth, justice, and reconstruction—construct a future radically different from the past.

For me, an outsider to Rwanda, teaching genocide is characterized by the difficulty of belatedness: I teach genocide in the aftermath of events, following the suffering of masses of others, and after narratives of hindsight—like Monday morning quarterbacking—have been authored by others in the country itself. The sensory depth I mentioned earlier entails a degree of catching up on the flux of history, on politics, on geography, on language and culture, and on an awareness of the long-term trauma genocide produces—in individuals and societies—and what it takes, politically, culturally and psychically, to overcome the devastation.[xi] Sensory depth alerts us to the slippery demand that teaching must find ways to carry the past of genocide forward into the present without inflicting deeper hurt or wounding the student with helplessness or facile identification with the vulnerability of another.[xii] Rather our teaching must aim to help students to develop capacity to think well about the possible and to grasp the fundamental connection between the possible and acting with responsibility. That is, the responsibility inherent in fighting for justice in the large and small encounters of their daily lives; to incorporate into everyday life choices thoughtful, determined commitment to peaceful means to settle conflicts provoked by difference, both political and otherwise; and to maintain vigilance toward preventing the future reoccurrence of genocide, whether in hate speech toward or physical action against another.

Teaching genocide for these concerns insists upon a structure of listening to others and, as Geertz proposes, of learning from listening to oral testimony, from scholarship and from collective critical and cultural work with others that may contribute to openness to “understand understandings that are not our own.” And yet we must recognize that there are no guarantees in this endeavor to teach genocide, for what may be learned from our teaching remains a question answered only in the form of the responsibility we take in the present, that our students might take in their future professions, when responsibility is demanded of them.[xiii] The philosopher Jacques Derrida coincidentally considered this uncertainty in 1994 when he wrote:

…Can one not yearn for a justice that one day, a day belonging no longer to history, a quasi-messianic day, would finally be removed from the fatality of vengeance? And is this day before us, [is it] to come, or [is it] more ancient than memory itself?

Put simply, teaching genocide requires that we reflect on what pedagogical inquiry into genocide contributes to our capacity to grapple with the still unresolved issues that reverberate from historical effects of genocidal action and state-sponsored violence against targeted others, whether by ethnicity, religion, race, gender, or other politically ascribed characteristic. Teaching genocide also requires that we grasp the immanent threat of genocide in our present. In this sense, our teaching must help students to think with “engaged self-awareness” about the complex idea that genocidal violence is not just “out there,” but as a part of modern history that it underwrites our own societies and political structures—the less well talked about processes through which nations come into being.

Finally, I will end with knowing words from former Oxfam Director David Bryer:

 The twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide will be a painful moment for millions, especially the Rwandan survivors still trying to heal their shattered lives. For the rest of us, [especially us teachers,] it should be a time to remember how much more there is still to be done to protect civilians in every corner of the world, from every kind of atrocity.

And, if the capacity to remember and think well about justice and reconstruction toward futures that still might be otherwise belongs to education—Britzman’s “second chance with another beginning”—then Bryer’s sentiment is nowhere better articulated than in The Kigali Genocide Memorial Centre.[xiv] In the section of the remembrance hall marked “Confronting the Past” this powerfully thoughtful passage appears:

Education has become our way forward.  The main memorial sites all have education programmed to ensure that the coming generation understand the mistake of their forefathers, so that they are given a chance to think about their own values. We need to learn about the past…we also need to learn from it.

[i] I draw the term from the writing of Teresa Strong-Wilson and the collective work of her colleagues in Productive Remembering and Social Agency, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 2013. “Sensory depth” here is related to a kind of critical nostalgia, a critical self-consciousness that does not look back or dwell helplessly with the baggage of the past in hand. Rather sensory depth suggests ways of thinking and imagining that are pedagogically radically aware of other places and times that give rise to possibilities for learning and acting to make self and world.

[ii] Following the Senegalese writer Boubacar Boris Diop and his “duty of memory” novel of the Rwandan genocide, Murambi: The Book of Bones [Murambi, le livre des ossements] (English translation, 2006, Indiana University Press), I believe that while we are heirs to intolerable pasts, this inheritance neither defines us, nor limits our pedagogical capacity to reformulate the past in relation to new imaginative values and human priorities in the present. It is only from this position of thought and action that making futures different from the past remains a possibility.

[iii] Genocide is a vehicle for systematic mass murder, highly rationalized, often medicalized, for reconfiguring social worlds and political identities” (Valerie Hartouni (2012) Visualizing Atrocity: Arendt, Evil and the Optic of Thoughtlessness, NYU Press, 13.

[iv] The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December 1948 as General Assembly Resolution 260. The Convention entered into force on 12 January 1951.[1] It defines genocide in legal terms, and is the culmination of years of campaigning by lawyer Raphael Lemkin. Yair Auron writes “When Raphael Lemkin coined the word genocide in 1944 he cited the 1915 annihilation of Armenians as a seminal example of genocide.”[2] All participating countries are advised to prevent and punish actions of genocide in war and in peacetime. The number of states that have ratified the convention is currently 144.

[v] Linda Malvern notes that responsibility of the UN Security Council to act to prevent genocide was also authorized under the Geneva Convention. See her A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide (Revised and updated edition: 2009 Zed Books 2000).  <> (accessed 03-15-14)

[vi] The Rwandan genocide: twenty years on, blog post by David Bryer, Director of Oxfam, 1992-2001, 3rd Apr 2014 <> (accessed 04 04 2014)

[vii] …W. G. Sebald’s narrative prose writing (e.g., his novel Austerlitz, or Emigrants) approach to working with trauma that is not directly his own, simultaneously distant and proximate, is a guiding modality for my still inchoate approach to writing about or perhaps better,” around,” the twentieth commemoration of the genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda. See for example, Lewis Ward (2012). A Simultaneous Gesture of Proximity and Distance: W.G. Sebald’s Empathic Narrative Persona. Journal of Modern Literature, 36, 1, (1-16).

[viii] From a comparative perspective conventionally understood, we explain genocide when we emphasize agents and causality. History, colonialism, religion, post-colonialism, the global market, geo-political interests and so on.

With understanding the genocide we find a set of questions and concerns that constitute the domain of (political) philosophy. This entails a bracketing of the questions of causality and agency in order to ask questions about the meaning genocide derives from its (possible) status as an instance of those transitional acts of collective violence that accompany changes from one politico-juridical order to the next, in other words, from the meaning of the event in foundational terms.

If these grand-narratives [political theory, i.e., Hobbesian barbarism; and globalizing human rights: i. e., an ‘outrage’, as unthinkable ‘in this day and age’ or ‘this modern era’; a shock to ‘the conscience of mankind,’ and so on] amount to nothing less than a colonialist developmentalism, a linear mythology of history and progress, it is their very colonising of the temporal that makes it possible to condemn genocide as an ‘unthinkable outrage’ – as if the very developmentalism that enables the judgment were not itself an historical function of exactly the kind of violence condemned (For above critique, see Leonhard Praeg, (2008). The Aporia of Collective Violence, Law Critique, 19, 196.

[ix] Of course, many of us are descendants of histories of violence including the transatlantic slave trade, the Holocaust, colonial, anti-colonial, and post-colonial war, genocides of Armenia, Cambodia and so on, dirty wars of dictatorial power such as Chile, Argentina Biafra in Nigeria, a litany of examples large and small within recent memory of twentieth century world history. Generationally or geographically separated from the actuality of these events such experience nevertheless resonant, consciously and unconsciously, in how we come to teach and the choices we make in teaching genocide.

[x] I am reminded that discussion of genocide and teaching genocide needs to move well beyond the twentieth century and European/Western contexts that presently shape so much of current research and pedagogical focus. For example a recent day long conference, “Genocidal Massacre in Early Modern Europe, Aisa, and the Americas, held at the Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies at the University of Toronto, Canada in 2012 proposed this shift in perspective with research papers titled “Genocide and Gendercide in sixteenth century Portuguese Goa”; “Anti-Catholic violence in seventeenth and eighteenth century Vietnam”; “Chiattorer Monnontor: Taxation, mortality and the Begal famine of 1770.” Conference papers ranging across examples of early modern global genocide contributed to passionate scholarly debate about how to define genocide, how far back in human history do we need to inquire in order to say more about its modern manifestations, and what do we learn from taking a longer comparative historical and transcultural perspective on genocide? <> (accessed 20 09 2012).

[xi] For a consideration of the challenge of ethical response after devastation see, Jonathan Lear (2008). Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[xii] As Michael Rothberg suggest, we “do not want students to believe that they can easily put themselves in the position of the victims (or perpetrators for that matter), nor do I want them to look on the events of genocide as so distanced from their own lives that the events become ‘merely’ historical. [My] attempt [is] to produce this charged middle ground of self-aware engagement…” Pedagogy and the Politics of Memory: ‘The Countermonument Project” (2004). Rothberg’s chapter appears in the anthology Teaching the Representation of the Holocaust, M. Hirsch and I. Kacandes (eds). Modern Language Association of America, 468.

[xiii] For example, in a discussion of “politics without guarantees,” British scholar Stuart Hall offers the following reflection: “So, I’m trying to end the notion that our politics is to cure. We know it’s correct entering the very, very difficult debate. Are we correct? What is the right strategy now? What are the tactics we ought to adopt? Who can we be in alliances with? What is the strategic thing, in this moment, to go for? You know, the normal game of politics. It sort of in a way prevents us from having to play that difficult game because we have another guarantee…[Nevertheless] you have to mobilize effectively, you can’t depend on [identity or good will] to take you to your political objective…rather its a sort of approach to the political which I always see as not a practice which has any guarantees built into it, its not, there is no law of history which tells you we will win, we may lose. Just as there is no law of history…So one has to act in the notion that politics is always open. It’s always the contingent failure and you need to be right because there is no guarantee except good practice to make it right to mobilization, to having the right people on your side committed to the program. Stuart Hall, Race, the floating signifier (Media Education Foundation Transcript, nd) (accessed 03 18 2014)

[xiv] …knowledge is not to be a substitute for transforming injustice in the social world. Yet thinking, too, is a mode of freedom, a means for mourning, a possibility beyond oppressive love, and an expression of singularity. The capacity to think well about injustice and justice belongs to beginnings and education, which, after all, is a second chance with another beginning…” Britzman, D. (2005). A note to “identification with the aggressor.” In C. McCarthy, W. Crichlow, G. Dimitriadis, & N. Dolby (Eds.), Race, identity, and representation in education, New York, NY: Routledge, 188.

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