Genocide Matters More

Which Genocide Matters More?
Learning to Care about Humanity

Israel Charny

Foreward to
Century of Genocide: Eyewitness Accounts and Critical Views
New York: Garland Publishing, 1997

He was all alone after the inferno had ended.  He had lost his wife and six children, also his    parents, three brothers, and two sisters.

This is the vignette I begin with when I speak to audiences on “uniqueness versus universality of genocide,” a subject I have been invited to talk about not only in professional settings but also on several occasions before both specifically Jewish and Armenian audiences.

In each case of a specific ethnic audience, the living survivors of the tragic hell of their respective genocide have no doubt in their minds that their genocide, the Holocaust or the Armenian genocide, was unique. I never argue with the survivors, for I have no question that on an experiential level, the staggering suffering endured in any genocidal event is in the eyes and hearts of those who undergo it “beyond belief,” and beyond anything that any other civilized people could have endured.

In the small events of our everyday lives, too, each of us tends naturally to speak excitedly about our own individual experience of events-“I shook the hand of the president,” “I was at the scene of the fire,” “I heard the shot a block away,” and so on. Certainly each survivor of a forced march to a death camp is entitled to speak of his/her personal horror as overwhelmingly unique in much the same way, and collective groups of peoples who have suffered genocide quite naturally frame the tragedy and suffering they have endured as unique.

I then turn to my audience and say, in each case according to the audience’s collective ethnic identity:

I am aware of the pain you felt for this survivor but I have to point out to you that I did not     actually say to you that this 52-year-old-man and his family were (Jewish/Armenian). How would you feel if I now told you that, in fact, they were a (Armenian/Jewish) family?

and I then reverse the identity from that of the audience. The feeling in the audience seems to change immediately. Something of the terrible heaviness of shock and mourning that had been filling the room seems to lift the moment I suggest the victims are not of the people of the audience.

Now I comment on this phenomenon:

I have the feeling that the pain in the room has lessened now, but why have your feelings changed?

You seem now to feel less deeply for the victims than when you thought they were of your people. Of course, I believe that it is entirely natural to feel more deeply about one’s own people, and less for another people, and I don’t think that is wrong in any   way. But you and I nonetheless need to ask ourselves whether we feel sufficiently involved and caring for this other people. How much do you as a (Jew/Armenian) want to care about this other people?

A discussion then generally ensues in which some members of the audience acknowledge that, of course, they feel more intensely about their own people, but that they also do care about the {Holocaust/Armenian genocide). Typically, some will add that they know many (Jews/Armenians); they have learned a good deal about their history; and, in fact, that there are historical connections between the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust because in the opinions of many scholars, the “successful” completion of the Armenian genocide paved the way for the Holocaust twenty years later.

Obviously, it is the simple nature of humans that we care more about ourselves first of all. Each of us cares selfishly about our own survival first, next for our loved ones, and then for our people, but we also should not be indifferent to the plight of others and the tragedies of their losses of life. In any case, it is also a matter of self-interest to care about the genocide of others. In cases of genocide of peoples other than our own, it should be obvious to us that any and every event of mass murder, to any and every people, also opens the door to greater possibilities of further genocidal massacres of additional peoples, perhaps, again, including our own people.

I turn to the audience once again and now add as follows:

The truth that I haven’t told you is that the family I have described was neither Jewish nor Armenian. Please see now how you feel if I tell you that, in fact, the family that I described was Cambodian.

Now the mood in the room changes once again. It is evident that, unwittingly, some lesser degree of caring than before settles on the majority of the members of the audience; in both cases, Jews and Armenians tend to feel less familiar with and less involved with the much more different and faraway Asiatics.

Again I comment on the naturalness of the phenomenon:

As I said earlier, I believe it is proper to accept the naturalness of the fact that we all tend to care less about other people the further away we feel from them. In this case, these are people who live on the other side of the world, look very different from us, speak a more unfamiliar language, practice a religion with which we have less historic connection, and so on, but again the question has to be, how much genuine empathy do we want to feel for this other people?

How much do we want to expect of ourselves to feel towards a “strange” people who have suffered a horrifying extermination of their innocent men, women, and children?

In Western consciousness, there is generally widespread acceptance of the Holocaust as the single most terrible event of genocide to date in human history, to such an extent that it has become the archetypalor generic statement of mass murder, referring not only to its own incredible events, but now also standing as a reminder of other instances of genocide to other people.

Consciousness of the Holocaust has become not only a memorial to the terrible Jewish tragedy but a reminder of all mass murders, with the welcome result that, ideally, humankind can never again be as indifferent to or unaware of the dangers of genocide in the future history of our species.

The Holocaust is unique in a number of ways, but these actually underscore that much more how capable human beings and society have been- and still are-of destroying different peoples en masse.

Never was there a society so totally committed to an ideology of the total destruction of another people; never were the near-total resources and the organizational genius of a modern society devoted toward creating an actual “industry of death”; never were the tools of science and engineering harnessed so extensively for making more efficient deaths of civilians in assembly-line machinery that transformed people into disposable refuse to be burned in ovens; and never were a people persecuted so relentlessly as subhuman, degraded, and tortured cruelly and systematically for long periods of time on their way to their tormented “appointments” with death.

The Holocaust was a decidedly unique event which is superimposed on a pattern of genocidal killing long familiar in human history, and this is the reason it has forced us into a new stage of awareness of the dangers of mass murder in the evolution of human society.

Caring about Oneself and Others

There should be a scale along which one should be able to judge both the extent of devotion to one’s own people and then also the extent to which one sincerely and maturely feels a kinship to the plights of other human beings.

Learning to care about human life is, of course, a psychological develop-mental process. It begins with an infant caring about itself and the unfolding of its natural narcissism of healthy self-ness. Disturbances of this vital foundation for life are seen in later years either when people undervalue themselves or when they overcompensate with overvaluation of themselves (pathological narcissism, which might be defined much more as selfishness than healthy self-ness).

As the child grows in warm self-regard and as a secure human being, the child’s caring extends through a natural progression to take in mother, father, and siblings, then extends to and becomes a basic loyalty to one’s entire family.

From the connection to family grows a sense of connection to one’s extended family, and then also a sense of inner loyalty to one’s tribe, religion, ethnic identification, and nation. There are also other important focuses for one’s identification and loyalty such as pride and acceptance of one’s gender as male or female, and pride and loyalty to one’s occupational group-profession, guild, or union-and place of employment. However, one must note that these natural loyalties also show up at times as obligatory and forced loyalties to one’s “kinfolk” when, in fact, the person does not have a healthy foundation of self-love and there is no genuine love of one’s family or people. Unfortunately, as in many other aspects of human nature, people can force an approximation of the subsequent stages of development. Many times people even make understandable unconscious efforts to continue growing, or at least to simulate growth and convince themselves that they are OK, even though, sadly, they are not really developing inside themselves. An example is how many people get married when they really are not ready for a marriage relationship. People who are pretending to feel loyalty to their family or nation, even if for understandable and decent reasons of wanting to be connected to their worlds, will, nonetheless, not be able to move easily to still higher levels of development of caring about and for other peoples and nations.

Along the way, any of one’s natural reference groups-family, tribe, religion, etc.-can, and often does, betray or so insult the feelings and values of a person that the loyalty and identification with that reference group lessen. However, for a psychologically healthy person, even reduced identification, say, with a relative who has greatly disappointed us, or with one’s nation when it has gone into a war that we do not believe is just, does not cause a final rupture in the more basic sense of belonging to the group identity. There may be mourning and sadness over not being able to enjoy fully our connection to those who have betrayed us, but the deepest connection to whom we are and come from persists.

For fully alive people, the range of belonging and identification continues to expand steadily with the unfolding of their lives and becomes part of an overall love of life. Slowly but surely, the developing personality becomes aware of new connections that go far beyond the concrete personal connections, to which one was born by chance, of one’s specific family, tribe, or nation, and one becomes aware of many other human beings and their families, tribes, and nations.

A sense of kinship with all other peoples begins to take form, and a notion of a common humanity begins to transcend identifications with any specific sector of that humanity. One’s sense of connection with one’s own personal territory expands to a sense of larger geographic regions and of the common destinies of peoples who share oceans, forests, skies, and weather zones that go beyond artificial political territorial boundaries. There then develops further even a sense of being part of our entire planet Earth together with all the peoples who inhabit our one planet. Moreover, as mankind grasps dimly the enormous vastness of the universe and then other universes far beyond the territory of our own planet, the fully developing human being will also feel a tug toward a nameless, not understandable identification with a larger cosmos and its infinite history and future.

Within the context of such optimal psychological development, there grows an appreciation of the holiness of all life, and there develops a value commitment to opposing the mass destruction of any people, religion, ethnicity, or nation.

Real and False Caring about Others

As indicated earlier, along the way people can fool themselves and others by adopting later stages of development that they have not really reached inwardly. Thus, many people can look like they care or talk about their apparent caring for other people, but not really feel caring.

Some of the most familiar examples of such false development of people and groups who take on appearances of connection and caring to others but do not really experience genuine respect and caring are found in connection with religious orders who preach “tolerance” but do not practice it toward the minorities in their midst. Many religious leaders, of many faiths, have risen high in their organizational hierarchies but do not really have in their hearts a spiritual connection with their Creator as having created the many different peoples of our planet “in the image of God.” Moreover, as overall organizations, any number of religious movements have failed abysmally to fight against genocide. Many religions have not taken a stand against the genocides perpetrated by their own societies and nations; and many religions have themselves supported and themselves committed genocide in the very names of their gods.

Similarly, there are political leaders and movements that ostensibly call for “freedom” and “democracy” and “justice” but in the process allow themselves to murder masses of people in the name of these values. In the names of liberte, egalite, and all manner of idealistic values, people have gone into orgies of murdering. Self-righteousness is often the basis for arrogant self-entitlement to create ever-expanding definitions of who “deserves” to die as the “enemy” of whatever grand idealistic values.

Tragically, many times in history even previously oppressed groups and minorities who justifiably turn to revolution and battle against their cruel and exploitative rulers will adopt in the course of their battle a use of force that includes torture, cruelty, and mass murder of others. Then, like everyone else, the previous victims enter into a progressively expanding lust for killing. Once having gained power, the revolutionaries are transformed into new versions of preening narcissists and ugly dictators, for example, the bizarre megalomanic mass murders by Stalin and the Communists, Idi Amin in Uganda, or Ceausescu in Romania, all of whom cultivated bizarre forms and degrees of idolatry to their images and all of whom oppressed and brought about mass deaths of their “opponents.”

It is entirely natural to care the most deeply about one’s self and one’s own people, and to care more intensely for some other peoples with whom one feels a more immediate kinship, but ultimately the challenge of human development, both for the benefit of individual mental health and happiness and for the benefit of humanity, is for more people to care about all human life.