Epistemic Injustice

Melanie Altanian

A group identified as the “Turkic Platform, Istanbul” has purchased a large billboard located a few blocks from the Armenian Heritage Park in Boston’s North End as part of a campaign to deny the Armenian genocide on April 6, 2016. (Photo: @CarCarll)

Human beings who suffered grave injustices such as genocide have a legitimate interest in understanding what happened to them, but also to be able to share their experiences and understanding with relevant others who respond appropriately to the offered information. This opens up crucial philosophical questions: What do listeners owe to those testifying to experiences of injustice and on that basis, how can deniers or otherwise “resistant listeners” wrong testifiers in this epistemic capacity? On a more structural level, what does it mean for a state and its institutions to be responsible for rendering the very basis for such effective communication (ethically and epistemically) dysfunctional, by way of not only distorting historical facts, but the very social norms and normative concepts through which we can come to a reasonable understanding of an injustice?

Systematic, state-sponsored genocide denialism is, at its core, an epistemic injustice – or so I will argue in my philosophical research about genocide denialism in the context of the Armenian genocide by the Ottoman Government at the beginning of the 20th Century. What is characteristic for cases of state-sponsored, systematic genocide denialism (of which Turkey’s denialism is a paradigmatic case) is not simply that governments are “lying about a known truth” or outright justifying genocide. Rather, the state and other societal institutions more broadly employ various strategies, including what can be called “soft” arguments of denial that ultimately produce a different type of (pseudo-)knowledge, misunderstandings and misrepresentations not only of history and the social relations between members of society, but of normativity itself. It is, as I will argue, a pernicious epistemic practice in itself, rather than mere epistemic neglect, e.g. mere ignorance of historical evidence or lack of information. In fact, the upshot of such systematic denialism and active ignorance is that it makes the search for “more evidence” (for genocide) futile due to an inherent resistance to properly acknowledge evidential support for an injustice – whether we name it genocide or a crime against humanity.

It is the essence of such an epistemology of ignorance to distort the very normative foundations upon which members of society not only can make reasonably informed decisions, but be epistemically and morally responsible agents when participating in various epistemic practices, including their appreciation of evidence for injustice according to appropriate normative (moral and epistemic) standards. This is done by the distortion of various normative concepts such as the concept of genocide itself, of responsible remembrance, reconciliation, forgiveness, the roles of victim and perpetrator as well as what counts as “reliable evidence” and who counts as an “epistemic authority”. Within such a context of distorted normativity, or inverted moral landscape, genocide denial (rather than its recognition) becomes the condition for truth and societal peace, with the implication that genocide survivors’ and their descendants’ demands for genocide recognition are interpreted as reactionary stubbornness.

Certainly, this is not only characteristic of the context of Turkey and the Armenian genocide. Holocaust denialism follows many similar patterns and strategies of denial, some of which might even have been taken as models for Armenian genocide denial. With the major difference, of course, that Germany and its institutions have recognized the Holocaust. An example more similar to Turkey’s denial is perhaps the ongoing denial of the Bosnian, i.e. Srebrenica genocide by the Serbian leadership and nationalist elites, despite the fact that an international criminal tribunal (i.e. the ICTY) has issued two Srebrenica genocide rulings as well as charged several former high-ranking Bosnian Serb officers guilty of genocide. In a manner similar to arguments brought forward in relation to Armenian genocide denial, within Serbian public memory, Srebrenica represents “yet another piece of evidence of anti-Serb propaganda, in which international actors blame the Serbs for the worst of the atrocities, while leaving Bosniaks, Croats, and Kosovo Albanians off the hook for their own violence against Serbs”.[1] This is a classic example of resisting accountability by pointing to misdeeds of others and thus considering accusations of committed injustices ultimately as negatively biased towards one group – meanwhile, convicted war criminals are glorified as heroes,[2] giving members of the former victim group a constant reason to feel insecure.

The project Epistemic Injustice invites researchers and activists to think about and share their ideas on various issues raised by epistemic injustice and epistemic violence, either as they apply to other cases of genocide denialism, or to other contexts that give rise to epistemic harms and wrongs. If you are involved in related projects or engagements, do not hesitate to contact me.

For more information on my own research, visit my profile

Melanie Altanian
Project Leader

[1] https://balkaninsight.com/2018/07/12/in-serbia-no-tears-for-victims-of-srebrenica-07-12-2018/

[2] https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/canadians-launch-petition-ban-srebrenica-genocide-denial-181227115025333.html. As for the Turkish case, see e.g. https://armenianweekly.com/2013/07/29/the-real-turkish-heroes-of-1915/

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