April 24 in the Classroom: ‘Who in this Room is Familiar with the Armenian Genocide?’
From the Armenian Weekly 2017 Magazine Dedicated to the 102nd Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide
Dedicated to the Armenian, Greek, and Assyrian people, to my family who lived under Ottoman rule in Greece along with the families of my Cypriot friends who can no longer return to their homes, and to my good Armenian friend, Paul.
I walked into my classroom in the Bronx, New York, in the fall of 2016. It was 8:20 a.m. I walked across the front of the room, placed my bag on the table there, opened it up, and removed our textbook, which contained the essay, “From Cruelty to Goodness” by Phillip Hallie, that I would use as the basis for my class’s discussion. The class wouldn’t officially start for another 10 minutes, but in reality, we wouldn’t begin until 8:35, when the late students arrived, and I wanted to wait for everyone.
By 8:25, there were a few students in the room. I made small talk with them, asking how their weekends had been. We had a few brief exchanges and a couple of laughs as the others slowly trickled in. I greeted each of them with a “Hello,” or “Good morning,” or “How are you?” as I usually do. I looked down at my watch, 8:30.
I walked over to the podium with our ethics book in one hand and a piece of chalk in the other. I rested them both on the podium as I continued to greet my students. As I prepared for the class, I thought: What if someone told me that my yiayia’s (grandmother) tears had been a lie? What if someone told me that the Nazis hadn’t destroyed Greece? What if someone told me that the book I had been working on for the past three years documenting my pappou’s (grandfather) family struggle to survive in Greece was based on a myth told by Greeks about their history? What if someone was willing to look me in the eye and say that all of that suffering had meant nothing, that the killing of children, the elderly and the innocent, the burning of homes and the destruction of entire villages, were all punishment for their own actions and not the result of pure evil? No. I reminded myself that I could not remain silent in the face of such lies. My family’s memories and our collective identity can only survive if I choose to say something instead of saying nothing.
That day was not an ordinary day in my “Intro to Ethics” course. I knew our discussion would be profoundly depressing, horrifying, unfathomable, which was why I have taught this lesson in all of my classes as an adjunct philosophy professor. I looked down at my watch. It read 8:35.
I looked out at the classroom and it was full. I rolled up my sleeves and asked one of the most important questions we would discuss during the semester, “Who in this room is familiar with the Armenian Genocide?”
A couple of hands immediately shot up. The other 46 hands remained on top of their respective desks. It was the fifth time I’d taught the topic, and that class, like the others, confirmed my bleak expectation that the vast majority of the students were entirely unfamiliar with what they would soon learn was the first genocide of the 20th century. I turned to the board and wrote an Albert Camus quote: “It is the job of thinking people not to be on the side of executioners.” Below that I wrote, “The Armenian Genocide.” Below that I wrote, “Find three facts.”
Then I turned and addressed the class. “We will begin our discussion by discovering three facts about this genocide. Take out your phones or laptops and let’s learn about what happened. For now, stick to the New York Times.” I wrote out, “New York Times: Armenian Genocide: An Overview, by John Kifner, and A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens by Tim Arango.”
I addressed the class as they were looking up the articles. “We’re going to focus on answering the following: What happened and what is currently happening?”
I waited as they quietly researched the topic. A student in the front row, Alex, with a look of genuine shock on his face, said, under his breath, “Holy shit, this is horrible.” The other students seemed equally engaged and affected.
We went around the room and created an outline of what had occurred a century ago. A number of students volunteered to share their findings, so I turned my back to them with chalk in hand and said, “Ok, let’s go. When did it happen?”
Jessie answered, “1915-1917”
Another said, “1.5 million Armenians were killed.”
I acknowledged this with a nod and wrote it on the board. “How did it start?” I asked.
Sam said, “Hundreds of Armenian intellectuals were killed.”
“Nice work,” I said, “What else?”
Reading directly from the Kifner article, Carlos said, “There were executions with bodies dumped into mass graves, and death marches of men, women, and children across the Syrian desert to concentration camps with many dying along the way from exhaustion, exposure, and starvation.”
“Excellent. Also, scroll up a bit and read the paragraph before, please.
Carlos continued, “A later law allowed the confiscation of abandoned Armenian property. Armenians were ordered to turn in any weapons that they owned to the authorities. Those in the army were disarmed and transferred into labor battalions where they were either killed or worked to death.”
“Thank you.” I continued, “Who was responsible?”
Alex responded “The Young Turks and the Three Pashas. That was the Ottoman Empire, Turkey.”
“Yes. What is going on currently with the Armenian Holocaust?”
Allie began speaking. “Turkey still denies it.”
“Well done. How do they explain the genocide?”
Allie continued by reading another passage from Kifner’s article: “But to Turks, what happened in 1915 was, at most, just one more messy piece of a very messy war that spelled the end of a once-powerful empire. They reject the conclusions of historians and the term genocide, saying there was no premeditation in the deaths, no systematic attempt to destroy a people.”
“Okay, what did the American ambassador say at the end of the article?”
Another student, Will, cut in, “He said that the Turkish government destroyed the whole race of Armenians when they gave the order for the deportations and they knew that.
“Excellent work, Will. Who else denies it?” I asked.
Sam called out “We do. The U.S. government.”
“Yup.” I responded.
I paused for a second when I noticed that Sam did not have a phone or a laptop on his desk. “Ok, how do you know that, Sam?”
“I’m taking a class on genocide,” he answered.
“Ok, we’ve established what happened and that there is denial about what happened on the part of the U.S. and Turkish governments. What does this mean for truth?”
We then watched a short video that highlighted the brutality and systematic nature of what the Young Turks implemented to eradicate the ethnic minorities in the Ottoman Empire. We then had a basic understanding of the events and I could move on to the philosophical questions I most wanted to ask: What is cruelty? And how does this question relate to our research about the Armenian Genocide?
We shifted our focus to Phillip Hallie’s “From Cruelty to Kindness.” Hallie’s work provides a framework to understanding the kind of Absolute Cruelty the Armenian people have experienced for over a hundred years as a result of the Turkish denial of genocide.
I began our discussion. “Let’s think first about the historical examples given by the author. Everyone open up to page 333.” They all opened our Ethics anthology, Ethics: The Essential Writings by Gordon Marino, to Phillip Hallie’s essay, “From Cruelty to Goodness.”
“Hallie talks about the Holocaust,” said Carlos.
“Yes. And what is the other historical example of cruelty Hallie cites?”
Carlos replied “American slavery.”
“Ok. Who’s familiar with these two events?” I asked. This time everyone raised their hands. I turned to the board and wrote, “Examples of Institutionalized Cruelty: American slavery and the Holocaust.”
“Now turn to page 335,” I said, “and let’s define cruelty.” Hallie states that “the etymology of the word cruelty involves the spilling of blood.” I wrote this on the board and then wrote, “physical.”
I turned the page, “Carlos, read on page 336.”
“There is one factor, that the idea of ‘pain’ and the simpler idea of ‘bloodshed’ do not touch: cruelty, not playful, quotidian teasing or ragging, but cruelty involving the maiming of a person’s dignity the crushing of a person’s self-respect”
I stopped Carlos and wrote below “physical” the word “metaphysical.”
I turned to the class. “Is it cruel to maim or degrade someone’s identity, someone’s history, and to invalidate someone’s memories, especially in regards to suffering?” I answered my own question by reading aloud: “Institutionalized cruelty, I learned, is the subtlest kind of cruelty.”
I continued to read. “In episodic cruelty, the victim knows he is being hurt, and his victimizer knows it too. But in a persistent pattern of humiliation that endures for years in a community, both the victim and the victimizer find ways of obscuring the harm that is being done.”
I then began to elaborate on how the United States’ treatment of the Armenian Genocide may reflect a persistent pattern of humiliation. “Every year since 1980,” I said, “the American president has done what Hallie describes. They have used every word but the right one. Furthermore, we do not address this form of cruelty at all in our educational system. What could be more subtle than omission? Omission is subtlety turned into eventual obscurity. We are responsible for what we omit and what we fail to do. What we do not do can bring us—and all around us—equal harm to doing something. No?”
The class nodded. I continued, “For the existentialist, a choice is a choice and we must own all of our choices. A choice to not choose or a choice to not act is still…” I pointed to the class, and they responded, “a choice.”
“So when the president stands in front of a microphone and deliberately calls the Armenian Genocide a ‘massacre’, or an ‘atrocity’, he is making a choice to not speak the truth. All the presidents who have said this are guilty of being an oppressor.”
“Turn to page 340. Anthony, please read starting from, ‘I found that kindness…’”
“I found that kindness could be the ultimate cruelty, especially when it was given within that unbalanced power relationship. A kind overseer or a kind camp guard can exacerbate cruelty, can remind his victim that there are other relationships than the relationship of cruelty, and can make the victim deeply bitter, especially when he sees the self-satisfied smile of his victimizer.”
I said, “What is the speech on April 24 if not an exacerbation of denial? Each year, the Armenian community petitions the government and writes to the president, and each year they are denied justice.”
I returned to a point we had written down earlier: “The Armenian Genocide began with the execution of hundreds of Armenian intellectuals. Every year is a cold reminder of Turkish oppression and destruction. The genocide also began with the killing of hundreds of intellectuals. What is going on now is a metaphysical perpetuation of this horrible act. It is a complete degradation of not only Armenian memory and intellect but of the very idea of truth.”
I turned to the class and I asked, “Why did I choose to teach this today?” I gave them a moment to think. Gabby responded, “Because it’s an ethics class. We should know about this.”
“You have to.” I responded, “Why am I the first person to tell you about this genocide?” I wrote the following question on the board. “What is the existential situation we are presented with at the end of the essay?”
There is a section from Hallie’s essay where he includes a letter written to him by someone from Massachusetts:
I have read your book, and I believe that you mushy minded moralists should be awakened to the facts. Nothing happened in Le Chambon [where residents made the town a haven for Jews fleeing from the Nazis], nothing of any importance whatsoever.
The Holocaust, dear Professor, was like a geological event, like an earthquake. No person could start it; no person could change it; and no person could end it… It was the armies and the nations that performed actions that counted. Individuals did nothing. You sentimentalists have got to learn that the great masses and big political ideas make the difference. Your people and the people saved simply do not exist…
I then directed the class to the final section and then to the final words that Hallie wrote. He refers to a woman he met at a lecture of his, whose children were saved by the very village that Hallie references, Le Chambon, France, in the Haute-Loire. She approached the microphone and said, “The genocide was a storm, lightning, thunder, wind, rain, yes. And Le Chambon was the rainbow.”
Hallie elaborates by saying, “You must choose which perspective is best and your choice will have much to do with your feelings about the preciousness of life and not only the preciousness of other people’s lives. If the lives of others are precious to you, your life will become more precious to you.”
The denial of the Armenian Genocide by the United States government is nothing more than institutionalized cruelty of an absolute nature. 1.5 million people were systematically killed in a genocide and afterward, there has been a 102-year-long genocide of the minds and identities of all those who suffered. Perhaps individuals cannot be held responsible for what they do not know. It is not my students’ fault that they lack the knowledge about what happened. It is not arguable, however, that our education system has a moral obligation to teach students about this history just as they learn about the Jewish Holocaust, American slavery, and many other great historical atrocities.
If I think something is wrong, I have the right to express this idea and an obligation to do so with respect, and without crudeness, as a result of my obligation to humanity. What was perpetrated by the Young Turks in 1915-17 was not civilized, was not humane, was not an act of war, and most certainly was a genocide. To say that all Turkish people are murderous or wish ill on the Armenians, Greeks, or Assyrians is a crude, unjust, and frankly ignorant assertion. To say with specificity, evidence, and courage that what occurred in the Ottoman Empire in the early 30th century was a genocide is a truth as per the evidence.
There is a myriad of arguments offered to explain why the United States president will not use the word “genocide,” but it is impossible to justify genocide denial because it is universally wrong.
There is also a more philosophical problem with the United States’ denial. The notion propagated by moral relativity, that all truths are equal in moral value, is a metaphysical and ethical fallacy and does not acknowledge the existence of universality. It completely paralyzes people from doing what is necessary to reach the truth. The truth exists as its own entity. My truth may vary from your truth based on our abilities to perceive, remember, understand, or comprehend. But those differences do not remove either of us from the burden of pursuing truth by asking intelligent questions and constructing meaning. The pursuit of truth must be characterized by the use of questions, the gathering of evidence, honesty, and courage.
Albert Camus was a person who understood that we must make choices and acknowledge distinctness and equality among all people. We must be willing to see executioners as executioners. To say that it is the duty of thinkers to not side with the executioners implies that we must have the courage to say who the executioners are.
If Turkey’s truth is a result of its culture and Armenia’s truth is a result of its culture, and the United States has more ties with Turkey, it becomes possible and convenient to forget a genocide. There are truths that transcend cultural norms. Armenian Genocide Denial is evidence of the kind of absolute cruelty that can happen and then be perpetuated when the ethic of a nation is amorphous as a result of “other” considerations.
The relativist misinterprets the importance of “empathy” or “understanding” and carries those concepts beyond the point of acceptability. We should not—we cannot—empathize with and then appease the executioners.
There are truths and there are falsehoods. The modern relativist wantonly applies the personal idea of morality to situations as it pleases the relativist. Imposing sentiment, not truth, prevents us from thinking boldly, or from thinking at all. If we deny the Armenia Genocide to prevent some type of phantom act of Turkish reprisal, we paralyze the brightest minds of our society. A genocide is always wrong and genocide denial is always wrong just as slavery is always wrong.
This essay is a hope that individuals who read this, especially educators and others in control of how knowledge is disseminated, will understand that the suffering of the Armenians, Greeks, and Assyrians who were killed, tortured, and displaced during the early twentieth century by the Ottoman Government must be acknowledged and described as what it was, a genocide.
I think back to the lack of hands raised in my class in answer to my first question, “Who in this room is familiar with the Armenian Genocide?” To have so little knowledge about the first genocide of the twentieth century is not ethically acceptable. I am obligated as a human and as an adjunct professor to teach about the Armenian Genocide. I hope that, after reading this essay, you will also feel the obligation to speak about the Armenian Genocide to whoever will listen and, if you have the opportunity to address an audience, that you will take advantage of this opportunity to spread the truth and to end the cruelty of continued denial against the Armenian people.
It is a sadistic joke to let those with power exercise it and to allow those who have yet to express their power believe that they cannot make a difference. This is a grotesque stain that must be removed. If our feet are firmly planted in truth, we should never fear standing, even if we are alone. And as Camus would encourage, we must choose to stand on the correct side.
 Kifner, John. “Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview.” The New York Times. Aug. 11, 2014: nytimes.com. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.
 Arango, Tim. “A Century After Armenian Genocide, Turkey’s Denial Only Deepens.” The New York Times. April 16, 2015: nytimes.com. Accessed Nov. 23, 2016.
 Hallie, Phillip. “From Cruelty to Goodness.” Ethics: The Essential Writings, edited by Gordon Marino, Modern Library, 2010, 333-349.
 Hallie, Phillip. “From Cruelty to Goodness.” Ethics: The Essential Writings, edited by Gordon Marino, Modern Library, 2010, 333-349.
Source: Armenian Weekly
Link: April 24 in the Classroom: ‘Who in this Room is Familiar with the Armenian Genocide?’