September 18, 2019

Against(?) Empathy

Easter’s date is not fixed, but this year it fell on April 21 — coinciding with devastating attacks on hotels and Christian churches in and near Colombo, Sri Lanka. Easter fell on the second day of Passover, just three days before Genocide Remembrance Day and shortly after my arrival in Yerevan. There is a cruel irony in observing Christ’s Resurrection three days after his murder by the Roman Empire just three days before a national day of mourning. Genocide is not simply the destruction of a people; it is about a collective and premature death (we guess that Jesus was around thirty-three years old at the time of his crucifixion).

I don’t know if this temporal alignment is some macabre cosmic messaging or purely incidental; genocide victims are not martyrs (though victims of the Armenian genocide were canonized by the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, the Armenian Apostolic Church, as the Holy Martyrs of the Armenian Genocide in 2015, the genocide’s hundredth anniversary), but rather casualties produced by some bloodthirsty campaign for power. We’re able to know, understand, and commemorate these victims by visualizing and committing to memory the atrocities to which they were subjected. Yet as this abject violence occurs and must occur again and again, what does “never again” mean? What do circulated images in service of popular education and the idea that genocide is predictable and so necessarily preventable mean in actuality?

An Armenian friend sent me a link to an article one Sunday night while I was still in Yerevan: “Learn about the Armenian Genocide — By playing a video game,” the headline read. The premise of the game made her uneasy because she didn’t feel like it honored the people who were killed; she wanted affirmation that she wasn’t overreacting. The game is called Mayrig, which means “mother” in Armenian.

A first-person choose-your-own-adventure game, Mayrig begins, we learn, in Sason (which is in the Bitlis vilayet or administrative district, one of the six Armenian vilayets of the Ottoman Empire), which is present-day eastern Turkey — historic Western Armenia. We are introduced to an unnamed character whose entire family has been murdered by an unspecified red flag-carrying army. The Ottoman Turkish military, presumably. The narration tells of the character looking down at their reddened palms, stained with their grandfather’s blood.

The first decision you make is whether to save your fifteen-day-old son still sleeping in his bed, or to abandon him and flee alone. After the red flags leave your home, you run into his room to see his bed empty. You follow the sound of his cries to the balcony, you look over the edge and see him lying in the snow: the red flag army has thrown him over. That is often how they try to kill children, you are told.

The game freezes a few minutes later after I make the decision to give my son up for adoption to Christian missionaries who would give him to a European family and keep him safe. A part of me is intensely relieved. But I restart the game, this time choosing to keep my child with me; the story continues. Relief dissipates and turns to dread. The game says the residents of the safe haven were forced to evacuate because the red flag army has returned. I get the option to flee alone or follow the crowd. I choose the crowd…

I try again, this time choosing to travel alone. I don’t know why I’m so desperately trying to choose the path that would end in survival; the statistical likelihood of surviving the genocide, in historical reality, was relatively low — according to British-Armenian historian Ara Safarian, by 1917, ninety percent of Armenians outside of Istanbul had been deported (the number was over ninety-five percent in some provinces) and ninety percent of deportees were killed. My character arrives at an abandoned city dotted with magnificent churches and the app freezes again. This is just the beginning of the storyline, but I don’t try to continue.

The game was created by Lebanese-Armenian developer, Garabed Khachadour, in just forty-eight hours as a part of a game development contest. The infant in the story is his grandfather and the woman is his great-grandmother: they were the only two survivors of their village in real life. While the game is about the Armenian genocide, Khachadour emphasizes the universality of atrocity and forced migration so that we might relate the tragic themes and events to present-day refugee struggles, namely those of Syria. The intention is empathy; all I can muster is fatigue, tears, and a stomach ache. I sobbed to my friend Jimmy on the phone, sharing my friend’s disgust at the game and exhausted by my isolation while staying in the country.

Does empathy really arise from the universal? Is our common humanness heightened or do realizations of the ubiquity of sufferings instead overwhelm and nurture a kind of nihilism about the inevitability of atrocities? How do we empathize with Armenians by displacing them as primary subjects? One of the commenters on the online market for the game said it was a “touching story about the struggles endured by refugees and the horrors of war.” None of the comments mention Armenia explicitly. Genocide is not war.

This particular story of flight is excised from the specificity of Armenian-ness — ironic considering much of the contemporary diaspora can be attributed to the forced migration in attempting to escape genocidal harm. But where empathy is apparently produced through the vicarious experience of violence and atrocity suffered by others, is there not a sadistic subtext that suffering produces good moral-ethical character?

There’s a puzzling horseshoe theory within the idea that true empathy emerges from endeavoring to performatively embody or recreate suffering. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt describes SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler’s rhetorical attempts to assuage the difficult feelings that the Einsatzgruppen (the paramilitary death squads) and police leaders were apparently having with their orders to exterminate. “The order to solve the Jewish question, this was the most frightening order an organization could ever receive,” he says, because these ordinary men were being demanded to be “superhumanly inhuman.” The genocidaires in the making were not sadistic by nature, but rather regular men bravely serving Führer and country, blut und boden. To preemptively absolve these men of guilt and responsibility, Himmler instructed any and all moralizations to be turned inward: the Herculaneum duty, their brave service, was a suffering in itself! Arendt writes: “So […] instead of saying: What horrible things I did to people!, the murderers would be able to say: What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!” No matter how difficult the task (“To have stuck it out and, apart from exceptions caused by human weakness, to have remained decent, that is what has made us hard,” Himmler says), it selflessly must be done in order to ensure future generations would not have to fight this fight again. (This is not totally unlike Golda Meir proclaiming: “[Israelis] can forgive the Arabs for killing our children. We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.”) It is this odd horseshoe that connects two sides of individuals enduring suffering: the humanized perpetrator wounded by the infliction of harm and the secondhand witness vicariously wounded by the evocation of tragic memory. The most important party, the victim, is scrubbed from this affective equation.

Per John Berger: “To talk of entering the other’s subjectivity is misleading. The subjectivity of another does not simply constitute a different interior attitude to the same exterior facts. The constellation of facts, of which he is the center, is different.” I don’t think empathy is the imagination of your own action or reaction in a comparable situation. You cannot pass off a selfish attempt at replicating interiority as empathy, because “the world has to be dismantled and re-assembled in order to be able to grasp, however clumsily, the experience of another.” And what did Édouard Glissant say? “It is not necessary to try to become the other (to become other) nor to ‘make’ him in my image. These projects of transmutation […] have resulted from the worst pretensions and the greatest magnanimities on the part of the West.”

Perhaps the empathy project is ethically vacuous in its false (and chauvinistic) presumption that we can ever fully understand or conceive. That in a world where our own subjectivity is defined by hierarchal relations — a defining of the self through othered “others” — we are individually and collectively able to overcome the urgent self-fashioning of ourselves as dominant in order to truly feel what another feels. Empathy requires an equal capacity to humanize. Our performances of empathy through imagined embodiment deny a moral-material world defined and ordered by full humans and lesser peoples for whom full humanity is foreclosed. The affective production of this game isn’t actually empathy: it’s legibility. It’s a use of the testimony storytelling form to produce a relatable subject. This is a kind of “empathy” that demands the assimilation of others into a framework of sameness and similarity, enabling you to relate because of the subject’s similarity (or hypothetical similarity) to you. A perverse ubuntu.

In Armenia, I witnessed the urgency of the politics of genocide recognition on a national level for the first time, and it felt perfectly righteous given the pernicious campaign of denialism waged by its western neighbor and perpetrator, Turkey. It was a politic of recognition that, in some ways, felt modeled after Jewish responses to the Nazi Holocaust, the atrocity that ushered in a legal standardization of the act. My conversation with the museum’s director yielded the same conclusion; he described how the Western world responded to Nazi crimes immediately, but Armenians were not able to publicly memorialize Metz Yeghern (“the great calamity,” used to describe the genocide before the word “genocide” entered colloquial descriptions) until some decades after the fact. 1

Inherent to the politics of genocide recognition is some ushering into whiteness: the affirmation of genocide is, functionally, an extension of humanity. Knowledge is not an inherent counter to harm, as the liberal idea that genocide is “predictable, but not inexorable” offers us. Knowing becomes cheap and cynical and even indulgent if not coupled with action; performances of knowing become performances of goodness, caring, morality. Who doesn’t know about police violence, who doesn’t know about camps on the southern border of the United States? We urgently ring the alarm that our American moment mirrors Nazi Germany circa 1933, never mind that American genocide predated Nazi genocide or that white supremacy is always already pre-genocidal.

I don’t care for Quentin Tarantino, but nothing about the mission in Inglourious Basterds felt wrong to me: not the glorification of murdering and maiming Nazis, not the immense pleasure the Nazi hunters took in their work. I will always remember the gleeful maddened look in the eyes of Eli Roth’s character, Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz as he, during the murdering of Nazi moviegoers — death by a shower of bullets, and, fittingly, a consumption by fire — repeatedly shot the already still corpse of Adolf Hitler, whom he killed along with Joseph Goebbels. How could I fault this fictional Jew for wanting to murder the mastermind of the Shoah, for reveling in brutally bludgeoning Nazi soldiers to death?

Following the end of the Armenian genocide, investigations and court proceedings against the perpetrators were bungled. There was no international juridical structure for prosecuting genocidaires; no framework that created protocols or legal norms for such trials had yet been established. That would not happen until after World War II. (And, in fact, just one week before the Nazi invasion of Poland in August of 1939, Hitler would say: “Our strength consists in our speed and our brutality […] our war aim does not consist in reaching certain lines, but in the physical destruction of the enemy […] Only thus shall we gain the living space which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” The Germans had assisted the Ottomans in their genocidal endeavor.)

The men responsible for the slaughter of Armenians were able to travel freely across Europe and Asia. And so what were Armenians to do upon witnessing such an abortion of justice after all their community had endured? A two-hundred person blacklist of targets was created. Shahan Natalie, the list’s creator, designated Talaat Pasha, as “Number One.” Shahan assigned Soghomon Tehlirian to kill this third of the Pasha triumvirate. Tehlirian killed “Number One” with a single 9mm Luger pistol round in Berlin on March 15, 1921. As ordered by Natalie who told him to stand there “foot on the corpse and surrender to the police,” Tehlirian did not run. About his trial (he was found not guilty because the trauma of the genocide had rendered him insane), Raphael Lemkin wrote: “Why is a man punished when he kills another man? Why is the killing of a million a lesser crime than the killing of a single individual?” Ultimately, six people were assassinated in what was called Operation Nemesis. The museum did not describe the targets as having been shot or killed or murdered or assassinated, but rather liquidated. The trigger-pullers were described as avenger or revenger as opposed to vigilante. They are remembered as heroes.

I walked through the genocide museum in Yerevan with my weakly steeled nerves anticipating new horrors around each corner. I cried at a photograph of a blank-faced thousand-yard staring little boy, Mousheghik, holding the back of his hands, proof of a survived crucifixion, to the cameraman. After, I stood in the sweltering heat atop the Tsitsernakaberd complex and hill and gazed bleary-eyed at the biblical Mount Ararat, 2 wondering for the millionth time whether these planned revenge killings carried out by survivors were less just than a political structure hell-bent on either denying the genocide or unwilling-unable to bring perpetrators to justice. I know that our framework for “justice” and “accountability” in the wake of monstrous genocidal atrocities is grossly insufficient. Our theories of justice and empathy are predicated on a peacetime that is not actually peace but a state of enforced order. What is the relationship between justice and survival? Both justice and empathy are inhered with an “asymmetry of moral duties,” to cite an unnamable friend. The burden of responsibility for forgiveness and the export of empathy rests, like the burden of Atlas, on the shoulders of the oppressed.

  1. See: “Museums and Monuments Comparative Analysis of Armenian and Jewish Experiences in Memory Policies” (2014) and “Trauma and Identity: On Structural Particularities of Armenian Genocide and Jewish Holocaust” (2014), both by Harutyun Marutyan.
  2. I first visited Tsitsernakaberd two days after Genocide Remembrance Day. An Armenian friend took me to lay flowers down around the eternal flame to honor the dead. He showed me around the upper level of the memorial complex, stopping on the side that faces the mountain and said: "You know Mount Ararat? It's in the Bible. In Armenia, we see the most beautiful part of the mountain, we see the front. The back is in Turkey, it isn't as beautiful. It's a karma." And then he laughed.
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