Wednesday 12 June 2024

Epistemic Injustice and Genocide

For the next two weeks, Melanie Altanian presents her new book, The Epistemic Injustice of Genocide Denialism (Routledge 2024), which is open access. In today’s and next week’s post, Altanian discusses particularly the psychological harms resulting from conditions of epistemic oppression created and sustained by genocide denialism.


Cover of the book by Melanie Altanian


In my recently published book, I argue for two intertwined theses: 

  1. genocide denialism should be understood and explained as a substantive epistemic practice, one that creates and sustains ignorance and ignorant agency; 
  2. this kind of ignorance is pernicious, because it perpetuates and sustains epistemic oppression. 

I elaborate on this in relation to two interrelated forms of epistemic oppression: 

  • testimonial oppression, which concerns institutionalized disabling constraints on epistemic agency qua genocide testimony, and 
  • hermeneutical oppression, which concerns institutionalized disabling constraints on epistemic agency qua genocide remembrance.

Silences in the aftermath of genocide

In the book, I stress the need for distinguishing two types of silence that may occur in the immediate and long-term aftermath of genocide – deliberate or resistant silence, and (coerced) silencing – and that it is by focusing on the latter that we get a clearer picture of the epistemic injustices that genocide survivors may encounter.

As opposed to deliberate or resistant silence, where survivors temporarily and strategically remain silent about their painful memories because it helps them rebuild their lives, (coerced) silencing usually occurs under conditions of genocide denialism, where the social uptake conditions for genocide testimony are rendered systematically dysfunctional.

Such epistemic oppression is intrinsically wrong and comes with a range of follow-on harms. In this post (published in two parts), I would like to draw attention to the psychological harms resulting from conditions of epistemic oppression created and sustained by genocide denialism.


Genocide, trauma, and recovery

Particularly as a long-term strategy to consolidate relations of domination, genocide denialism impacts the psychological well-being of both genocide survivors and their descendants. Besides being re-traumatizing, it obstructs the possibility of processing, thus prolonging, cross-generational personal and collective trauma. These trauma-effects have been studied to a great extent in relation to both the Holocaust and the Armenian genocide (Alayarian 2008, Azarian-Ceccato 2010, Karenian et al. 2010, Kupelian et al. 1998, Lehrner and Yehuda 2018).

For example, a study by Kalayjian et al. (1996) identified feelings of humiliation associated with loss of status, autonomy, property, and dignity among the stressors experienced and reported by survivors of the Armenian genocide, while they experienced recalling the deaths of their family members as most painful. Their responses “reflected feelings of helplessness, loss of control, resignation, uncontrollable re-experiencing of the traumatic events, and sadness”, while “the value and emphasis the Armenian culture places on togetherness served respondents as a coping style – sharing the pain and suffering by ‘sticking together’” (92). 

This already indicates the importance of a supportive environment to turn to for coping with trauma, and the above findings are congruent with trauma research more generally. In Trauma and Recovery, Herman (2015 [1992]) argues that traumatic events are characterized by an experience of helplessness in the face of overwhelming force. Such events “overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning” (44). To recover from trauma thus requires the restoration of a sense of agency and control.

While trauma recovery always depends on social support, in cases of collective violence such as genocide, it must include a political response in the form of public recognition and repair. Rebuilding the survivor’s sense of order and justice requires community action, including assignment of responsibility for and reparation of the harms. We can thus begin to assess the perniciousness of genocide denialism, as it upholds the breach between traumatized persons and the community.



Melanie Altanian is assistant professor for epistemology and theory of science at the University of Freiburg. Her research focuses on issues in social and political epistemology, moral philosophy, and social philosophy.