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.

Wednesday 5 June 2024

"The Unequal Pandemic" Film Premiere with #ProjectEPIC

On Thursday 30th May, the short film "The Unequal Pandemic" (produced by Lorne Guy and Phil Webb) premiered in Bristol. The event was co-convened by University of Bristol's Centre for Black Humanities and the Epistemic Injustice in Healthcare (EPIC) Project with support from Good Guys Productions. Below you can read a discussion about the film and the premiere with one of the film's producers, Lorne Guy.

What is the film about?

The Unequal Pandemic delves below the sensational headlines around the Covid-19 pandemic to reveal the tragic family stories of how we were not all in it together.

The film charts how the pandemic swept across the UK and why exactly it was far more deadly for people in lower socio-economic areas, for ethnic minorities and for the disabled. It examines how the North-South divide was clearly highlighted and how front-line NHS doctors, deeply affected by what they witnessed, experienced ‘war like’ trauma which is still not spoken about.

Startling evidence from Prof Sir Michael Marmot and other world leading public health figures gives a clear picture of how wider societal and historical political choices led to the outcome of the UK having one of the worst pandemic death rates among European countries.

Our goal was to get the film's message directly out to those around the country who feel their voice is not being heard. We also wanted to initiate a live dialogue about deep-seated inequalities in the UK today which preceded the pandemic. For instance, from 2011-2018, the UK's life expectancy improvement was the lowest among all other rich or OECD countries apart from Iceland and the USA. Life expectancy was beginning to fall in deprived areas, which hadn’t happened since the second world war.

If you were from an ethnic minority like Black African, Black Caribbean, Indian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani you were far more likely (2, 3 sometimes 4 times) to die than your white counterpart. This is not the reason, it’s a whole raft of reasons that we explore in the film. For instance, in the film, Francesca's mum was poor and disabled and it seems clear that she died as a result of years of inequality. Similarly, Lobby Akkinola lost his Dad Femi, who was a key worker. He died at home before any help could get to him.

How did the film come about?

We were approached by MP Debbie Abrahams, who has a background in public health. She wanted to collaborate on a film around inequality and the pandemic. There was a concern that the Covid-19 Public Inquiry would not sufficiently account for how inequalities before the pandemic impacted people. For instance, how people on low incomes, ethnic minority communities, people with disabilities, and people in the North of England were disproportionately affected.

How was the premiere?

We saw a diverse audience made up of local Bristol groups organisations, activists, academics, journalists as well as affected individuals from as far away as Abergavenny, Wales. The film was introduced by the filmmakers and Dr Josie Gill (University of Bristol).

Following the screening of the 25-minute long film, a panel and audience Q&A took place. The panel was chaired by Dr Connor Ryan (University of Bristol), and the panel participants were Prof Havi Carel (ProjectEPIC Principal Investigator), Huda Hajinur (Caafi Health), and Dr Habib Naqvi MBE (Director, NHS Race and Health Observatory).

An engaging one-hour discussion and audience Q&A followed the screening. Some salient themes in the discussion were how, despite the fact that successful local action was often taken, it was often ignored or interrupted by government and how historical system failures led to community mistrust and exacerbated inequality. Dr Habib Naqvi highlighted and expanded on a quote within the film around the ‘causes of the causes’ of race inequality and disproportionate death toll for certain communities as a result.

The film has also been screened in Parliament. How was that?

The first screening of the film was at Parliament at the end of 2023 followed by an amazing panel discussion including Prof Sir Micheal Marmot, Prof Clare Bambra and Lobby Akinnola.

The reaction was incredible. It was an emotional event but also uplifting.

As a result, there was a demand to show the film wider so we then set out on a UK free screening tour in Preston, York, Newcastle, Liverpool and Manchester. These last two were supported and introduced by Mayor Steve Rotherham and Mayor Andy Burnham. We have just screened in Bristol, and will end with a London screening on June 25th, organised by UCL and the Covid 19 Bereaved Families for Justice.

Some reactions to the first parliament screening:

“A powerful film highlighting the deeply entrenched inequalities in society and how much needs to change to improve the health and resilience of our nation.” Kim Leadbeater, MP

“A heart-rending and sobering gem of a film… The powerful commentary by families and public health experts will live long in the memory.” Ian Byrne, MP

“It was an honour to be at this screening last night and hear from Lobby Akinnola and others share their experiences. Hopefully this gets picked up.” Prof Aaron Reeves

“The film left me as it did others very emotional” Alex Cunningham, MP