Genocide – where do we fit in?

“Justice is not a court verdict, it is also a personal journey”

Elizabeth Neuffer, author

As with all projects such as this, a central question raised at almost every turn is the difficult question of ‘What can I/we do?’ This question is all the more difficult to answer when faced with challenges as immense as those posed by genocide and the role of young people in countries such as Ireland and the UK. And yet, in and of itself, the project described here is an initial important answer to the question – bringing together young people from different and differing traditions (and politics) within this island to explore the issue of genocide, not only in terms of its implications for Darfur (and elsewhere) but also for the island of Ireland. The learning involved in a project such as this is visible and palpable. Supporting students (and teachers) in exploring the issue and in peeling the layers surrounding genocide is ultimately a process of opening both eyes and hearts. The information explored, the discussions and debates involved in that information; the arguments about images and messages as well as the methodologies of negotiation and compromise (and team working) are fundamental.

What is clear is that the most basic response required is a personal one – the recognition that an issue such as genocide has implications for me. Without this realisation, and the challenges it poses, little effective and meaningful personal development can occur. This is especially true when working with young people. They need the space and the support to explore, question, challenge and re-question without being handed easy and simplistic packaged solutions delivered to them by others. Being a teacher or an educator in such a context is also a profound challenge – deciding where to begin, what to teach, what to avoid, etc. In workshops addressing the question posed at the outset, we identified a brief list of actions that all of us need to apply to our own personal and professional situations:

Challenge ourselves and others

Do not accept the argument that there is little we can do – there is always something we can do and usually far more than we give ourselves credit for! Challenge the idea that genocide is impossible to understand, that it defies human experience or that it is conducted by uniquely evil individuals and groups. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu has pointed out, genocide graphically illustrates the capacity of each and every one of us for both good and evil. Challenge the idea that issues such as this are inappropriate for enquiry in a school/youth context – that they are too political or too complex or too disturbing.

Explore the issues

In this project one of the most effective means for exploring the theme of genocide were the personal testimonies of survivors and those affected. These testimonies highlighted the human face of an issue that is usually illustrated by numbers – numbers that appear incomprehensible to most of us. We need to try to avoid creating a hierarchy of suffering and recognise the reality that genocide is literally the killing of large numbers of single individuals. Such an approach has profound implications for learning. Another powerful tool used in this project was the 8 stages of genocide proposed by Gregory Stanton (of GenocideWatch). This enabled all of us to breakdown the issue of genocide into its component parts and in this way to make it more understandable and accessible.

Identify opportunities to share learning

Sharing the process and outcomes of a project such as this is important – the demonstration dimension of our work was clear – other students and teachers regularly dropped by to explore what was going on! Other classes began to work on the issue of genocide also – via sculpture and essays. Sharing the outcomes with parents, NGO staff, local community groups and local media has also been important. The model of joint work involving students, teachers, schools and NGOs has considerable value that has yet to be fully realised. Many NGOs do not engage directly with schools or with learning realities and processes and so, many of the materials and actions offered are inappropriate to learning contexts and situations. Equally, schools are often isolated from the realities of what is currently being done (and what more can be done) by activist groups and by voluntary organisations. This is also true of the (mutual) misunderstandings between our politicians and our schools.

Challenge racial and other stereotyping

Today Ireland, North and South, is in a significant and highly visible process of change: we are increasingly becoming a multicultural and intercultural society. This reality offers us a challenging context for learning and teaching. Throughout this project, the issue of how we see each other as Nationalists, Loyalists, Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Black, White, etc., was a constant theme. Dublin and Belfast have both witnessed an upsurge of deliberately targeted and focused racist attacks to add to our own traditional sectarianism.

The 8-stage analysis of genocide allowed us to focus clearly on the question of how societies allow whole groups of people (who share common characteristics or traditions or beliefs) to be stereotyped and categorised. Classification, symbolism, dehumanisation, etc., as components of genocide, were much discussed. So too were their implications for Ireland. Perhaps the most fundamental answer to the question what can I/we do is to be found in the context of the histories of conflict on this island and how each one of us involved in this project respond to that reality in the future. Another fundamental answer is to be found in how we respond to the growing multiculturalism (and its unfortunate attendant racism) on the island.

Learn More:

There are, literally, hundreds of genocide sites on the Internet – and not all of them against it (watch out for white power sites that promote racist viewpoints and actions!). We have chosen to highlight the following sites because they are useful starting points and will give you more than enough links to take the search onwards.