Acknowledging Collective Victimization

Acknowledgment and denial affects well-being and relations between groups.

Posted Nov 08, 2019

Rita Willaert/WikiMedia [CC BY 2.0]
Yerevan Genocide Memorial
Source: Rita Willaert/WikiMedia [CC BY 2.0]

Last week, the U.S. House voted with an overwhelming majority to recognize the Armenian Genocide, which took place between 1915 and 1923 in the Ottoman Empire (or what is today Turkey).

For decades, Turkey and many of its allies have either been denying the genocide or providing inadequate acknowledgment by not using “the g-word,” but instead referring to it as "massacres," or using the Armenian term "Meds Yeghern" instead. Armenians worldwide have been fighting and lobbying for this recognition, describing the denial as an injustice and as an open wound that does not allow for healing.

The vote of the House to finally recognize the genocide officially was, therefore, celebrated widely. Numerous other groups in the world face lack of acknowledgment of the crimes committed against their group as well—to name just a few examples, consider the denial of the Palestinian Nakba, the lack of attention to the wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the very incomplete and often inaccurate education about slavery in U.S. history classes along with the scarcity of museums focusing on this history, or the silence at Thanksgiving celebrations concerning the genocide of Native Americans.

Why is it so difficult for members of groups that committed the violence to acknowledge the harm they were responsible for? Which psychological consequences does acknowledgment versus denial of collective victimization have for members of the targeted group? And how does acknowledgment feed into relations between different victim groups?

Acknowledgment Versus Denial of Collective Victimization: What Does it Look Like?

Sociologist Stanley Cohen describes three main forms of denial. Literal denial is what may first come to mind when we think of denial—for example, claims that a genocide didn’t happen, that the historical facts are fabricated, and that the history is a hoax. However, such blatant denial is rare, as it is difficult to completely dismiss reality.

A more common form is therefore interpretive denial, where people do not deny that something happened but instead change the meaning of what exactly happened. For example, in a study among Turkish university students studying in the U.S., the majority of the sample described the Armenian Genocide as “intercommunal warfare,” instead of as genocide—thereby changing the nature of the event and describing Armenians as equally responsible for the violence, which predicted less support for reparations. This relates to implicatory denial, which entails the failure to face the consequences—for example, legal and moral implications—of the violence, such as the obligation to provide reparations.

But denial can also be more subtle. It can entail silence around the collective violence, such as the failure to include it in history education and public commemorations. A study comparing Black History Month exhibits in predominantly Black and White schools in the U.S. showed that Black History Month exhibits in predominantly White schools, if they occurred at all, were more likely to focus on celebrating diversity more generally, rather than educate specifically about slavery and racism. This may help explain the findings, replicated in two different sets of studies, that White students were more likely than their Black peers to deny systemic racism, which was explained by less knowledge about historical incidents of racism. 

Bill Leiser/WikiMedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Sculpture at the memorial to the enslaved people at Whitney Plantation Historic District
Source: Bill Leiser/WikiMedia [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Another difference the Black History Month study found between predominantly Black and White schools was that predominantly Black, but not predominantly White, schools also addressed present-day, ongoing racism. This failure to acknowledge the ongoing nature and present-day consequences of historical victimization is an additional form of denial, and one way in which victim and perpetrator groups’ perspectives on the events often differ.

While members of historical perpetrator groups are more likely to insist that it is merely history, and that the victim group should “get over it,” members of victim groups are more likely to experience, witness, and thereby acknowledge the lasting consequences and ongoing nature of the violence.  Studies show that when members of the historical perpetrator group deny these lasting consequences of collective victimization, it reduces support for reparations. 

Why is Denial so Widespread?

These findings give one clue about why denial is so widespread: Acknowledgment of collective violence has practical and moral consequences. It implies a need for justice, redress, and reparations. By denying the collective violence carried out by ingroup members, leaders can try to avoid these responsibilities, reparation claims, and other ways of being brought to justice.

For third parties, denial of violence committed by a powerful ally can be a way of maintaining positive relations with this ally. In the case of the U.S. House vote on the recognition of the Armenian Genocide, commentators have cautioned that it should not be used as a bargaining chip with Turkey. 

However, there are also psychological and symbolic reasons, in addition to these strategic and practical reasons, why denial is so widespread. Acknowledging that your group committed atrocities is a severe moral threat, and group members can reduce or avoid this threat by engaging in various forms of denial and construing the collective violence their group committed against another in ways that depict the ingroup in a better light. Studies in different contexts—including Turkish denial of the Armenian Genocide or silence about genocide in Thanksgiving celebrations in the U.S.—show that people who glorify their group are more likely to deny atrocities their group committed.

Minorities observer/WikiMedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Brussels commemoration of the Armenian Genocide
Source: Minorities observer/WikiMedia [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Why Does Acknowledgment Matter?

Denial has a profound psychological impact on direct survivors of collective violence as well as on their descendants and fellow group members.

First, it affects psychological well-being. Studies among refugees and former political prisoners show a link between perceived lack of societal recognition of the violence and injustice they suffered and increased post-traumatic stress symptoms. Interviews among survivors of the Armenian Genocide found that survivors responded with strong negative affect, including rage, to Turkish denial of the genocide. And across four experiments, Jewish and Armenian Americans expressed increased negative affect, such as sadness, anger, or feeling depressed, after reading about denial by the perpetrator group, compared to acknowledgment or a control condition. 

Denial also further decreases negative attitudes towards members of the perpetrator group, while acknowledgment promotes more positive attitudes, support for reconciliation, more peaceful policies, and more. This was found in several experimental studies across a range of different contexts, including the Armenian Genocide, Holocaust and pogroms in Poland, genocide in Bangladesh, and Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of the psychological processes that help explain these effects include that acknowledgment reduces distrust towards the perpetrator, and perceived injustice.  

How Does Acknowledgment and Denial Affect Relations with Third Parties?

In the vote in the U.S. House last week on the resolution to recognize the Armenian Genocide, eleven Republicans voted against it, and one Republican and two Democrats abstained. Interestingly, it was Rep Ilhan Omar’s (D-Minn.) abstention that gained the most attention and criticism.

Many critiques speculated about the strategic reasons for what was perceived by some as a lack of solidarity, but her statement explaining the reasons also pointed to a deeper problem: the fact that atrocities committed in this country, such as slavery or the Native American genocide, are not yet adequately acknowledged. In other contexts, initial studies suggest that this kind of imbalance in acknowledgment of different groups’ suffering is linked to friction and competition between victim groups, as well as more negative attitudes between them.

Additionally, people might have a heightened expectation for acknowledgment by other minority group members, due to the perception that “they should know better” or “they what it’s like.” Several experiments in different contexts show that people generally expect disadvantaged minority group members to be more tolerant, and more sensitive towards issues concerning social justice and equality, which may backlash. This may be one of the reasons explain why Ilhan Omar’s response was singled out and caused so much outrage.

In sum, acknowledgment and denial of collective violence have a profound psychological impact on both individuals and relations between different groups in society. With this in mind, we can all think of ways in which we can counter denial, and help foster the positive effects of acknowledging collective violence.