An Interview with Henry Theriault

May 6, 2004

By Khatchig Mouradian


Professor Henry Theriault received his B.A. from Princeton University and his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Massachusetts. He serves as Associate Professor of philosophy and coordinates the Center for the Study of Human Rights at Worcester State College (Massachusetts, USA). His research interests include genocide, nationalism, and the philosophy of history.

Henry Theriault visited Beirut in April. His visit was initiated by the Lebanese-Armenian Heritage Club of the American University of Beirut. He gave public lectures at the American University of Beirut, Haigazian University, the Hagop Der Melkonian hall, and the Armenian Catholicosate of Cilicia. Despite his tight schedule, he managed to spare some time for an interview, which ended up being more of a lively discussion. Excerpts:



Aztag- Having specialized in philosophy, you bring a fresh perspective to the study of the Armenian Genocide. This is evident from the few papers you have so far published as well as from your lectures. In what way can philosophy be helpful in the study of genocide and mass murder?

Henry Theriault- One issue where such an approach is necessary is that of denial. People often respond to denial on the level of presenting the facts.  However, denials are really never about the facts, they are about trying to manipulate a target audience and make them see the realities of the world in a way that’s not accurate. To achieve this end, there are a number of techniques that deniers use. For example, they introduce ideas that every perspective on a historical event is equally valid. And if you approach the deniers from a historical perspective, you state the facts and you end up getting into a debate about which facts count and which ones don’t. In my opinion, you can almost never win that debate. A denier can always reject whatever fact you have, any document you produce, no matter how good the evidence. A denier can always bounce back and you get in an ongoing battle over the facts; a battle that doesn’t end, and the ultimate result is a kind of stalemate where whatever historical facts you are trying to prove is never really proven. In case of the Armenian genocide, for instance, the Turkish deniers sometimes just make the same arguments over and over again to new audiences. The arguments can be discredited, they can be completely fallacious and yet, every time they make them, they get taken seriously again and again, and you have to fight that battle forever.




Aztag- You put this very bluntly when you said in one of your lectures in Beirut that it is not important for the deniers to make people believe in what they say, the important thing for them is that what the Armenians say is not believed.

Henry Theriault- Exactly! They create a situation where there’s no clear truth; for a denier, that’s victory! The audience doesn’t have to believe any version. I find the claim put forth by some extreme deniers that the Armenians committed genocide by killing Turks and other Muslims very striking.  If anyone with a basic understanding of history just looks at the number of Armenians who were in the Ottoman Empire and what possible access of arms they had, the notion that Armenians committed genocide becomes so absurd. But when deniers make that claim, people end up balancing:

‘Armenians say Turks committed genocide against them; Turks say the Armenians committed genocide against them. These two groups hate each other, and who knows what is the truth is and what’s not, we can’t commit to either side.”

As I said, there are also things like the appeal to free speech. Deniers insist that that every opinion should be heard and taken seriously no matter what it is. One of the problems in the US is that people are very simplistic about free speech. Every opinion should be heard doesn’t mean every opinion should be taken equally seriously, and what happens is that people make that mistake; they think “oh, this is an opinion, that’s an opinion too. I’ll be open minded and take them BOTH seriously”. That’s great if you’re talking about complicated political issues where you’re really trying to reach an understanding of different positions. But when we’re talking about a basic historical fact, then you want to make sure you get the evidence, the available information, and then you take it and you try to make some sense out of it.

>From a philosophical standpoint, there are other problems as well. There is this idea of absolute positivism where no historical fact is ever proven unless somehow there’s absolute evidence on it. But the problem is the evidence standards that a lot of deniers try to get people to commit to are so extreme that no person really thinking rationally would accept them. The deniers say, for instance, that to prove that Armenian genocide happened, you have to have absolute data, a huge number of valid data that support every particular point you’re making and there should be no ambiguous data and so forth. But sometimes even in the hard sciences, absolute data is not available. People ought to be very careful when they claim that evidence of the genocide isn’t sufficient because it really accepts the deniers’ view that whatever evidence you give, the bar goes up a little bit higher to the point that it becomes irrational.

People have a lot of very simplistic ideas about critical thinking. For instance, they think one should listen to the both sides of the story and you never judge, or the proper way that objectivity is the same as neutrality, which is completely false. I think anyone claiming that he knows anything about history should be willing to accept that some basic facts are beyond doubt. One may disagree on the number of Armenians killed in the Armenian genocide, but the fact that a large number of Armenians were killed because of a systematic state policy is something that’s either a fact or it isn’t.

In a murder case, it’s very rare to have direct and conclusive evidence of a crime. You trust this witness, you trust that witness. Somebody was supposed to be somewhere at 10 o’clock at night, and somebody says he saw a car like the one that person drives on the street, miles away…you put the evidence together and the bottom line is that you eventually have to come to a conclusion. Deniers would like to keep the question open forever. So by saying that there’s not enough evidence of genocide you’re essentially giving a victory to denial, because you’re not settling the question. As soon as you say you need more evidence then it’s your job to make sure you get it. I’m an academic and I certainly have this ‘disease’ as well. We tend to think in terms of decades of thinking and research and so forth, but when you’re dealing with Human Rights issues, like the Armenian genocide, lives can be on the line and future human rights issues could be at stake. So I think we have to hurry ourselves up occasionally and make some tough decisions.



Aztag- And, of course, that doesn’t mean that the research should stop.

Henry Theriault- No it doesn’t. The way you test whether someone is being reasonable in their opinions, you ask him ‘what kind of evidence you would it take to make you change your position?’ and if the person says there is no evidence that could possibly make him change his mind, then you know that the person is committed to the idea without really weighing it through the process of evaluation. If someone asks what it would take to make me change my mind about, say, the Armenian genocide or the Rwandan genocide, I would answer that if I suddenly found out I’ve been brainwashed or something, then I would have to accept the argument that these genocides didn’t occur.  However, the evidence is so overwhelming that it will be entirely irrational and unreasonable for me not to take it seriously. Anyone who studies the events in the Ottoman Empire during that period of time would conclude that what took place was genocide.




Aztag- But we have to be realistic. People cannot research every single issue to form an opinion about it. At some point, they have to accept the views of professionals specialized in that field. You are saying that anyone who researches these events will conclude that what took place was genocide.  The deniers can, in turn, say that anyone who does some research will find out that what took place wasn’t genocide. No wonder some people are confused and approach the issue with ‘open-mindedness’.


Henry Theriault- I would like to say two things about this. First, in the field of philosophy there’s a debate about whether you can have something called theory neutral data. If you just collect the data, will it point to some theory or is it always necessary to have some kind of framework? The use of a bad relativist framework convinces people that this is a good way to look at the world, and then when they’re confronted with data of the Armenian genocide or any other  human rights violation they see it within a framework where it doesn’t look like genocide, it doesn’t look like a one sided violence.

Second, I’d like to say that in life there is no absolute certainty. People 300 years ago thought that Newton’s equations of motion were the absolute last word in physics. I’m not an expert on this, but the universe doesn’t fit together in quite the neat way. And human reality is so much more complicated than the hard sciences. And of course, nothing fits together in a nice neat package. If the deniers apply their evidence standards on the Holocaust, and even on issues of hard sciences, they would sound equally convincing.



Aztag- This atmosphere that denial creates is intolerable for the ever decreasing number of Armenians who faced these atrocities as well as for us, their descendents. However, the Turks who are not aware of the facts, and who are brought up in schools where the denialist or, at best, the relativist approaches are being taught, would feel great frustration as well when they face the ‘Armenian claims’. Denial’s detrimental effects are felt on both sides and on many levels, aren’t they?

Henry Theriault- If I were a Turk today, I would be reaching back to the Ottoman Empire to think of something good about my country. Today, Turkey is in a very weak position, it looks very strong but Turkey is effectively a state of the United States; the US government more or less tells turkey what it wants and Turkey has to do it. Of course, if you look back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, the contrast is striking. Nowadays, Turkey is not only very dependent on the USA, but also it’s not much liked in the region by most governments. It also has internal problems (Islamism, democracy standards, Kurds). And you can understand, maybe on a human level that Turks would want to identify with the good things in their history. The problem is when they takes that to the level of “I desperately need to have a proud identity and anybody that says anything negative at all about Turkey as my enemy and it’s got to be wrong”. But the anger that an Armenian feels at denial and the anger that a Turkish person might feel at having to confront the fact of the genocide are not the same angers, they’re not coming from the same source and they shouldn’t be evaluated in the same way.




Aztag- You are working on a paper where a new approach to the interpretation of the motives that led to the Armenian genocide will be presented. What was your ‘problem’ with the previous theories?

Henry Theriault- A lot of important and invaluable research has been done on the Armenian genocide. But there are two issues that I often think about.  One is that people tend to look for one mechanism that accounts for the genocide. The way I understand genocide is in terms of the particular perpetrators who participate at the high levels, at the ground level and in between. There are different kinds of perpetrators, there are different kinds of motives: some perpetrators have overlapping multiple motives; economic, ideological, psychological etc.

Some theories of Holocaust would reduce it down to “Hitler was insane, and hated his grandmother who was a Jew” or something like that; that’s just ridiculous because that may be a piece of the bigger puzzle and it might very important to include it, but when people take one piece and present it as the whole truth, that’s too much. One should know what the historical facts are, and then try to understand why they are as they are.  One needs to look at economic issues, clerical issues, prejudice on the ground, racism, if there were religious issues, historical trends and shifts, demographics, migration patterns, one needs to look at a whole range of issues to understand genocide. In this respect, there are some missing pieces in the Armenian genocide historiography because a lot of the scholars try to reduce it down to one or two mechanisms.

This is somehow related to Nietzsche’s Perspectivism. One of the things Nietzsche does in his writings is work through different perspectives and different ideas; people think he’s contradicting himself, but what he’s actually doing is bringing different things into perspective, and going through that takes a fairly sophisticated intellectual sense of what’s going on.

What I’m saying is that if one is going to explain a complicated historical event that involves millions of people, one has got to recognize that your understanding of that event is going to be very complicated. It doesn’t mean that you can’t focus in on certain clear pieces that help to reduce it down for easy kind of understanding, and it doesn’t mean you can’t say that the Turkish government committed genocide of Armenians; of course they did, but that genocide was complicated, the way it works. In my paper, a draft of which you saw, I’m not giving a comprehensive view of the genocide, but I’m trying to pay attention to some things that have not been paid attention to, such as the interior issues among the Turks and within the Armenian community.


Aztag- In an interview conducted in January, I asked Professor Rudolph Rummel about the issues of recognition and reparation. He said, ‘No reparations. Too much time has passed, virtually no one in authority during this period is alive, and Armenians loses in property and income are too diffuse to determine now anyway. Theother side of this in the injustice that would be committed against Turks that had no role in the genocide and may have opposed it, and whose even may have fought against it (many Turks did try to help the Armenians)’.

What do you think about his comment?

Henry Theriault- The amount of time that passed doesn’t matter; it’s whether the repercussions of the genocide and the loss of land still have an impact.  For example, I fully support the case of land claims of native Americans, and part of the reason why I do that is the impact of the loss of lands.  Native Americans today are facing great difficulty because of the legacy of the genocide; I don’t care if a thousand years go by. The case of Armenians is similar. If you just look at the delicate political situation of Armenia, its vulnerability to Turkey, the dependence on Russia and the US and others for basic survival, what I mean becomes clear. So I think that part of the reparations is to help rebuild the victim community in a way that makes it secure and viable.




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