Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
Session C2 1: Changing Ideologies and Identities in Genocide and Mass Atrocities
Tuesday, 20/July/2021:
5:30pm - 7:00pm

Session Chair: Erin Jessee, University of Glasgow, United Kingdom
Location: Room 1


Changing Ideologies and Identities in Genocide and Mass Atrocities

Chair(s): Erin Jessee (University of Glasgow)

In the study of genocides, mass atrocities and violent conflicts, scholars now widely recognise that the kind of ideologies and identities which may be used to justify such violence are not rigid and unchanging. On the contrary, existing research emphasises that ideologies and identities are continuously contested, with dominant interpretations radicalising or moderating over time in response to changing circumstances and to the efforts of activists, intellectuals, politicians, media and social movements. This panel seeks to address this gap in scholarship, drawing together a highly international and interdisciplinary group of scholars whose papers intersect and complement each other in presenting evolving and emerging scholarship within the field.

While the conference itself gathers scholars, activists, and other individuals to discuss genocide, it is the language used that is the focus of Willa Culpepper's paper. Noting the popularity of the word 'evil' in discourse about genocide, Culpepper asks whether this term is as used, or useful to perpetrators or victims in understanding the violence they are intimately familiar with. Similarly, Lesley Owen's paper explores the terminology and imagery used in prejudicial ideologies, and the political misappropriation of scientific knowledge. Yet such ideologies and identities aren't static- and it is these dynamic shifts throughout conflicts that Timothy Williams and Leader Maynard seek to draw academic focus to. The longevity or flexibility of these ideological commitments is relevant to Lesley Daniels' work, as she explore the identities that remain after the conflict, and what this legacy means for post-conflict environments. Together these papers draw together research on Cambodia, Rwanda, Germany, Indonesia, Former Yugoslavia and the USSR. Together, they seek to inform and enlarge understanding of the roles of identity and ideology in ethnic conflict, genocide and political violence- with expert Erin Jessee chairing.


Presentations of the Symposium


‘Ideology from nature’: exploring the role of biological images in the convergence of genocidal ideologies

Leah Owen
University of Oxford

This paper explores how everyday and scientific knowledge about the natural world - encounters with pests, folklore about predators, and personal experiences with sickness and parasites - often cause ideologies of ethnic prejudice to converge according to similar genocidal logics. This has been observed at a superficial level in scholarly discussions of dehumanisation, but even more detailed examinations (e.g. Savage, 2013; Neilsen, 2015) seldom explain why certain images or comparisons are selected, and how they contribute to the development of prejudiced ideologies. Through an examination of three primary case studies - Germany, Rwanda, and Cambodia - I seek to remedy this.

Using a discourse-analysis approach, I examine how imagery of nature was readily incorporated into the development of genocidal ideologies. Rather than developing through slow cultural/historical accretion, nature imagery could be ‘bolted on’ to existing ideologies of ethnic prejudice, predicating extremely negative traits to its subjects and offering a distinctive repertoire of ‘biosecurity’ violence to be used against them. Despite very different contexts, this led to strikingly similar conclusions across cases about how violence should be targeted and enacted. I discuss how genocidal discourses employing dehumanisation tend to converge, adopting similar ‘internal logics’ in ways their different cultural contexts would not predict.


Post-conflict resonance of identity claims: The case of Aceh, Indonesia

Lesley Daniels
Institut Barcelona d'Estudis Internacionals

During conflict, armed groups may use ideological or ethnic claims to gain support. However, post-conflict these groups can struggle to transition from fighting to governing and we know little about the long-term effects of their claims on this process. For example, are groups tarnished or legitimized by such claims? This research examines micro-level attitudes to different claims and uses a range of experiments in an original survey in Aceh to disentangle long-term effects. The results show that exclusive identity claims are rejected and do not translate into political support. The most potent predictors of support are security and an improved economic deal. We know a lot about why regions return to conflict after secessionist wars, yet we know little about those that remain at peace. The findings have implications for post-conflict management.


Ideological and Identity Change in Theories of Genocide

Timothy Williams1, Jonathan Leader Maynard2
1Bundeswehr University Munich, 2King's College London

Contemporary research on genocide broadly recognises that ideologies and identities – widely thought to play some significant role in mass violence – are mutable and dynamic phenomena. Yet most theories of genocide only attend to such dynamism implicitly. This paper identifies four broad competing implicit accounts of ideological change found in theoretical approaches to genocide: essentialism (emphasising continuity over change), autonomism (emphasising cultural agency detached from other causal factors), symptomism (emphasising deeper material or structural determinants of ideology/identity) and cumulationism (emphasising the escalating radicalisation of ideology and identity in mutual interaction with other causal factors). The first three suffer from widely-critiqued problems, but much work on genocide nevertheless continues to work implicitly within such accounts. The fourth receives more explicit endorsement, yet often remains excessively linear, and vague on the underlying interactions between ideology/identity and the broader causal environment. Based on this critical organisation of existing research, we distinguish key points of a) relative consensus, b) significant dispute and c) unaddressed questions in recent research on genocide, and suggest pathways for future theorisation and empirical research on ideological and identity change.


‘The Devil Makes Work:’ The Use of Conceptual Language of Evil in Genocide Analysis

Willa Rae Witherow-Culpepper
Rutgers University Newark

Despite the considerable legacy of Arendt’s disruptive and pivotal text on the Banality of Evil and the Eichmann trial, the label ‘evil’ continues to be applied to analysis of genocide and explanations for the violence at both local, interpersonal levels and events consuming whole communities and regions. That this language continues to be used by scholars and prevention-practitioners as well as journalists and other non-academic commentators is problematic: much of the language is used for purposes of moral weight in a presumptive secular manner, but have inescapable ties to religious themes and terminology that may be inappropriate when applied to the diverse cultural and religious realities of social landscapes that have experienced genocide. Moreso, it undermines advances in genocide scholarship that have proved that beyond the strategic military goals, politically utopic aims and propaganda of regimes that low-level perpetrators usually commit abhorrent violence for a myriad of reasons, some of them mundane and very far from the supernatural or otherworldly evil. This paper reviews the continued prevalence of this problematic language within the field, and why it should be refuted alongside a synthesis of current scholarship that attempts to demystify perpetrator research from the language that currently bedevils it.