Conference Agenda

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Session Overview
Session D4 1: The Democracy-Genocide Relationship: New Considerations
Thursday, 22/July/2021:
7:30pm - 9:00pm

Session Chair: Sara Kristine Cohan, The Genocide Education Project, United States of America
Location: Room 1


The Democracy-Genocide Relationship: New Considerations

Chair(s): Sabah Carrim (Texas State University San Marcos, USA), Adam Muller (University of Manitoba, Canada), Sara Cohan (The Genocide Education Project, USA)

For decades in states with democratic structures across the globe, from Oceania and East and South Asia, through Europe and Africa, to the Americas, far-right racist, xenophobic, nativist, etc., groups have been dismissed as aberrations not threatening democratic societies’ fundamental stability. The long-standing view that democracies do not commit mass human rights violations such as genocide, manifested in the 1990s labeling of those that do as “failed” or “rogue” states, has obscured, however, the reality that is well known to the groups targeted by democracies’ far-right movements, which have been calling attention to the organized, pervasive, semi-official violence they have long practiced. As broadly successful mass movements, aided and perhaps made possible by internet-based communication and social media, have expanded their targets, asserted themselves increasingly forcefully in the mainstream, and gained influence there, even those in dominant policy and elite circles are finally taking notice of the major threat they pose. These movements are recognized to be more extensive, organized, and invasive of government and civil society structures than was previously imagined, at least in the policy and media mainstreams. But this comes as no surprise to those understanding the role such forces have long played in democracies.

How have these groups used social media to increase their impacts? How have they transitioned into the mainstream? Why have they broadened their targets? What are the implications of these movements for putatively democratic countries? What is their genocidal potential, and what will it take to prevent it? More broadly, what does such groups’ presence in democracies and the genocidal history of democracies tell us about the fraught relationship between genocide and democracy? How must “democracy” be reconceived to prevent the rise of these movements and the genocidal potential they represent in the future?


Presentations of the Symposium


The Rise of United States Hate Groups in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Sara Cohan
The Genocide Education Project, USA

In response to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, there was a renewed rise in hate organizations and hate-related activity. Leaders included disenfranchised Southern racists, rural separatists, anti-Semites, wealthy capitalists and even soldiers who served in the Vietnam War.

Right wing extremists like Richard Butler, David Duke, Louis Beam and William Pierce began to construct modern hate tactics and reorganize hate groups during the dawn of the Information Age. These agents of hate were (and are) able to manipulate economic concerns, fear of the “other,” and political failings and create ingenious propaganda used to organize extremists not only in the United States but internationally as well.

With almost every deadly attack launched, the American majority’s response is superficial horror. After attacks, information about hate groups dominate the news for only a moment. Those same Americans that distance themselves at the instant violence occurs, sell the products of hate groups, provide them with online platforms, and elect their chosen politicians to office. The American majority have benefitted from the growth of hate groups and will continue to do so economically, socially and politically as long as the industry of hate remains unchecked.


The New Right Wing Nativism, Trump, and the Assault on American Democracy

Peter Balakian
Colgate University, USA

With the virulent reemergence of far-right nativism, driven by fantasy-conspiracy ideas, now fueled by former President Donald Trump’s anti-state, racist populism, the United States is facing its worst political crisis in modern history. Donald Trump’s activation of these malignant forces has now led to violence of an unprecedented kind, as the terrorist insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 demonstrated. Using Robert Lifton’s notions about cultic extremism and Irvin Staub’s social psychological theory about populist rage, “hard-times” conditions, and damaged self-esteem, I will analyze some roots of the current American nativism as well as some of its new dimensions. I will explore the alt-right’s conspiracy theories that demonize the imagined enemy (liberals, Democratic party legislators, celebrities, and cultural elites) as pedophiles engaged in satanic cults of child murder and blood-drinking – with origins in medieval European Christian (Catholic Church) Antisemitism – and how this intersects with the big lie, promulgated by Trump, that claims the 2020 election was rigged and stolen by fraud.

What might it mean for a democracy when its head of state makes destructive falsehoods a normative part of life? Can a democracy survive this?


"An uncomfortable day for Canada”: Genocidal Violence, Democracy, and the Work of Repair

Adam Muller
University of Manitoba, Canada

This paper assesses the significance and effects on genocide education and reconciliation of two major federal government attempts to document the harms of Indigenous genocide in Canada. Both the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC), which examined the treatment of children in Canada’s Indian Residential School system from 2008 to 2015, and the 2015-2018 National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), shocked a majority of Canadians by concluding that settler colonialism in Canada resulted in an ongoing genocide of the country’s Indigenous peoples.

This paper will review the conclusions of the TRC and the MMIWG, describing how the latter built upon, refined, and enlarged the genocide claim first advanced by the former. I will weigh the responses of various levels of Canadian government, as well as the general public, to the idea that genocide has been perpetrated domestically. My analysis will show that, while there have been important advances in the genocide awareness of Canadians, significant structural and ideological obstructions continue to prevent broad acceptance of the genocide claim, and so retard the work of reconciliation and redress that the TRC and MMIWG have both signalled remains vital to a properly functioning democratic polity.


From Democracy as Anti-Genocide to Democratic Genocide: Rethinking Genocide Prevention and Repair

Henry Theriault
Worcester State University, USA

A prevalent view is that the tendency toward genocide is inversely proportional to that toward democracy. Similarly, perpetrator society democratization is often construed as effective repair: democratization restores victims’ rights, dignity, and well-being, thereby addressing a genocide’s impacts. Genocides by democracies are usually attributed to anti-democratic tendencies in them.

Democracy is not inherently antigenocidal, however: democratic systems and structures can be genocidal and enablers or tools of perpetration. States can democratically commit genocide, as evidenced by decentralized decision-making and popular participation in many US genocides against Native Americans.

The genocidal potential of democracy results from the domination relations established by the non-citizen or non-voter exclusions through which every democracy defines itself and asserts cohesion and specificity. Following the work of Anne Waters, such exclusions produce dominance hierarchies. Further, democratic systems are incomplete: their actual functioning is determined by the ethical values, power differentials, etc., that are fed into them. Digital communication tools have much increased tendencies of voting populations to self-organize and be manipulated toward genocidal attitudes and actions.

To be non- or antigenocidal, democracy must be augmented by ethical and inclusivity standards guaranteeing the same rights insiders have to outsiders and that domination relations within it are actively corrected.