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How to Avoid a Victimization Olympics

06/17/2015 08:40 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 05:59 EDT
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Comparing the suffering of human beings is a fruitless enterprise that breeds resentment, hostility, and competition. An old professor of mine at the University of Chicago, the distinguished historian Peter Novick, called this dynamic, appropriately, the "Victimization Olympics."

For scholars trained in specific fields of history, comparative analysis of different genocides can be valuable and productive, but for the general public, for ethnic victim groups, and even for academics with a more activist orientation to scholarship, comparing genocides often devolves into this kind of destructive competition. Often, the goal in these cases is not really comparison but equation, and even supersession, of others' experiences.

The Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission has just concluded its five-year investigation of the residential schools system, a traumatic program of forced assimilation imposed upon the Aboriginal populations of Canada from mid-1800s until 1996. And unfortunately, the "Victimization Olympics" have begun again.

I want to suggest that we stop comparing the experiences of victim groups and understand the specificity of each collective experience, while noting the diverse experiences of individuals within each group.

Over the last decade, students have entered my university courses on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust and made instant equations made between Auschwitz and Canadian residential schools. I have learned not to react to these uneducated assumptions and explain that as students learn about Auschwitz-Birkenau these kinds of inaccurate equations disappear.

As horrifying as residential schools were for the children forced into them, they have no resemblance whatsoever to a death camp designed to gas and burn human beings, in a larger process of systematic physical annihilation across Europe. Forced acculturation is not extermination. In fact, the very concept of using education and socialization to "kill the Indian in the child" assumes that there is a common underlying humanity that is actually accessible and "reformable." This would have been a total impossibility in Nazi racial thinking.

These differences are historical facts, but they should not be used to rank the suffering of people. The Holocaust was not a universal human experience; it was a specific program to erase the Jewish people from the continent of Europe. It was the most extreme genocide in modern recorded history and therefore it should not be used as the primary meter stick to gauge human suffering or to define genocide.

There are parallels, however, between the destruction of aboriginal cultures and languages under European colonialism and the forced conversions and subjugation of Jews in Christian Europe. In the modern period, as well, the French Revolution allowed for the emancipation of Jews granting them civil rights, but with the requirement that they be "reformed" out of their Jewish identity and turned into Frenchmen. Both Jews and Aboriginals have lived under enormous assimilationist pressure and much of it violently coercive.

Facile comparisons to the Holocaust and other genocides do not do justice to the uniqueness of the Aboriginal experience either. Life was completely altered for the indigenous populations after European settlement was established in Canada, which made their traditional existence impossible. The government and churches dictated one's rights, obligations, and movements, and invaded one's most intimate setting -- the family. Having this kind of absolute control over the lives of people invited widespread opportunities for abuse and the sexual and physical violation of children by clergy is a whole other level of trauma that does damage to the very souls of people. These are enormously complex levels of abuse and damage, and they deserve scholarly attention and respectful discussion at the public and governmental level. People have a right to be angry and outraged by their experiences and by the discoveries made by the five-year commission. The people who live here now and enjoy all the benefits of Canadian society, myself included, should be aware that Aboriginal people have a very different and much more complex experience of this country.

The suffering of Jews and Aboriginal people across time is a global reality that does not have to be divisive. When one looks at the power relationships between these peoples and the church, for example, there are many relatable experiences. Productive conversations could take place between Jews and Aboriginals on how one survives traumatic racist experiences, how a community preserves its culture, language, and religion in the face of fierce assimilationist pressures and attempts at religious conversion, how to cope with the dynamics of internalized colonization and self-hatred, and even sharing lessons on human resiliency.

The word genocide is used rather freely today and the legal definition of the word actually allows for this to be the case. Many people understand the word as requiring the physical destruction of a people, but there are ways to understand it otherwise. That brings us to the concept of "cultural genocide," which suggests the destruction of a people through the destruction of their specific cultural identity.

Scholars, lawyers, and governments will no doubt weigh in on whether or not the residential schools experience in Canada officially constitutes a cultural form of genocide. In the meantime, it is important to create a cultural and intellectual climate in this country that is flexible and sensitive enough to recognize the depth of suffering experienced by traumatized people and their children without ranking it on a destructive hierarchical scale. This is particularly necessary here in Canada where we have a very complex and unfolding indigenous experience alongside generations of immigrants from other lands, some of who have been refugees, and survivors of genocide, including the Holocaust.

One might say that Canada is in a unique position to find its way through this labyrinth and try to arrive at a fair and just resolution for indigenous peoples that recognizes their specific experience in this country. It would be a positive step forward if the Truth and Reconciliation Commission could also solidify our national commitment to fighting crimes against humanity, especially those perpetrated against women and children, horrifying crimes that continue unabated at this very moment.

To be effective in this struggle, we must keep division and competition at bay, while learning to accept and witness differing experiences of trauma and suffering without rank or hierarchy.

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