Understanding Genocide in History

Interview with John Liffiton, Initiator of the Genocide Awareness Week Conference Series
at Scottsdale Community College

By Dr. Sharonah Fredrick, Asst. Director, ACMRS

John Liffiton, Director of the Genocide Conference and English Faculty at Scottsdale Community College, (SCC) and organizer of the Annual Conference on Genocide Awareness at SCC, has received vehement letters denying the Holocaust. This phenomenon demands analysis of other cases of genocide—the Armenians in Turkey in 1915, over ten million (by conservative estimates) Native Americans in both North and South America in the 16th-19th centuries, and much of Australia’s aboriginal population in the 18th and 19th centuries, which preceded the slaughter of Europe’s Jewish and Roma and Sinti population in the 1940s. John’s response is clear: the solution to hatred is education.

Only knowledge of facts will enable us to open dialogues free of racial stereotyping. John’s list of collaborators in his education project regarding genocide awareness and prevention is impressive. It has included, since April 2016, ACMRS. The Genocide Awareness week which Liffiton created in 2013 involves a heterogeneous community. It encompasses contemporary German scholars of history and Armenian priests, community leaders, professors of literature and anthropology to Holocaust survivors and their descendants, Native American academics, students, and of course, the general public in Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale.

In the last Conference—the upcoming one is scheduled for April 2017—ACMRS participated with Sharonah’s lecture on ethnocide in the America’s during the 16th and 17th centuries. She focused on the opposition of Spanish and English intellectuals to the killing of Native peoples in New World colonization. This reflects the overall mission of the Scottsdale Community College initiative, and of ACMRS: creating a space for ongoing and constructive dialogue on difficult issues in history, embracing analysis, and self-criticism. The aim is not to promote revenge. It is to create comprehension and conscious awareness, so that the underlying conditions which allowed genocide to occur, will not do so now or any time in the future.

John Liffiton asserts that students are unafraid of complex and controversial subjects. These are the themes which most spark students’ interest, particularly when they can find parallels to their own time. He does not shy away from unpleasantness, and is not yoked to any idea that education must always be “fun.” In John’s opinion, study must illuminate and widen intellectual horizons. He confirms that, when confronted with stark realities, be it atrocities in Darfur or the elimination of entire Native peoples in the Caribbean and New England in the 16th and 17th centuries, the students whom he teaches invariably rise to the occasion. They become inspired to do their own research and present their findings in an interdisciplinary setting.

John does not limit his research on genocide to a small group of “academics”. In his seminars, he has invited FBI agents who fight hate crimes, as well as clergy who engage in ecumenical activity. Neither does John limit himself only to written historical testimony. That testimony, either regarding the more recent Holocaust of Jews and Gypsies, or of Bosnian Muslims; or the earlier ethnocides of Taino and Mandan Native peoples in the 16th-19th centuries, can also be spoken. The oral tradition, therefore, also receives due attention at the SCC Genocide Awareness Week.

John likes to speak of “upstanders” and not just “bystanders.” “Upstanders” are those who took a stand against atrocities when they witnessed them. History is full of people like this. (One thinks of Early Modern philosophers such as Montaigne, Francisco de Vitoria, and the writer Jonathan Swift). A film such as The White Rose, Liffiton reminds us, illustrates how education makes a tangible difference. That film details how a group of anti-Nazi German students took a stand against totalitarianism in their own university, during the height of WWII. Examples of courage like this, says John Liffiton, enable people to develop a sense of empathy for those who find themselves—and anyone can suddenly find him or herself—in the position of victim. Therefore, John involves community members, academics of different backgrounds, and professionals from varied fields in this symbiotic conversation regarding ethics and history.

ACMRS is pleased to collaborate with Scottsdale Community College on this important program. The Genocide Awareness Week Conference Series is free and open to the public. For more information, please contact John Liffton and Sharonah Fredrick.