Commemorating Genocide and the Problem of Empathy

In this piece, Cory Legassic asks us to think about the stories we use in the classroom and in theatre productions to foster empathy for the suffering of others. With an examination of commemorative projects of the Rwandan genocide, he emphasizes that we must remember that feeling the pain of others does not necessarily imply that we have raised crucial questions about responsibility.   


As a CEGEP teacher, I hope to draw students’ attention and questions to the ways that we build relationships. It is important to think critically and unpack the ways that social forces, discourses and histories shape the conditions under which we come together and build communities. Stories and storytelling are the building blocks to communities. It is easy to emphasize empathy as a taken-for-granted good in our attempts to cultivate connections and relationships of care in a world that is arguably full of alienation and hyper-individualism. In this discussion on cultivating empathy in our practices, I want to share some critical voices that helped me pause and learn to not take-for-granted how even projects oriented around empathy can continue reproducing oppressive social relations. 

As an undergraduate student thinking about social justice and passionate about theatre, I decided to set up an independent reading course with Alan Filewod at the University of Guelph on “Political Intervention Theatre.” I wanted to explore the ways that theatre invites us to connect with stories and ultimately measure its success in its ability to create empathy in its audience.  I was interested in the Ottawa-based Broken English Theatre Company that was featuring a play with Rwandan and Canadian actors as part of a commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide—now almost 20 years ago. In 2004, almost ten years had passed since a million Tutsis and Hutus were systematically killed in just 100 days in Rwanda.  Around the world, government and non-government organizations participated in an international effort to organize various projects to commemorate the anniversary, mostly under the banner of “Remembering Rwanda: 10th Anniversary Memorial Project (RR10).” Much of the Canadian narrative around the Rwandan genocide had emerged mostly through the context of its international role and reputation as peacekeeper.  Over the years, the media has told the story of this massacre to most of the audiences in Canada through the testimonies of now-retired general Romeo Dallaire.  In the year 2000, CBC reported in their article “Death and Duty”:

It was the worst genocide of the late 20th century; the 1994 mass murder of perhaps 800,000 people in Rwanda. Caught in the middle, Canada’s Gen. Romeo Dallaire; commander of the UN mission in Rwanda.  He tried to warn his UN superiors of the impending horror, but was prevented from intervening. Six years later, he’s still tortured by the memories of what he saw and what he could not do.  On April 2000, he announced he was retiring early from the army for health reasons, his nerves still shaken by Rwanda.

My interest in this commemorative project though was not sparked by the widespread wave of publicity that had reached out through various media, but rather it was carved into my consciousness in a somewhat larger pretext when I attended a talk with the intriguing title “Racism as Compassion.” Dr. Sherene Razack was touring to discuss her latest book Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping, and the New Imperialism. At the heels of the Rwandan genocide she describes the controversies surrounding Canada’s peacekeeping role in Somalia. In 1996, CBC reported in their article “The Killings in Somalia”:

On March 4, two Somalis were shot in the back by Canadian [peacekeeping] soldiers on patrol at the compound. One was wounded, the other was shot dead with two or three bullets. An Army surgeon, Dr. Barry Armstrong, revealed that the man had lived for a few minutes, then was shot “execution-style in the head.” Then, 12 days later, there was another awful incident. A 16-year-old, Shidane Arone, was tortured and murdered on the base. One of the soldiers involved took “trophy” pictures of the torture.

In her work, Razack weaves together two threads out of Canada’s historical story as “peacekeeper” in several wars and genocides across the globe (notably Somalia and Rwanda): (1) that of violence itself and what would drive men to commit such atrocities, and (2), the ways in which peacekeeping violence is largely forgiven and ultimately forgotten. She argues convincingly that racism and racial violence disappears from public memory and what remains is the myth of an innocent, morally superior middle-power nation obliged to discipline and sort out barbaric Third World nations. (2003: 7) Much of Canadian media representation of the 1994 Rwandan genocide was mediated through feelings of compassion surrounding Romeo Dallaire’s testimonies: “In place of racial epithets, humiliated children, and tortured, beaten, and executed bodies, a new story emerges about the heroism of the peacekeepers of Northern countries and the traumas they had had to endure as they go about the business of assisting Third World nations into modernity” (2003: 7).

And ten years later, the Broken English Theatre Company was preparing itself to bring Rwandan and Canadian actors on stage to commemorate the genocide. They described their first objective as commemoration: to launch a process that culminates in the international recognition of the genocide on its 10th anniversary in 2004. In that pursuit, they intended to cooperate with those who campaign against all genocides and welcome and actively involve other communities that have endured great calamities in the recent past. Their second objective was documentation and education: to help preserve the memory of the genocide by remembering its victims and those who tried to aid its victims, and through public education on Rwanda and other genocides (HUMURA website). I asked myself, what kind of relationships can remembering make possible, and what are the conditions of that remembering?

So I did some interesting reading around the subject, which was the purpose of the course. In “Change on Whose Terms?” Julie Salverson describes theatre as “an ethical space in which a relationship between detachment and contact occurs” (2001: 119).  There is a strong tension between the controversial narrative of Canadian peacekeeping and the Broken English Theatre Company project, and this tension offered me an important space to explore questions that Razack ultimately raises in much of her work: how do we negotiate between empathy and responsibility? And I brought these questions into a discussion on political theatre: Would this Broken English Theatre project try and sort through Canadian peacekeeping history and maintain visible its contradictions, or would it use the trauma around the Rwandan genocide to reaffirm a comfortable national self-image? Will this project acknowledge some of the racism in Canadian peacekeeping, or will it use testimonies of war to absolve Canada of its complicity in some of the atrocities that happened on its peacekeeping missions?

These leading questions reveal my concern around the potential effects of these kinds of theatre projects, and the potential of discourses set to cultivate empathy in general. While empathy assumes an important function for the audience engaged with forms of theatre that offer testimony of war, that empathy can also play a significant role in larger narratives that reproduce and protect a racist and colonial “Canadian” national identity.  I wanted to problematize the power of empathy using the context of political theatre. Problematic, that is, not from the viewpoint of actors’ abilities to stage testimonies and stories that commemorate genocide, but from the perspective that such acts carry ethical consequences. Many scholars and theatre practitioners helped challenge my awareness of the possible spectrum of power relationships that can be encouraged through empathy. My contribution to this discussion on empathy is that we challenge the comfortable position that a person can take when they never question the effects of empathy.

In “Empathy and the Ethics of Entitlement,” Ronald J. Pelias suggests that empathy empowers performers by giving them knowledge of others. I understand this to mean that if I feel I am empathizing with the testimony of a survivor of some great atrocity, for example, I might think I feel closer to the storyteller and, more importantly, I might assume I am then closer to understanding where they might be coming from. Letting myself accept so easily that I might understand where a storyteller is coming from can be problematic.  In order to empathize with a person (which was taught to me as being virtuous), one of the dangers is that I can let myself assign (and accept) a fixed role to a character in a story (i.e., the hero, the victim, the helper, etc.). What is an alternative way of reading this narrative? In one way, Pelias argues, “to embrace others fully can be seen as only a strategy designed to keep others in their place. To empathize is a way to control, to possess, to master others” (1991: 142). Maybe this is mostly a warning. We must be wary of performances (in theatre as much as in teaching!), as Razack cautions, that permit “traumatized subjectivity to replace rational subjectivity as the essential index of value for personhood and thus for society” (1998: 206). In other words, focusing on individual trauma risks limiting our ability to consider as well our roles in structural violence. How hard is it to make space to ask critical questions about the structural racism underpinning Canadian peacekeeping practices while empathising with one individual peacekeeper’s experience of trauma—whom the media has constructed as a national hero? The very storytelling of Dallaire’s experience in Rwanda has arguably obscured the tragedies in Somalia at the hands of Canadian peacekeepers. How we remember Rwanda prescribes a position from which we commemorate violence and war, and effectively our own conflicting roles in those stories. Razack continues: “One important consequence is that we can no longer talk about injustice and how it is organized. Instead we talk about pain and how to heal ourselves. When ‘feeling bad’ becomes evidence of a structural condition of injustice and ‘feeling good’ becomes evidence of justice’s triumph then both the problem and the solution are removed from their material and historical contexts” (1998: 207).

Canada is a nation founded on racism and colonialism and Razack’s work urges us to reflect on the contexts that have shaped the ways we imagine our national identities as we go out and wage peace. This is a long discussion, but one of the most telling contradictions that highlight the types of ideologies and histories that we need to grapple with as we send soldiers out as players in ongoing stories of war and genocides, is our own colonial foundations. One striking and telling example is how, in 2008, Stephen Harper issued an official apology for the atrocities of residential schools in Canada, often defined as a form of state-backed cultural genocide of Aboriginal Peoples, and then, five months later, in the midst of the economic crash, characterized the strengths of Canada to the international press as one of the few countries with no history of colonialism. What does it mean to cultivate empathy for the legacy of residential school violence outside of a context of colonialism? How we tell stories and the ways they shape our empathy are powerful.

All of this is not to say that testimonies of peacekeeping trauma are not important or that the Rwandan genocide was not one of the greatest horrors the world has seen. Nor is it to say that Canada should never intervene. It is to say, however, that empathy, as Razack argues convincingly, can script morality effectively to preclude other stories—of peacekeeping violence, of Western complicity in Rwanda and other places. It guides our feelings toward some things, and away from others. In “Countering Immigrant Fairytales: Staging Personal (Hi)stories in Canadian Popular Theatre,” Ingrid Mundel summarizes well the picture I have been trying to put together: “By sharing and staging the stories of marginalized communities without focusing on how and in what context the stories are being told, and without recognizing the intricate relationships of power that operate within the popular theatre space, popular theatre practitioners may, in fact, be reproducing a form of cultural colonialism” (2004: 8). By initiating an empathic process, performers start with a desire to understand and share the feelings of others. Performers believe that the knowledge they gather by empathizing with others is worth knowing. Choosing to empathize, then, functions as an ethical foundation for further ethical actions. However, performers may not use their empathic skills for ethical ends. There are a lot of different scholars and practitioners who are, if you will, asking for a different kind of listening, a different kind of response. They invite an encounter that does not dismiss empathy, but rather challenges the terms on which it is encouraged.

Why talk about theatre? I think exploring theatre allows us to open our minds and put on “stage” the kind of storytelling we do in our everyday lives. Any space where we engage actively with telling our stories—whether in the classroom, on a theatre stage, or in the media—must teach us how to be responsible (able to respond) by first helping us to ask questions. We need to feel empathy in spaces where we can have work hard at creating an open relationship with others and not just sit and watch testimonies like voyeurs in a blackbox. I hope that commemoration projects will continue challenging the way we, as individuals, engage with others in order to further challenge the way we understand ourselves.

Cory Legassic

Humanities/Sociology, Dawson College

, ,

2 Responses to Commemorating Genocide and the Problem of Empathy

  1. Bernadette Hendrickx October 24, 2014 at 11:05 am #

    Which Broken English Theatre Company production are you referring to?

  2. Kimia O May 13, 2015 at 3:19 pm #

    I think it’s an interesting point you bring up , questioning whether or not the Broken English Theatre project will acknowledge some of the racism in peacekeeping for Canada. I think that it was a good point made by Razack, that “When ‘feeling bad’ becomes evidence of a structural condition of injustice and ‘feeling good’ becomes evidence of justice’s triumph then both the problem and the solution are removed from their material and historical contexts”. I never really considered this, or the point that you made, that “Letting [yourself] accept so easily that [you] might understand where a storyteller is coming from can be problematic”. It was interesting also how Harper apologized for atrocities of residential schools for Native Canadian then ironically states months later that Canada had no history of colonization; when in fact, the residential schools atrocities can be considered some form of colonizing the Natives. I really liked the point you made at the end about how “we need to feel empathy in spaces where we can have work hard at creating an open relationship with others and not just sit and watch testimonies like voyeurs in a blackbox”. It summed up the article well and tied together the different atrocities and how we should react to them.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress. Designed by WooThemes