Bearing witness

Written by | October 1, 2012

Esteemed genocide expert talks testimony, politics

“How do we really put pressure on the rallying cry ‘never again’ so that it will mean something?” asked Marie Lo, director of the Portland Center for Public Humanities.

This is the question that John Roth, a philosophy professor at Claremont McKenna College in California, confronts in his upcoming lecture, “The Politics of Testimony: Aftereffects of Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities.”

Roth, who also serves as the director of Claremont McKenna’s Center for Human Rights, will deliver his lecture as part of the Portland Center for Public Humanities’ Holocaust and Genocide Studies project series. The well-known scholar began his study of genocide nearly 40 years ago when he became interested in the Holocaust.

“From there my commitment to that work grew and expanded,” Roth said. “Eventually, I was teaching about genocide and human rights as well.”

His lecture poses questions about how to use the information gathered from survivor testimonies and the responsible political and ethical reponses.

According to Roth, his approach to his studies stems from a background in philosophical training; this allows him to view studies of the Holocaust and other genocides with specific attention to the ethical and political aspects of such atrocities.

“What we are calling the ‘politics of testimony’ covers a variety of areas,” Roth said. “First, how to use ‘testimony,’ especially that of the victims of mass atrocities, has been an issue for scholars who study genocide and other crimes against humanity.

“The same thing holds with regard to testimony in international courts of law,” Roth said. “Here the issue extends to how the persons who have been victims of atrocities may be affected by testifying.”

Through the well of presented information is immense, the question arises: what can be done? To many people, education is the first step toward change. Roth hopes that these talks and discussions can ignite change and awareness.

“We try to influence policy when and where we can, but scholarship in these areas is largely about raising awareness and helping people to see that there are things we can all do to resist atrocities,” Roth said. “Discussion about testimony and the politics that surround it are part of this process.”

The Portland Center for Public Humanities presents
“The Politics of Testimony—Aftereffects of Genocide and Other Mass Atrocities”
A lecture by Prof. John Roth

Thursday, Oct. 4, 7–8:30 p.m.
Smith Memorial Student Union, room 338
Free and open to the public

The lecture is part of the center’s ongoing series that examines the politics of testimony and testimonials. The series will also include David Cohen, director of the War Crimes Center at the University of California, Berkeley, who will discuss testimony and its legal implications.

Roth’s recent work revolves directly around issues regarding ethics and responsibility
relating to testimony of survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.

“I think his work raises really powerful and important questions that will resonate with many of our students,” Lo said.

Roth recently coauthored Rape: Weapon of War and Genocide with Carol Rittner, RSM, a distinguished professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. The book is a collection of original essays by distinguished genocide scholars and aims to be a “tool kit” for activists and an “informative alarm” for general readers, according to the publisher’s website.

“In the past 20 years, rape has emerged explicitly as a policy that is part of genocidal campaigns,” Roth said. “This is by no means the first time that sexual violence has been crucial in crimes against humanity. But in the past two decades these problems have become especially acute.”

The book is a comparative study, covering the Holocaust, ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian War and victims of femicide in Guatemala. The day after the lecture, Friday, Oct. 5, Roth will lead a workshop at 10 a.m. in Neuberger Hall that will focus on his book.

“The workshop will focus in some detail on issues raised in my new book,” Roth said, “My lecture on the politics of testimony has a broader focus, but the two occasions, I hope, will supplement and complement each other.”

Both events look to increase awareness in the community about mass atrocities and what everyone can do to resist them. The politics discussed within the lecture aim to inform citizens about what can be done.

“I think that sometimes students learn about these issues but feel helpless about what to do,” Lo said. “His talk will direct us towards possibilities for action.”

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