28 October 2007

2133) The Armenian Psyche: Trans-Generational Transmission

Many Armenians, especially those living in the diaspora, are euphoric about . . the adoption of a resolution by the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs labeling what happened to a number of Armenians in the last decade of the Ottoman Empire as genocide, implicating the modern Republic of Turkey as well. Armenians took this as “victory” because they had become perennial mourners of a tragic past and a third party they valued had now endorsed their victimhood. They work very hard to get this result because every validation further reinforces their collective identity shaped by victimhood born out of a “chosen trauma.” And the Armenians did not have to go out of their way to find this trauma. They were decimated and bereft of the land they lived on for millenniums by the Turks. It does not matter whether it was today’s Turks or those of 1915. They could not punish their wrongdoers, and now others are doing it for them, at least by acknowledging their crimes.
How does this mechanism work? When a traumatized group cannot reverse its feelings of resentment, animosity, helplessness and humiliation towards a chosen “enemy,” it cannot effectively go through the work of mourning. Consequently, it transfers these unfinished psychological tasks to future generations. Such transmissions may take place through deliberate official policies and formal education, or it may take place unconsciously in the family environment during child rearing. When the group’s historical narrative is passed onto the child with the stories of ancestors that have experienced a massive trauma and severe losses, children of the next generation(s) are given serious tasks that link them up with the group’s history which is learned as the sole truth. They are obligated to complete the mourning by reversing pain, shame and humiliation. This is done by turning humiliation into accusation, helplessness into assertion and hatred into lasting political and diplomatic strategies that would harm the “enemy.” This trans-generational transmission connects the members of the group mentally and emotionally and carves out an identity out of a traumatic reading of history.

Traumatized groups, who may not have the “power” to turn their passivity into assertiveness, may idealize victimhood. Victimhood is defined as: “A state of individual and collective ethnic mind that occurs when the traditional structures that provide an individual sense of security and self-worth through membership in a group are shattered by aggressive, violent political outsiders. Victimhood can be characterized by either an extreme or persistent sense of mortal vulnerability.”

When victimhood is acquired as a state of mind, not only does it become the foundation of group identity but it also deafens the traumatized group to the apology offered by the perpetrators or their descendents. In order to accept such an apology and to forgive the descendents of their ancestors’ enemy, the group would have to abandon its shared sense of “idealized victimhood.” But then, this is also a traumatic process because its identity is shaped by victimhood.

A chosen trauma may assume new functions as it passes from one generation to the next. In some generations when: 1- the perpetrator or its descendents insist in denying their past wrongdoings; 2- the group is still under domination; 3- the group has not acquired enough power and leverage to overcome its helplessness and humiliation, it may sustain its shared and idealized victimhood. Or a subgroup may appear amongst the wider traumatized group that may be called “avengers.” Avengers carry no feelings of guilt for the wrongdoings and brutalities they commit against the perpetrator or better, their descendents, because their victims are the source of the “original sin.”

In the light of this analysis, it seems seeking peace of mind and a diplomatic peace with Turkey by the Armenians -- especially those living in the diaspora, who have little connection with the needs of citizens of the Republic of Armenia -- will not be that easy until and unless the mourning process is healthily concluded. Of course there is plenty to be done by the Turks to put the minds and souls of the Armenians to rest by re-evaluating their common past. This has to be done not by the politicians but rather by the people who are in direct contact, trying to connect their futures. Dogu Ergil d.ergil@todayszaman.com 28.10.2007

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