Faculty Profile - Henry Theriault
Professor of Philosophy Henry Theriault, Ph.D., has been at Worcester State University since 1998. He is currently chair of the department. From 1999 to 2007, he served as coordinator of the Center for the Study of Human Rights, which included oversight of development of the Dennis Brutus Collection. In addition to teaching philosophy courses, he teaches and researches philosophical approaches to genocide issues, especially genocide denial and critical thinking and evidence standards, long-term justice, ethical analyses of perpetrator motivations, and the role of violence against women in genocide.
Where did you grow up?
New Hampshire, in a dying mill town.
What led you to study philosophy and genocide?
I began studying philosophy in earnest on my own after I had graduated from college. I had a little exposure before then, but was more interested in literature. I read existential literature by Dostoevsky, Sartre, Camus, and others, and really found the way that it dealt with fundamental questions interesting and personally helpful. I read more and more and realized that I really had an interest in different aspects of philosophy, especially the attempt to get to the very foundations of things—for instance, what makes right and wrong?—and also to use clear, anti-ideological reasoning to tackle challenging political questions and problems in our society and around the globe. Philosophy is very well suited to generating radical new approaches to problems that most people tend to take for granted and even accept.
As for genocide, I am the grandchild of survivors of the Armenian Genocide and struggled growing up to understand what had happened to my family members (some were killed) and ethnic group. I was particularly upset about the Turkish government’s endless denial that the Turkish Ottoman state had committed genocide not only against my people but my specific family. In effect, they were calling my grandmother, a kindly survivor of the horrors of genocide, a liar for telling what happened to her, her family members, and her community. But, I never thought about this as an academic issue, just a personal one. Then, in graduate school, as I studied philosophy, I realized how much some of what I was studying, such as “epistemology” (the study of how we come to know things, the difference between belief and knowledge, and related topics), could help me counter denial statements and also to understand genocide (for instance, how can a person participate in a mass murder?). At that time, I also found that there were scholars who specifically focused on the study of genocide, from a number of disciplines, and I began to read and later to connect to them at conferences and elsewhere. I entered “genocide studies” about 15 years ago with a philosophical perspective and have continued since that time to use the tools of philosophy to understand and deal with genocide—by trying to prevent it and also by figuring out what needs to be done to address past genocides. Soon my humanity pushed me far beyond just the Armenian case, to concern about the many cases of genocide that have occurred and that occur today, such as what has been happening in Sudan beginning in 2003. I am committed to the struggle against all genocide and the proper scholarly and political recognition of all past cases of genocide.
What drew you in particular to researching the Armenian Genocide? What has it been like to be a part of the dispute surrounding this historic event?
To extend what I noted in response to the previous question, it has been a struggle. In being a public voice against denial of the Armenian Genocide, I have been part of a relatively small group without great funds or power to confront a large country with a strong military and millions of dollars a year to pump into denial of the Armenian Genocide. In the 1990s and early 2000s, it was particularly hard, as many times when I spoke on the issue at different universities, pro-Turkish audience members would not only disagree, but create problems for events and try to derail the events. I have been called a “terrorist” for speaking the truth about the Armenian Genocide, been publically belittled and denigrated, and have had to deal with many pressures—as many others have. Early on, this was a lonely and psychologically difficult process. But, fortunately, when one stands for what is true against what is false, there is always that foundation to fall back on, and in more recent years, dealing with denial has become easier, as many others and I have responded strongly and convincingly to it and the credibility of Turkish denial has been reduced. While it can still be a challenge to deal with it, it is not emotionally harmful in the way that it once was.
You recently traveled to the National Armenian Genocide Commemoration in Australia to give the event’s keynote address. What did you speak about?
I gave four public addresses in Australia (audiences ranging from about 200 to 1,000) as well as participated in meetings with politicians and other events. My remarks generally focused on the future of the Armenian Genocide issue, repairing the damage done, which still dramatically affects Armenians around the world. For instance, the Armenian Republic today is small and weak because of the destruction of the genocide (the lives destroyed, the money and land taken, etc.) and faces a Turkey that is 25 times its size with great wealth and power, the basis of which came from business, land, money, jewelry, etc., taken through the genocide, as many contemporary Turkish scholars are now explaining through their research. I discussed the need for reparations in the form of land and financial support in order for the Armenian Republic and global Armenian people to survive into the future in the long-term, beyond the next 20 years or so. Based on my treatment of Armenian issues, I also discussed the needs and rights of other victim groups, including indigenous people in Australia and around the world, who also suffered genocide and continue to be harmed by its devastating effects today. I also discussed the importance of violence against women and girls as part of the Armenian Genocide and as part of many other genocides.
How often do you present your research or give a speech about the Armenian Genocide or genocide in general?
I have been publishing a few articles a year on this subject, in scholarly journals, but also write some extended articles for journalistic publications as well. In addition, I speak as a lecturer or panelist probably 10 to 15 times a year, mainly as an invited lecturer. Over the past year, I have in fact given a paper on all continents except Antarctica—North and South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and most recently Australia. It is a very positive sign that the issue of genocide is gaining public prominence and that other scholars and I are asked to speak about it frequently.
Do you have any speaking opportunities coming up this academic year?
I was a speaker at a special workshop on genocide, with a focus on the Rwandan Genocide, at Keene State College in New Hampshire on the 25th of July. This program will be an opportunity for different scholars of genocide to come together to discuss pressing issues and concerns. I also have been invited to participate in a conference on indigenous genocide in Argentina in November, and will be going back to Australia for a research fellowship next June and July, during which I will offer some seminars and lectures.
Do your classes focus only on the Armenian Genocide? If not, what other topics do you cover with your students?
At Worcester State, I teach three courses on genocide and related topics, Genocide and Human Rights, Mass Violence Against Women, and Mass Violence and Long-term Justice. While each includes some discussion of the Armenian Genocide, this is just one case among the many other considered. While I have a personal connection to this issue, I feel it is my responsibility as a scholar and instructor to present many different cases, each of which is of course just as important for its victim group(s) and important for all us to study and understand. In fact, on one level, I probably give the Armenian Genocide less of a role in my courses than is typical of general comparative genocide courses, which often taken the Armenian Genocide, along with the Holocaust, Rwandan Genocide, and perhaps Cambodia Genocide, as the model cases of modern genocide.
My courses consider many different cases of genocide, mass violence against women, or mass violence in general. The focus, however, is to use the historical and sociological knowledge we develop through studying cases to gain philosophical, political, and psychological insights into why these things happen, what can be done to stop them or prevent them, how we can and why we should respond to denials of these different cases, what can and should be done about past cases, and other such questions, some of which students generate themselves for the class as we learn about cases and philosophical issues related to them.
What do you want your students to learn about genocide and ethnic hatred?
I guess I don’t have a particular agenda in the sense of some set of information I want them to come away from my courses with. What I really want them to do is to develop their own critical thinking about mass violence and what we can and should do about it. By reading and thinking through different information and analysis, students have a chance to think on their own about these issues that are so important to us as human beings. While I have my ideas, I always keep in mind that my students are going to carry on the struggle against mass violence long after me and they are likely to have new ideas I could never have come up with, that will advance the struggle to end mass violence yet further in the future. My role is to give them opportunities to develop their abilities and ideas and then to step out of the way. I should add that it is truly impressive how committed and insightful so many students in these courses become.
Department of Philosophy