When Words are Inadequate

Earlier this week, the Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan made history as he spoke about the Armenian massacre of the early 20th century. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians were killed in what the Armenians (and most scholars and historians) call a genocide and what Erdogan, on Wednesday, called "a shared pain." Although the Turkish and Armenian accounts of the exact numbers of those killed and how they were killed differ significantly, Erdogan's words were apparently the most blatant acknowledgement thus far of Turkey's role in the event, even though by most standards, they are still pretty vague. Supporters call the speech "a very important first step," but Armenian advocates argue that Turkey is just "repackaging its genocide denials."

Two thoughts really struck me as I looked into this story this week. The first is that words really matter. From the Turkish perspective, this seems like a significant evolution in the public image Turkey is trying to show. Even though Erdogan's speech was weaved with stories about Turkey's pain in the World War I era, as he offered condolences to the Armenians, this address made news specifically because it was seen as some kind of concession to the Armenian viewpoint. However, since he never explicitly used the term "genocide," others just heard empty rhetoric. Especially in politics today, as we know that politicians have advisors and speech writers and tend to choose their words very carefully, we cannot help but hear subtext in every statement, and oftentimes use this unspoken subtext as support for our own perspective. 

The second thing I thought as I was hearing about this story is that history also really matters. When we read about the Trail of Tears, the Revolutionary War, the Roman Empire, Cleopatra- all these famous points in history- we take the written for granted. Nobody that was there to verify what happened currently exists, so we have to rely on the records we can find, from personal diaries and letters to public records and statements. Sure, sometimes we'll find a scroll or something that completely disputes something we thought we knew for sure, but generally we stick to the historical consensus (unless, of course, you're in a Dan Brown novel). I think we all generally have the sense that we may be getting it wrong, that maybe the only history that exists is the history that those in power allowed to exist, but we think we have a decent sense of how these big, world-changing events happened.

But my assumptions on that are really challenged now that I've lived long enough to experience and process some interesting history in my own life...and then I hear other people talk about it now completely differently than each other, and than I myself remember. It's kind of frightening in a way- history is less about the actual events that happen, and more about the accounts of these events that manage to survive. Sure, there IS an ultimate truth, but can we ever really know it...even if we lived through it? Are we too colored by our own perspective and bias, and are the "general accounts" that we take as gospel colored by their own biases as well?