Highlighting the importance of outreach, past recognition of atrocities and preventative measures, Tibi Galis, executive director of the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation in New York, gave a talk on “Atrocity Prevention in the Age of Trump and Taylor Swift” on Thursday evening.
Approximately 25 students and faculty members gathered inside the Admissions Center to hear from Galis, who is also the first practitioner-in-residence invited by the Institute for Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention (I-GMAP) this year.
According to Max Pensky, co-director of I-GMAP and a professor of philosophy, the practitioner-in-residence program, which allows an active practitioner of atrocity prevention to come visit Binghamton University for a week, was created so that students can meet and interact with practitioners like Galis in person.
“The whole point of the Institute was to mess up the pretty traditional boundaries that separate academic research from activism and from practice,” Pensky said. “I think it’s just wonderful for the students to just talk to somebody and ask, ‘How did you get into this; what’s your story,’ because I don’t think any of [the practitioners] said, ‘I knew from the time I was a sophomore in college that I wanted to get into atrocity prevention.’”
Galis started his talk by recognizing that BU is currently constructed on the ancestral lands of the Onondaga and Oneida people, who were victims of genocide and of abuses that resulted in deprivation. According to Galis, it is only possible to address and recognize current atrocities by effectively dealing with past abuses that occurred in the United States, such as past atrocities against Native Americans, African Americans, Japanese Americans and the use of weapons of mass destruction in international conflict.
“Engaging with the past in a preventative way would allow for the United States as a community to get familiarized with patterns of atrocity that [are] carried out and recognize similar patterns happen in the present,” Galis said. “But if you don’t hear about something, you won’t remember it. So there’s [a] need to hear more about these things in order to recognize these things and influence our current actions.”
Galis also discussed the benefits and detriments of social media after Taylor Swift’s recent endorsement of former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, Democratic senatorial candidate, and Rep. Jim Cooper on Instagram. For Galis, Swift’s endorsements were encouraging as it increased civic engagement and mobilization among young people, but simultaneously worrying because Swift had to speak out about her political beliefs in response to extreme right groups calling her their “Aryan Goddess” and labeling her a covert Nazi.
“As a worker of the Auschwitz Institute, we’ve been waiting for these types of discussions to happen in the public sphere for a while and it’s nice that it happened as a result of this,” Galis said. “But I also think that the very concerning part is that this happened also in an environment where this had to happen because it was a reaction to the visibility of the extreme right circle.”
Donna Parlato, a second-year graduate student studying public administration, said that although social media has led to the #MeToo movement, the Black Lives Matter movement and March for Our Lives, it has also led to the spread of hate speech and fake news, which she has personally experienced.
“I spread something that was fake, that I thought was real, because it hit all my biases,” Parlato said. “People were doing a GoFundMe for the two guys that got fired from Jazzman’s and I thought they got fired because they were giving away free samples, but no, they were sexually harassing women. But it hit all my biases and I was like, ‘Of course, share.’”
According to Galis, new leaderships like the Trump administration argue that marginalized groups are the real or imagined problems of society, and that the only solution is to further marginalize them. This makes bureaucracies of atrocity prevention in a difficult situation, according to Galis, as they can only choose to follow the leadership that works to dismantle minority protection or fight the terms set by the leadership, which would not respect the wills of the people that elected the current leadership.
For Julia Steitz, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics and law, talks like Tibi’s are important to have, especially during Trump’s presidency, because it allows more people to be informed about the actual situation of current events instead of just learning about it through social media.
“We need to do the best we can to be informed, and we really need to choose the platforms that are advocating for people, minorities and immigration,” Steitz said. “That’s why being informed all the time is so important because if you fix the root, then it’ll probably blossom into something much nicer.”
Galis concluded his talk by discussing the potential future of atrocity prevention.
“I do believe that one day, the voices of the people who work in this area will have more leverage than the consequences of the naming of Taylor Swift’s cat, and we are very engaged in this process,” Galis said. “Nonetheless, we are very concerned that this is becoming such a central topic that it permeates in pop culture, and also happy that people are finally thinking about these issues.”