From false patriotism to the criminalisation of pathos

This article is one of a series aimed at understanding collective trauma, its impact on society and on conflict dynamics.

Not so long ago, my colleague Kristine Khanumian suggested that pathos should be criminalised. She was being totally serious. Some time later, Tatul Akopyan, another Armenian journalist, said he thought false patriotism should be made a crime. Personally, I would add myths to this list. Political and propagandist myths.

Myths have totally devoured us. Pathos and myths. We verbalise myths with pathos, we feed them, we invent new ones. The reality of life poses a dilemma for us – should we choose life, or myths? Somehow, each time, we choose myths. We cannot imagine life without them. We speak of them with pathos, they are our precious things, dearer to us than our loved ones, more treasured than the lives of our loved ones. We even die with pathos for myths, we spill our blood so as to keep the myths alive. Our trauma feeds the myths, and instead of reflecting on it and working with it, we prefer to live in an illusory reality, and to be controlled.

“Turks are our enemies”, “Russia is our saviour”. In order for the saviour’s role to be preserved in our awareness, a constant threat is needed. “Turks” are required constantly. So, our “saviour” kept up a constant supply of “Turks”. For centuries, it has been so: the Turks, our enemies, ever present, and Russia, which “saves” us from the Turks. Someone is constantly managing our fears, controlling them in accordance with their own interests. For this reason, our fears, the result of our collective trauma, are ever-present. The moment we receive a signal about a potential “Turk”, our fears are re-activated.

Why is this so? Why are we not able to overcome our trauma and look at the world around us without pathos, with a balanced mind and open eyes? For several generations, we have been unable to do so. Why, instead of guiding us, does collective trauma merely cloud our vision?

Our trauma feeds the myths, and instead of reflecting on it and working with it, we prefer to live in an illusory reality, and to be controlled.

The reasons for this are many. The deeper one delves, the more nuances emerge. The roots likely lie in early childhood, in infancy, even. The problem, I feel, is what is referred to as “cradle agitprop”. I will attempt to demonstrate my argument concerning myths, using the institution of the lullaby as an example.

Lullabies, many feel, are not merely a universal psychotherapeutic means of assuring a child’s health for their entire life. They are also a code, used to transmit to the child some vitally important information. In other words, the effects of these bedtime songs on children reach far beyond the stated aim of “calming and sending them off to sleep”.

In fact, one might think of lullabies as a type of mass media, or, more precisely, national media. Let us then attempt to see what important information we are passing on to the listeners, in other words, to the next generation.

I am no expert in lullabies. I have not conducted special in-depth studies of Armenian or other similar songs, and I have not carried out any comparative analysis. I have, however, read a little on the subject, and to me it seems symptomatic that the refrain of the most popular Armenian lullaby is – “Wake up, dear son” (“Zartnir, lao”). The “rousing” rhetoric appears at odds with the very purpose of the lullaby, as such, and the message transmitted to vulnerable young beings, infants, is one of alarm and anxiety. Going through life, these beings will forever carry with them this sense of urgency. They will live their lives on “red alert”, in the highest state of emergency, like the final stage of mass mobilisation. Thus, our whole lives are lived in constant readiness for attack, ever awaiting imminent disaster.

Why does it have to be this way? I do not claim to know what songs Azerbaijani or Turkish mothers sing to their infants. (To most Armenians, Turks and Azerbaijanis appear identical). I will however quote the “humorous” Armenian interpretation of a popular lullaby as “Bright and early to the yatagans” (“Spozaranku – za yataganku”). For Armenians, the Turkish yatagan knife is associated with the 1915-1916 genocide of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Thus, “Wake up, dear son” is a message to the infant to wake up and be prepared to meet a similar infant, who will be armed.

What is the way out of this psychological dead end?

I feel we need to help each other leave behind our fears and the historical phobias caused by our trauma. In the current situation it is extremely important for us Armenians to feel a peaceful impulse, to make kind gestures, acting as if from a mother’s heart. Or, in the context we are discussing – from a lullaby. In our very lullabies, we must learn to call off the state of emergency. This message should not only resonate inside us – we must also send a message with purity of soul and intentions to the Azerbaijani side, so the Azerbaijani mothers can throw their “horror stories” on the slagheap of history, too.

So far though, this is not happening. We continue to dress our children in khaki. As one of my colleagues noted, on a subconscious level these children in military uniform understand that they are being prepared for war. In fact, the message is not even that subtle: parents talk about it openly, referring to it in public speeches. “A soldier is born,” the proud new father announces. Sometimes, the mother echoes this sentiment, too. But what if the “soldier” decides he wants to become an astronaut, a poet, doctor, or scientist? Is that somehow worse, or any less patriotic?

Work with the trauma that forms the emotional political context could change many things.

Psychologists say the well-entrenched practice of dressing children in military uniform glorifies and romanticises war. Making our children wear uniform, they suggest, sends out the message that war is actually a normal thing, that there is nothing terrible about it. And here lies the problem: we do not leave our children feeling that they can avoid war, we do not offer them any hope that a way out of the vicious circle can be found.

Furthermore, we sometimes name our children after parents or relatives who have been killed. Sometimes, two people in the same family who bear the same name might lose their lives: after all, there were three wars in the last 30 years, in 1992-1994, 2016, and 2020. Why, I ask myself, do we feel we have the right to determine a person’s fate without even asking them? Who gave us this right?

Naturally, a society living with the threat of war is governed by its own rules. The main priority for everyone is survival. Vigilance is key, and the soldier prepared to give his own life in order to save others is praised as a hero. Khaki commands public respect, strengthening trust and support of the army. At the same time, however, this total preoccupation with khaki may show that our society is simply incapable of ensuring security through politics, diplomacy, intellect, or modern knowledge.

This is a shame. Work with the trauma that forms the emotional political context could change many things. It could, for instance, stimulate the development of critical thinking, helping people make better, more conscious decisions. It might also help us approach meritocracy, with top posts going to the best, most capable candidates, who would not need to use our trauma to control us, who would not use myths and pathos to retain their power.


Author: Gegham Baghdasaryan with contribution from Indie Peace

Photo credit: Sevak Asryan

This article is part of Indie Peace’s initiative on Collective Trauma, funded by the European Union. The views expressed in the article are the sole responsibility of Indie Peace and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union. Toponyms used reflect the toponyms used by the subject of the article.