On September 19th we visited ‘Rooms of Humanity’, an interactive and experimental exhibition which theatre directors Ilil Landboss and Giselle Vegter made especially for this evening. The promise to address the complexities of mass violence and genocide ensured a full, sold-out theatre. From experts in the field to the interested layman, this evening provided a platform to discuss one prominent question: ‘How is it possible, despite historical awareness, that genocide keeps on occurring?’ In other words, can we understand present-day violence and radicalization against civilians in, for example, Syria, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Sudan?
‘Rooms of Humanity’ responded exactly to the urge of the audience to reflect on this pressing question. The documentary-theatrical installation ‘Sieben Räume Unbegreifen’ was part of the first ‘experience’ of this three-hour evening program. Instead of walking into a room with neatly lined-up chairs facing a podium, we walked into an empty space where everyone was standing around an immense square grid. The grid consisted out of many smaller squares, which would later be walked on by the audience. The rules of the game we were about to play seemed easy: questions would be posed and each of the participants had to either make a step in the grid or remain in place.
What appeared to be an easy game turned into a thought-provoking social experiment. First of all, this had to do with the questions posed. Questions along the lines of ‘do you feel part of a minority group?’, ‘do you consider yourself privileged?’, and ‘would you sacrifice your life for something?’ made all of us reflect on our own ideas, our ability to answer that question at that exact moment, look around at the others, and eventually take a step, or not. In this sense, the game was a good way to thoroughly think some essential questions through. It also exposed some unmistakable group behavior. When all of us were moving around on the square grid, it became extremely difficult not to conform to the behavior of the other participants; sometimes you couldn’t even move from one square grid to the other because the people that surrounded you decided not to move. Standing cramped, you were then unable to decide for yourself when your next step would be. Other conforming group behavior during the game was that almost no one took steps towards the outlines of the square grid; everyone tended to take steps towards the middle of the square. For some, this may have been because they wanted to show active participation in the game, for others, because they wanted to walk towards friends, or maybe even for other reasons. In this sense, everyone seemed to conform to the choices of the others. It would have been interesting if one of the participants had chosen not to conform, but rather looked for a ‘confrontation’ by stepping into an already occupied square or stepping to the outlines. A confrontation like this may have led to some form of discussion which would have added to the usefulness of the game.
In that sense, it was a pity that there was no analysis or explanation afterwards. The ‘game’ raised many questions but failed to answer any of these. It would have been useful to go through some of the central questions again afterwards and to publicly share thoughts on the answers to these questions. Another possibility would have been to discuss our group’s behavior after the game. For a genocide scholar, the game turned out to be a clear reminder of the fact that processes that lead to mass violence and genocide are highly complex. It also reminded us that, order to understand these processes, we must think beyond the good versus evil dichotomy, and study relations of power, peer pressure, and group conformity. A discussion on how the game reverberated these aspects of the violent process would have made for a thought provoking beginning of the evening.
Fortunately, the two hours that followed did provide the possibility to discuss all these complexities with experts on the topic. Walking around from one expert panel on propaganda to another on genocide education, all of the participants experienced what it is like to engage in such complex issues. In an effort to understand the process of radicalization, the participants learned that, while emotional engagement might be the trigger to study this subject, one needs detachment in order to do so.