Saturday, November 14, 2009

Stifling the Cry of Irene at the "7th Macedonian-North American Conference" -A case of nuanced censorship through dehumanization and disentitlement*

As someone who has vehemently opposed from the outset any form of political interference with the "7th Macedonian-North American Conference" at the University of Utah (November 5-8, 2009), I am obliged to report an incident, which, in my view, infringes on the right to freedom of speech.

Irene Damopoulou-Karatzios, an expatriate bilingual Greek Macedonian, who was present at the conference, was allegedly disallowed, by Professor Loring Danforth, the speaker of one of the presentations, to express a dissenting perspective (during the allotted Q&A period) concerning a local Slavonic dialect spoken in the Kastoria region of Greek Macedonia but most importantly, to offer a personal account of her very own childhood experiences dating back to the fateful days of "Παιδομάζωμα", i.e., the "Evacuation" or "Abduction" of Children (depending on different perspectives) during the Greek Civil War (1946-49)[1].

Even though I was not physically present at the conference, I have had the opportunity to speak on this matter with Mrs. Damopoulou-Karatzios, whom I know personally and deeply respect. I believe that....
..... her grievance has merit and have no reason whatsoever to doubt the veracity of her statements.

It is noteworthy that Irene Damopoulou-Karatzios was also portrayed -by another speaker at the same conference- in demeaning terms. In his blurb in MakNews, Dr. Michael Seraphinoff, Chair of the 10th Session of the "7th Macedonian-North American Conference", has openly belittled, humiliated and dehumanized Mrs. Damopoulou, in a most condescending way. Whilst infringing on the principles of objectivity, fairness and scholarly open-mindedness, Dr. Seraphinoff makes a farreaching and tenuous assumption of Irene Damopoulou-Karatzios' "ethnicity" when he rejects a priori her Greek Macedonian identity thus effectively rejecting the existence of divergent Macedonian identities [2]. Indeed, Dr. Seraphinoff's statement is quite telling in this regard:

"This poor woman had probably been drawn into a Greek family or circle years before, and in order to keep peace in the family had decided to play dumb when it came to her linguistic and ethnic identity. To an outsider it appeared to be quite the sad spectacle, for her Greek handlers to parade her out at an academic conference as some sort of living proof of the non-existence of her mother tongue and ethnicity.

The pursuit of knowledge calls for the free exchange of ideas and perspectives as well as the open expression of divergent opinions. The ability to participate in a fair and open debate is fundamentally hindered if the speaker of a presentation or the Chair/Moderator of a session decide to suppress dissenting opinions by exercising their "prerogative" to stifle discourse and cut off dialogue. Silencing a legitimate eyewitness at an academic conference, on the grounds of dissent, violates the academic code governing freedom of expression and standards of conduct.

Everyone is entitled to dignity and fair treatment. Such treatment ought to be extended  both to scholars and non-scholars (lay members of an audience). I submit that Mrs. Damopoulou was denied at the University of Utah conference the common courtesy of being heard and respected as a member of the Greek Macedonian community and also as a credible eyewitness – by virtue of being a young victim of involuntary evacuation and forced migration during the Greek Civil War (1946-49).

Indeed, what Irene Damopoulou-Karatzios has recently experienced, both during and after the conference, is precisely the kind of dehumanization and disentitlement that is considered as one of the basic psychological substrates underlying the perpetuation of ethnic conflicts.

Professor Christos D. Katsetos
MD, Dr philos, FRC Path

* Parts of this text were originally posted in the Modern Greek Studies Association List (MGSA-L) on November 10, 2009 under the thread "Conference Reignites Feud".

[1] Ioannis Bougas, "Η Φωνή της Ειρήνης" (The Cry of Irene)- the true story of a young girl, Irene Damopoulou from the Greek Macedonian region of Kastoria unfolding during the trying years of the Greek Civil war (1946-1949)

[2] For a balanced account of scholarly perspectives and critical reappraisals of the subject, see “Μακεδονικές ταυτότητες στο χρόνο” (Macedonian identities in time) Εκδόσεις Πατάκη - 2008

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