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A genocide denied

Newly uncovered Foreign Office memos show how New Labour has played politics with the massacre of th

There are few genocides more clearly established than that suffered by the Armenians in 1915-16, when half the race was extinguished in massacres and deportations directed by the Young Turk government. Today you can be prosecuted in France and other European countries for denying the slaughter. But the world's most influential genocide denier - other than Turkey itself - is the British government, which has
repeatedly asserted that there is insufficient evidence that what it terms a "tragedy" amounted to genocide. Now, thanks to the Freedom of
Information Act, we learn that (in the words of Foreign Office memos) commercial and political relations with Turkey have required abandoning "the ethical dimension".

For the past ten years, various Foreign Office ministers, from Geoff Hoon to Mark Malloch Brown, have told parliament that "neither this government nor previous governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal to persuade us that these events should be categorised as genocide, as defined by the 1948 convention". This would have come as a shock to the architects of the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide (for whom the Armenian genocide was second only to the Holocaust), as well as to the wartime British government, which accused the Turks of proceeding "systematically to exterminate a whole race out of their domain". (Winston Churchill described it as "an administrative holocaust . . . there is no reasonable doubt that this crime was executed for political reasons".)

What does the Foreign Office know that eluded our government at the time as well as the drafters of the Genocide Convention, not to mention the International Association of Genocide Scholars, the US House committee on foreign affairs and at least nine other European governments? The Freedom of Information Act has now unravelled this mystery.

The Armenian Centre in London obtained hundreds of pages of hitherto secret memorandums, bearing the astonishing admission that there was no "evidence" that had ever been looked at and there had never been a "judgment" at all. Parliament had been misinformed: as the Foreign Office now admits, "there is no collection of documents, publications and reports by historians, held on the relevant files, or any evidence that a series of documents were submitted to ministers for consideration". In any case, ministers repeatedly asserted that, "in the absence of unequivocal evidence to show that the Ottoman administration took a specific decision to eliminate the Armenians under their control at the time, British governments have not recognised the events of 1915-16 as genocide".

That was the answer given by the government during the House of Lords debate on the subject in 1999. The thinking behind the genocide denial is revealed in an internal memorandum to ministers (Joyce Quin and Baroness Symons) before the debate: "HMG is open to criticism in terms of the ethical dimension, but given the importance of our relations (political, strategic and commercial) with Turkey . . . the current line is the only feasible option."

An inconvenient truth

Nobody noticed that this "current line" was a legal nonsense. To prove genocide, you do not need unequivocal evidence of a specific government decision to eliminate a race - neither the Nazis nor the Hutu government in Rwanda ever voted to do so or recorded any such decision. Genocidal intentions are inferred from what governments do and from what they knew at the time they did it; and it was obvious to everyone in Armenia (including diplomats and missionaries from Germany, then allied to Turkey, and to neutral US ambassadors) that the deportations had turned into death marches, and the massacres were influenced by race hatred fanned by the government's "Turkification" campaign. The internal documents show that the Foreign Office has never had the slightest interest in the law of genocide: its stance throughout is that the UK cannot recognise this particular genocide, not because it had not taken place, but because realpolitik makes it inconvenient.

There is no suggestion in these documents that expert legal advice was ever sought before ministers were wrongly briefed on the law of genocide. The definition of the crime includes "deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part" - a precise description of the Ottoman government's orders to deport two million Armenians to the Syrian Desert, in the course of which hundreds of thousands were murdered or died of starvation. Courts in The Hague have actively developed the law relating to genocide in recent years, but the Foreign Office memos make no reference to this - its only concern is that ministers should say nothing which might discomfort a Turkish government that it describes as "neuralgic" about its accountability.

The documents show how Foreign Office officials have discouraged ministers from attending memorial services for Armenian victims and from including any reference to this genocide at Holocaust Memorial Day. They advised Margaret Beckett, Geoff Hoon and Kim Howells to absent themselves from the Armenian genocide memorial day in 2007. It is no business of the Foreign Office to discourage ministers from attending memorial services for victims of crimes against humanity.Notable in these hitherto secret documents is how government ministers parrot their Foreign Office briefs in parliament word for word and never challenge the advice provided by diplomats. None of them has ever pointed out, for example, that the "not sufficiently unequivocal" test is oxymoronic - evidence is either equivocal or it is not. It cannot be a little bit unequivocal.

The other routine excuse for denying the genocide has been that "it is for historians, not governments, to interpret the past". This "line" was described in 1999 as "long-standing". But genocide is a matter for legal judgment, not a matter for historians, and there is no dispute about the Armenian genocide among legal scholars. Yet Foreign Office ministers insist that the "interpretation of events is still the subject of genuine debate among historians". This "line" was stoutly maintained until last year, when it was placed on the Downing Street website in response to an e-petition and provoked angry replies from the public. The minister, by now Jim Murphy, was displeased, and became the first to demand to know just what evidence the Foreign Office had looked at.

The Eastern Department had looked at no evidence at all. In great haste, it came up with three historians - Bernard Lewis (who had been prosecuted in France for denying the genocide, but then told Le Monde that he did not dispute that hundreds of thousands of Armenians had died), Justin McCarthy (a Kentucky professor whose pro-Turkish work was sent to Keith Vaz, then a minister at the Foreign Office, by the Turkish ambassador) and Heath Lowry, who, although he does not put his own name to denials of the genocide, provoked dispute at Princeton after it accepted funds from the Turkish government to endow his "Atatürk Chair" and he was then exposed as having helped draft a letter in which the Turkish ambassador denounced a scholar for writing about the genocide. It is astonishing, given the number of British historians, from Arnold Toynbee onwards, who have no doubts on the subject, that the Foreign Office should grasp at the straw of three controversial Americans.

Will we remember?

The head of the department later told Murphy that it had stopped "deploying this line" because "we found that references to historians tended to raise further questions". Malloch Brown proceeded to read out the old mantra that "neither this government nor previous governments have judged that the evidence is sufficiently unequivocal" on his behalf, even though no government had actually "judged" or received any evidence at all.Parliament has been routinely misinformed by ministers who have recited Foreign Office briefs without questioning their accuracy. The government's only policy has been to evade giving any truthful answer about the Armenian genocide, because it has abandoned "the ethical dimension" in the interests of relations with a Turkish government that it acknowledges to be unbalanced in its attitude to this issue.

In August 1939, Adolf Hitler exhorted his generals to show no mercy to the Polish people they were preparing to blitzkrieg because, "After all, who now remembers the annihilation of the Armenians?" If the ethics-free zone in the Foreign Office has its way, nobody in the UK will remember them either.

Geoffrey Robertson, QC is the author of "Crimes Against Humanity: the Struggle for Global Justice" (Penguin, £14.99)
His full opinion on the Armenian genocide and the Foreign Office documents can be obtained for free from j.flint@doughtystreet.co.uk

His email is g.robertson@doughtystreet.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus

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Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

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The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

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The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

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It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge