We Talk Lazy Talk: The Dangers of Generalization

ABCFM missions in Turkey

During the recent American election campaign, the now-president-elect referred to “the Mexicans” who entered the United States as “rapists and murderers.” Really? Is that true about every Mexican? Or even more than a few? He is, of course, famous for his reckless use of generalizations, e.g., “It’s all a disaster!” Not being specific is the best way of not taking responsibility for knowing or discussing the facts. Of course, generalizing is a handy shortcut. But it’s lazy talk. It’s also dangerous talk. Classifying by race, religion, gender, and other categories divides people into “us and them.” It’s the biggest impediment to peace and harmonious living. And it is the first documented stage of genocide. A hundred years ago “the Armenians” were “them.” Today, the perpetrators are known as “the Turks.” Really?

In my research I came across many instances of the average Turkish citizen of the day either disapproving of the deportations or actively trying to prevent it or help their neighbours. It emphasized to me the importance of being specific. I’ve included one example here (in blue below). It’s an interesting account, written by an unnamed editor of the Missionary Herald (July 1916), of the turnover of Erzroom in February 1916 to the Russians by the Turks. (Note that my uses of “the” in the previous sentence are not generalizations because we understand the context. I am referring to the armies of both countries, which fought for control of territory in the middle of World War I.)

First, Some Context

Erzroom as deportation centre in ANI map

Erzroom (green circle) was a “center of massacre and deportation.”

The city of Erzroom was a deportation centre in 1915-16, probably for most of the vilayet (province) that was also called Erzroom. The only statistics we have today regarding the population was an estimate produced by the Armenian Patriarch in 1912 in Constantinople. [Source: The Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, James Bryce and Arnold Toynbee, Foreign Office,  Great Britain, 1916]. The vilayet of Erzroom had a total population of 630,000 (38% Turks, 34% Armenians, and 28% Kurds, Persians, Yezidis, Greeks and others). Based on the percentages, and the number of Armenians who were deported (see below), I have calculated the Turkish population in the city to be 22,350.

The person who reported on the situation was Robert Stapleton. He and his doctor wife, Ida, were missionaries for the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Mission (ABCFM or American Board).

Right from Erzroom

Rev. Robert S. Stapleton, for nearly twenty years in American Board work at Erzroom, Eastern Turkey, has just reached America. He was in Erzroom all through the siege, and was there when the Russians took the city on February 15. Mr. Stapleton’s relations with the Turkish governor of Erzroom had always been friendly. When the Turks decided to evacuate the city, the vali [governor] came to Mr. Stapleton and asked if he would intercede with the Russian commanders on behalf of the Turkish population, inasmuch as they had had no part in the fighting or in the persecution and deportation of the Armenians. Mr. Stapleton said that he would gladly do so.

The Turkish army began its retreat on Monday; on Wednesday the Russians arrived. The Stars and Stripes were flying over the Stapletons’ house. The Cossack officer, who with his small guard rode in first, saw the flag, saluted, entered the house, and asked for the American Consulate papers which were there. After a few minutes of friendly conversation he wrote his name in Mrs. Stapleton’s visitors’ book, and went on, saying he had much to do. As soon as possible Mr. Stapleton secured an interview with the commander of the approaching army and stated the case of the Turkish citizens left in the town. The general made no promises, but agreed to consider the case. As a matter of fact, no slaughter of the common people took place and there was very little looting. The Turkish soldiers, however, had taken most of what was available. It was reported later that it had been the Russian plan to clear the city of all its Turkish population, and that the general had declared that the representation made by the Americans changed his determination.

Only Thirty Left of 20,000

Out of 20,000 Armenians who had lived in Erzroom, only thirty persons were left alive when the Russians got there. Twenty-two of this thirty were in the Stapletons’ house and under their protection. Of twenty-eight Armenian teachers and helpers in the mission work of the American Board, only six are known to be alive. Several times officials of various ranks came to the mission compound and demanded the Armenians there, or the property which departed Armenians had left in the mission’s custody; but always Mr. Stapleton was able to stand them off, saying that only on order from the governor himself would he give up a thing or a person, and the order did not come.

As to the Russian attitude to the Turks in the city, Mr. Stapleton describes it as just and kindly. The present mayor of Erzroom, appointed by the Russians, is a Turkish pasha, formerly associated with Sultan Abdul Hamid, but exiled to Erzroom by the Young Turk Party after the downfall of Abdul. There had been no Germans in Erzroom, except the German consul, for many months before the city fell. One of the Board’s mission residences is now occupied by the Russian corps commander as staff headquarters; the Girls’ Boarding School building is used for headquarters for the commissary and secretarial departments.

The Americans’ hospital building, a small structure, is used for sleeping quarters for some of the staff, etc.; while Mr. Stapleton’s own house is occupied by a Russian official, who took over the servants, etc., and undertook to be responsible for the safety of valuables stored there. These buildings were offered the Russians rent free for the next few months, as it seemed imperative for Mr. Stapleton to bring his wife and children home, and there would be no Americans living on the grounds.

Mr. Stapleton expects to go back to Erzroom in October. Some one asked him what he would do, since the Armenians were gone. “Open schools for the Turks, learn Russian, be responsible for the valuables which the deported Armenians left in our charge, and look after our mission property and affairs,” was the prompt reply.

More Questions

Doesn’t this make you want to know specifics and put the blame exactly where it belongs? It certainly raises questions for me. What was the vali’s name? Who ran the deportation centre—the “officials of various ranks”? Who operated it, since the Turkish citizens “had no part” in it? The Turkish army? The vali had to have been involved in some way to have kept his job, because valis who refused orders were promptly dismissed and replaced—or worse. But this vali never gave permission for the Armenians in the Stapleton household to be removed. What does that say about him? And what’s the story of the new mayor of Erzroom?

I want specific language. I want to know the facts, as much as we are able to determine them. Specificity reduces rhetoric, and increases opportunities for truth and reconciliation.  Life is too short and the world is too small for anything less to be acceptable.

The Missionaries

The Storm of Life book coverThis is an example of the kind of stories that will be featured in Grit and Grace, but with a focus on the Talas/Cesarea [now Kayseri] area. Susan Wealthy Orvis, from the Talas group, was on a humanitarian mission in Alexandropol [Gyumri] in 1917-18. In April 1918 she and the other relief workers, including Robert Stapleton, had to flee to Tiflis [Tbilisi] to avoid the invading Ottoman army. You can read about their thrilling journey in my book.

But in the meantime, you might enjoy learning some specifics about the Stapletons in a new book written by their great granddaughter, Gretchen Rasch. The Storm of Life: A Missionary Marriage from Armenia to Appalachia is available from her publisher, the Gomidas Institute, or through Amazon.

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Map of the American Board’s missions in Asiatic Turkey: Joseph K. Green, Leavening the Levant (Boston: Pilgrim Press, 1916), 2.

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