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Dr. James Waller
Asks the Hard Questions

A noted social psychologist and scholar, now the first Cohen Endowed Chair in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, examines the psychology of genocide and teaches his students to ask how some people become 'the other.'

by Mark Reynolds

Jim Waller photo by Mark Corliss
Most of us look at the perpetrators of the Holocaust or other acts of genocide and ask, "How could they?"

This fall, a noted scholar and social psychologist is on campus, and his work should help us rethink that unexamined reaction.

He would say, "Rather than dispassionately looking at someone else and asking 'How could they?' I am compelled to look at myself and ask 'Could I?' Could I be capable of such brutal inhumanity? Could you?"

Dr. James Waller comes to us from the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation to fill the new Cohen Endowed Chair of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The Chair was created in 2007 by a generous gift from Janet and Richard Cohen. Dr. Waller is a faculty member in Keene State's distinctive academic program in Holocaust and genocide studies, and his work as a social psychologist brings an important perspective to an already robust course of study.

Mark your calendar:
Dr. James Waller will give his inaugural campus address, the Genocide Awareness Lecture, on March 28, 2011, in the Mabel Brown Room at the Student Center.

Dr. Waller grew up in Atlanta at the height of the Civil Rights movement and had a hard time accepting some of the things he saw around him. "I remember taking trips with my family along back roads where you'd see signs for colored drinking fountains and whites-only drinking fountains, colored restrooms and whites-only restrooms," Dr. Waller recalled. "As a kid, I just had that natural curiosity that made me wonder 'why?' - why were these two groups split this way?"

That curiosity - and his desire to see people treated fairly - has always been part of his makeup. It's the basis for his interest in intergroup conflict and relations - specifically race relations.

"That's what led me to my graduate work in social psychology at the University of Kentucky," he said. "I'm interested in how people get along and - too often - why they don't get along." Why is it that differences in race, culture, class, or religion can cause such conflict?

Dr. Waller focused his doctoral work on race relations and group dynamics. From 1989 to 2008, he was a professor of psychology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, and he spent the summers of 1990 and '92 as a visiting professor at two universities in Germany.

When his classes in Germany on intergroup relations discussed such concepts as conformity, obedience, and compliance, he was struck that so many of the native German students connected their discussions to the Holocaust.

"They were, I think," said Dr. Waller, "trying to understand their family role - what their grandparents did during the Holocaust. Their questions and their connections led me to think about how the issues of racism and intolerance manifest in the Holocaust and other cases of genocide."

"When I think about intergroup conflict, I think of it on a continuum, and genocide is the extreme end of that continuum."

When he finished teaching in Germany, Dr. Waller returned to Whitworth, where he taught courses in social psychology, the psychology of prejudice, and public policy making. He noticed that, as a result of the issues his students in Germany raised, he had begun making reference in his classes to the Holocaust and aspects of genocidal violence. He started attending academic conferences on Holocaust studies and developed a professional interest in the field.

"I'd look for ways that my discipline could make a contribution to Holocaust studies," Dr. Waller explained, "and that was in understanding perpetrator behavior - the rank-and-file killers. I found this initial interest in Holocaust studies had become more of a calling. I felt this was what my career had prepared me to do. I'd studied exclusion, I'd studied intergroup relations and intergroup conflict, and now I was in a position to focus that study on the Holocaust. In the early '90s at Whitworth, I offered one of the first courses in America focused on the psychology of the Holocaust."

KSC is the first institution in the United States to offer a major in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies.

His interest in perpetrator behavior during the Holocaust naturally led him to investigate the motivation of those who commit other acts of genocide, when intergroup conflict goes to the extreme.

"When I think about intergroup conflict, I think of it on a continuum, and genocide is the extreme end of that continuum," Dr. Waller said. "It starts off seemingly fairly innocuous as one group begins to define 'the other.' Then they begin to denigrate and then demonize 'the other.' At some point along that continuum, the group that had been saying, 'I no longer want these people to live with me,' begins to say, 'I no longer want them to live - period.'"

The various aspects of Dr. Waller's work intersected in his study of genocide. He became fascinated "in trying to understand the psychology of how you define 'the other,' in such a way that it's not only right to exterminate them, but it's actually wrong if you don't exterminate them."

His study of this phenomenon led him to write Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, now in its second edition with Oxford University Press, in which he synthesizes a wide range of studies to create an impressive theory of how average citizens can come to participate in acts of unspeakable atrocity.

Dr. Waller's work as an instructor at the Raphael Lemkin Seminar for Genocide Prevention at the Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation brings government policy makers, military leaders, and NGO activists to Auschwitz in Poland so they can learn to recognize the signs of genocide and use their influence to stop it.

"If you hope to prevent genocide, you have to understand the process by which it unfolds, so you know the critical points at which intervention is absolutely necessary," Dr. Waller explained.

The Search for KSC's First Endowed Chair

When Keene State College announced that it was looking for someone to fill its Cohen Endowed Chair in Holocaust and Genocide Studies, the College's first such endowed rank, it received well-qualified applicants. But Dr. James Waller stood above the rest.

"First of all, he really wanted to be with us, and that said something about both Jim and us," said Paul Vincent, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies and administrative chair of the department. "I think he picked up in the interview that we were firmly committed to teaching undergraduates, and he also cared about that. And that is not easy to find."

As part of the interview, Dr. Vincent set up a session with several Holocaust and genocide studies students. Dr. Waller enjoyed that part of the interview the most. Therese Seibert, professor of sociology, took students from her Sociology of Genocide course to that session.

"They were so enthusiastic," Dr. Seibert recalled. "I don't know if I've ever seen students so excited about attending a talk on genocide. They loved his style and presentation. He packed in lots of information, but in a way that was accessible to undergrads just learning about the topic. They also liked how he brought in personal stories and experiences, which made it easy for them to connect to some difficult subject matter."

Dr. Waller's experience, scholarship, and connections augment the respect that the College's program already enjoys. KSC is the first institution in the United States to offer a major in the field of Holocaust and genocide studies, and the fact that Dr. Waller is so well grounded in the study of both phenomena helps round out the program's scope.

As Dr. Seibert pointed out, "We have strong historical perspective with Paul Vincent, theological with Hank Knight, ethical and philosophical with Sander Lee. I do the sociological perspective, but Jim Waller is definitely a leader in the area of social psychology."

Hank Knight, director of the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, explained that Dr. Waller's presence is "going to have an impact that's felt beyond Holocaust and Genocide Studies, because he's firmly committed to what the liberal arts mission is all about. He is grounded in the social sciences, in psychology, but he embodies the liberal arts tradition. He represents what integrated studies is, because he thinks in interdisciplinary ways, trying to figure out what are the patterns of interaction and the shaping forces in life that we need to understand if we're going to have a meaningful future."

As Dr. Waller says in his book, we can understand how genocide happens "only by weaving ideas from many disciplines into a cohesive tapestry."

Dr. Waller's connections to world leaders and government and private agencies also expand the Holocaust and Genocide Studies program's already rich contacts that should prove invaluable to graduates as they seek work in the field. He plans to continue his relationship with the Auschwitz Institute, which will continue to expand his network.

And, as Dr. Vincent noted, Dr. Waller "was warm with the students, he was warm with the people, and there was a profundity to the way he responded to questions. He got beyond the surface level and got into the visceral level of what it is that we're talking about, and what we're teaching and dealing with."

Perhaps Dr. Knight summed up his new colleague best when he said, "Jim reminds you, in his person and in his scholarship, that the study of the Holocaust and genocide is fundamentally about who we are as human beings with other human beings."