- Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide
Rwanda Since the 1994 Genocide


Bias, Lenses, and the Politics of Approaching “Truth”

By Frances on February 3, 2013

Sometimes, I wish I’d been a math major. Math lessons learned in the first grade still apply at the end of college: 2+2=4 was still “true” the last time I checked.

An understanding of history, on the other hand, has the sneaky habit of slipping out from underneath you the moment you think it’ll hold some weight. This habit seems accentuated with Rwanda, whose politics of knowledge are, as Professor Thomson has mentioned, “polarized and polarizing.” Like a Jenga tower, you can build to a certain point of knowledge without precariousness – we all “know” its three official ethnic groups, its history of colonization, its recent genocide – but go beyond that point, and every new fact seems to poke holes in the solid foundation you thought you’d built.

So how do we sort through the many vastly different accounts of Rwandan history in a way that allows us to approach anything essential? (We do want to end the course with a net gain in empirical knowledge; this isn’t a class on Horkheimer & Adorno, after all.) Vansina urges Rwandan historians to be impartial, to use data “uncontested and acceptable to all” (200);  Jefremovas seems to suggest that we should complicate the picture, understand biases, and step away from “the codification of ethnic consciousness” in particular (307). But I still get caught on the fact that in this search for nuance, each student of Rwanda must sift through these established biases to figure out which bits of scholarship to preserve, before having developed the tools or the knowledge to do so; otherwise, we’ll have to rely on someone else’s knowledge and understanding of these biases – which seems to defeat the purpose. In simplified terms, I’m not convinced that locating the truth in someone’s words is as easy as understanding that, for instance, a “pro-RPF” piece will be falsely favorable to that agenda, etc. This approach seems only to reveal the “crossover points” between various lenses. In addition, any such assessment would necessarily rely on previously formed opinions of what a certain bias would look like and where it would likely appear, both assessments/assumptions rather than facts.  (Determining and “controlling for” bias in this way has felt especially complicated to me when processing personal accounts such as Umutesi’s book.) For a history that is so controversial, there is not one master “fact sheet” against which we can verify details of the case. So I’m still caught in my conundrum: as students, how do we make sure we read with the “right” critical eye and approach a “real” understanding of Rwanda?

1 Comment

  • Professor Thomson said:

    You hit on one of the key tensions in the academic enterprise (and something with which academics wrestle every day). How do we sift through the bulk of information written, spoken, etc, on Rwanda? This process is at the heart of the historical method. Analysis of sources, recognition of bias, of looking behind or between the words on the page. Jefremovas’ point of looking beyond ethnic categories and elite narratives of history is the foundation of our course. I have no answer to your question except to keep reading and keep evaluating what you think you know. All scholarship has bias so we need to start from this reality….

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