Why the Word “Genocide” Shouldn’t Be Over-used
“Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification.” The confronting imagery of this statement was used by George Orwell in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Orwell was deeply concerned by the way that politicians and academics had begun to use scientific and technical jargon to sanitise the brutal and justify the absurd.
[Orwell’s] insight that “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” shows how this malady has been exacerbated over time.
I do not expect that many people today would disagree with me that the unsettling trend that Orwell identified in 1946 is firmly established in our own time. The waters of thoughtful debate are contaminated with meaningless and ambiguous rhetoric, and our political discourse is frequently washed up on the barren shores of evasive contradictions. I think the issues for our sitting politicians are that they often do not believe deeply in their previously held positions, that they are unsure of their present position and that they are unable to predict where they will be required to stand in the future. As Orwell noted: “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.”
The process by which we reached our current state was outlined comprehensively in Orwell’s essay noted above. His insight that “thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought” shows how this malady has been exacerbated over time. And now I think that it is beginning to exhibit new symptoms.
[Genocide] has been brandished in several politically charged debates of late, from the reversal of cigarette bans to the conflict in Gaza.
In 1994, when the Tutsi of Rwanda were systematically and brutally murdered by their fellow countrymen, at an average of 5,000-8,000 people per day for 100 days (with a total death toll of somewhere between 500,000 and 800,000), the United States administration dithered over the use of the word “genocide.” Several weeks into the slaughter, when it was used by President Clinton in a press conference, the addition of one word—”acts of genocide” rather than “genocide” as such—was used to excuse the international community from intervening. In this analysis of events, discreet acts of genocide do not necessarily amount to genocide per se, and as such, the international convention did not apply. The political acrobatics necessary to render this equivocation is mindboggling. Today, the Rwandan massacre is still considered the perfect case study for the UN definition of genocide—“acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
Perhaps in reaction to this failure to use the term, since then, the use of the word genocide has skyrocketed. Yet its overuse may do as much to neuter our political response to actual genocides.
This word has been brandished in several politically charged debates of late, from the reversal of cigarette bans to the conflict in Gaza. Does the same word really describe both of these situations? Is there nothing that distinguishes them from the horrors of Rwanda? “Genocide” is an extremely powerful term. We risk neutralising it if we redefine it to mean “a situation which I don’t like.”
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Researcher Natasha Baulis explains the thinking behind her column.