Friday, March 5, 2021

The Language of Genocide

The word “genocide” is a difficult case when it comes to defining and classifying. Since the term was coined in 1944, the way in which it has been most widely used is to refer (as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it) to “the deliberate and systematic extermination of an ethnic or national group.” The United Nations, though, adopted a more elaborate definition in its 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. As a result of negotiations involving many nations, it defined “genocide” as
… any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
In some respects, the UN definition seems vague and far-reaching; exactly what should the phrase “serious mental harm” be taken to refer to? (This phrase was added at the suggestion of China, which had in mind the use of narcotics to alter the mental state of large populations.) In other respects, though, the UN definition is not as far-reaching as many would have liked it to be; most notably, the UN membership decided, after much debate, not to include any mention of cultural genocide. What exactly is “cultural genocide”? The Canadian case is relatively clear. In 1879 John A. Macdonald declared that “Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” Macdonald openly desired, in other words, to destroy Indigenous culture—to commit, as we have come to term it, cultural genocide. Under Justin Trudeau the Canadian government has balked at implementing many of the recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls—but it has accepted the inquiry’s conclusion that the Canadian record of mistreatment of Indigenous peoples constituted a form of genocide. “This was genocide,” declared Trudeau in 2017 (thereby unwittingly making things far more difficult for himself on the China file in 2021). Many have disagreed on this point both with Trudeau and with that inquiry. They have argued that, however badly Canada has treated its Indigenous peoples—and all agree that the record has often been appalling—the country’s record is not commensurate with the practice of physical genocide (with Nazi Germany’s extermination of six million Jews, for example, or with the extermination by the Hutu majority in Rwanda of close to a million of the minority Tutsi group in 1994). The critics argue that we should acknowledge the difference between cultural and physical genocide—and that we should not use the plain term “genocide” when we are speaking of cultural genocide.

But if Canada has committed cultural genocide, has it not, by definition, committed genocide? Surely cultural genocide must be a form of genocide—just as domestic violence is a form of violence, just as religious freedom is a form of freedom. Don’t the very words make this clear?

No, is the short answer. Domestic violence is indeed a form of violence—a subset, if you will, of the broad category “violence.” But let’s look at some other examples of grammatical compounds. Is “political suicide” a form of suicide—a subset of the broad category “suicide”? Not at all; that’s a compound that involves a metaphorical use of the noun “suicide.” What about “online sex”? Is that a form of sex? People have argued both sides of that one.

The point with compounds is that the relationship between the elements that make them up does not follow a single pattern. Even if it’s agreed that Canada has committed cultural genocide, it does not automatically follow by any self-evident rules of English grammar that we have committed genocide. In a case such as this—as in many others—definition and classification turn out to be anything but straightforward.

That leaves plenty of room for discussion and disagreement over the words we use. But one point above all should not be lost sight of in such discussions—the importance of taking substantial action now both to atone for past injustices (however we name them) and to bring real improvement in the present to the lives of Indigenous peoples.I'll post on that topic shortly.

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