We’re told that the meaning of a word is its use. Alright then, let’s see how the word is used.

By genocide is meant the killing of a people. Well, not quite. Suppose a plague had killed off the Amalekites before the Israelites had got to them. Would that have been a genocide? Clearly not. So by genocide must be meant the killing of a people by other people.

By how many other people? That is, can I be committing genocide all on my own? Or do I have to have conspired with others? And if so, how many others? Let’s put that on the backburner for now.

To have killed off a people, does one have to have killed off all the people making up that people? Obviously not, since otherwise we’d only be entitled to call the Nazi program to exterminate the Jews an attempted genocide. And even then we’d have to be careful not to presume they didn’t intend to keep a pair of Jews in a zoo somewhere after the war.

Or suppose I kill someone because she’s a Jew, and would keep on killing Jews until there are none left to kill, but alas I’m apprehended after the very first killing. Then virtually every racially motivated killing would count as genocide. But it doesn’t. So we want to make genocide a success term, but not so successful that it turns out there’s never been a genocide.

Somewhere between one and all, there’s a number of victims, or perhaps a percentage, that would have to be reached to count as genocide. Well, the Nazis killed about 80% of the Jews in occupied Europe, but at the time only about a third of the Jews in the world. So is a charge of genocide indexed to accessibility? That is, is it genocide just in case it reaches the number or percentage of the victims available to be killed?

Suppose the Manhattan project had ended the war in early 1942 before the gas chambers were fully operational. The Jews who’d already been killed in their villages would have been a war crime, but would their killing have counted as genocide? I suspect not. Even if the plans for the gas chambers were discovered in the rubble, the design of a guillotine isn’t a guillotine, and a guillotine isn’t an instrument for beheading until someone’s head is put in it.

Suppose that, for whatever reason, we’re intent on saving the world from Tay Sachs disease, and doing so at all costs. So we wipe out the Jews, not because we have anything against Jews, but because the allele for Tay Sachs just happens to be carried almost exclusively by Ashkenazi Jews. Since exterminating the Jews is the means of eliminating the allele, we can’t appeal to the Principle of Double Effect. So we’re answerable for having exterminated the Jews. But we can still say that the extermination of the Jews was only an autonomous effect of eliminating the allele. Can an autonomous effect count as genocide?

All other things being equal, I suppose the killing of pretty much any fellow human being is to be disapproved of. But I’m assuming a charge of genocide carries with it a special weight of disapprobation because it’s the killing of a people. A people, yes, but not just any people. Even those of us opposed to capital punishment don’t consider it the genocide of convicted murderers. Anti-abortionists often cite Roe v. Wade in the U.S., and Morgentaler in Canada, as countenancing the genocide of the unborn. But that stretches the notion of a people beyond all recognition.

On the other hand, a genocide doesn’t cease to be one because it’s arguably justified. Even those rabid anti-Semites today who think the Final Solution was justified don’t deny it was genocide. They just think it was justified genocide, which would be oxymoronic if we think genocide must be the unjustified killing of a people.

It’s certainly true that certain people are vulnerable to being killed with impunity because they’re relatively defenseless and/or there’s widespread indifference to their victimization. This is certainly true of Palestinians at the hands of the Israelis, blacks in the U.S., and so-called natives in Canada. But to call these genocide is to trivialize what happened to the Armenians, the Tutsi and the Jews. One might suppose each would like to, but neither the Israelis nor Americans nor Canadians are involved in a program of exterminating these target populations.

Race – assuming there is such a thing – and religion are the most obvious candidates for peoplehood. And to the Roma and the Jews the Nazis added sexual orientation and mental retardation. But we can imagine – can we not? – a campaign to exterminate all those damn lefties, by which I don’t mean those on the political left – we’ll get to politics in a minute – but rather people who are left-handed. Or people with inadequately pronounced chins. Or what have you. All that’s necessary is a certain degree of identifiability in the victim population, and a certain degree of systematicity in their victimization. That is, there’s always a reason why this people rather than some other. But there’s no constraint on what that reason might be. For aught we know, a sneeze might provoke an invasion from Mars, and the Martians will pick out only those with hay fever. It would be genocide nonetheless.

Why? Because what’s meant by a people is indexed to the purposes for which whoever is divvying people up into peoples is divvying them. For Torquemada there were two kinds of people: those who do and those who do not embrace the Cross. In the former Yugoslavia there were those whose Cross above the church had one cross-bar and those that had two. And so on.

How we divvy up the human world might appear arbitrary, or if not arbitrary, certainly contingent. But that we do so is anything but. We’re pack animals. For us, others of our own species are our most dangerous predators. And our most valued allies in that predation and defense against predation.

It was always thus, and it will always be thus. If there’s a God, it’s the way He wanted it to be. And even if there isn’t, it’s the way it has to be. Genocide is the killing of one people by another – a people being defined as any coalition strategy – for the purposes of eliminating competition for resources.

But come to think of it, don’t we already have a perfectly serviceable word for this? Don’t we just call it ‘war’? So maybe we should just expunge the word genocide from our vocabulary, especially now that its metaphorical uses – e.g. cultural genocide and so on – have pretty much rendered its original meaning unusable.

Come to think of it, didn’t George Orwell warn us about what happens when we mess with the meaning of words like this?

Categories: Social and Political Philosophy


1 reply

  1. According to the Wikidictionary, the word “genocide” was coined in 1943 by Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959) referring to the Armenian Genocide and the Jewish Holocaust.

    However, as you have noted, “genocide” is, today, rendered of limited value via inflation, in the same way as money becomes inflated if the government prints too much money. So we have genocide inflation.

    That is inflation caused by inflating the word with hot air, like a balloon. Real genocide is shocking, indeed horrifying. But cultural genocide, through inflation of the word with “cultural” hot air, is no longer shocking or horrifying.


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