Some people aspire to greatness. Some have greatness thrust upon them. Having had it thrust upon him without his leave, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has carried greatness with the grace of a Nelson Mandela. My admiration for the man knows no bounds. And as a fellow citizen of the world, I would cut him whatever slack he might need. But as a professional philosopher I have to do my job. And that’s to call out bad reasoning whenever and wherever I find it, regardless of its author.

It would be genocide if being Ukrainian were a sufficient condition for the Russians killing someone. But it’s not. If it were they’d have been killing every Ukrainian in sight. It might be that were she not Ukrainian they’d be less inclined to kill her. So being Ukrainian might be a necessary condition. But it’s more likely the Russians have been killing Ukrainians because a) they’re Ukrainians and b) they’re in some sense in the way. As evidenced by the millions who’ve escaped the country, Ukrainians who take pains not to be in the way are unlikely to be noticed, let alone killed.

So what’s been happening in Bucha and Mariupol and elsewhere in Ukraine are warcrimes, to be sure. Perhaps crimes against humanity. But Selenskyy’s claim notwithstanding, it’s not genocide. And he squanders his credibility when he says it is.

As I tell my students, when making an argument, remember that less is more. The Russians have more than enough blood on their hands to warrant the most draconian reprisals an outraged world can inflict. There’s no need to up that outrage by conflating Bucha or Mariupol with Rwanda or the Shoah.

Categories: Everything You Wanted to Know About What's Going On in the World But Were Afraid to Ask

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2 replies

  1. The word “genocide” has become diluted to include all sorts of negative consequences that the user of the word dislikes.

    For example, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission described the events at residential schools as being “cultural genocide”. Then Prime Minister Justin Trudeau agreed that it was genocide, catapulting Canada into global headlines as a genocidal nation. If residential school education constitutes domestic genocide (cultural or otherwise) then a fortiori, why not the Russian killing of foreign civilians in Ukraine?

    Like you, I believe that less is more, but it may be that the genocide inflation battle has already been lost.


    • This is where I always point out that cultural genocide is nowhere mentioned or defined in the UN Convention on Genocide. Raphael Lemkin did argue that attempting to erase a nation’s culture and collective memory ought to be a crime and a definition did appear in the draft resolution. (He was worried about destroying books, churches, and synagogues and suppressing minority languages.) But this language was, I think wisely, removed entirely from the version that was adopted by the General Assembly in 1948. Totalitarian states like the USSR were nervous about being required to allow troublesome minorities too much latitude in being different from the official state culture. So cultural genocide means today whatever the speaker wants it to mean. It was cultural genocide to provide an education to a culture without written language that would (and did) allow them to function in Canadian and international society instead of leaving them in illiterate poverty? No problem….especially if you pretend the more coercive legends about the execution were as true as the tall tales say so and throw in a few slanders about deliberate introduction of infectious disease and some casual killings to round things off, in case someone wants to apply the genocide label, too.

      Now if Biden and Trudeau want to accuse the Russians, and Putin personally, of (attempted) genocide, that is a charge they are perfectly free to make the case for when Putin is in the dock at The Hague to answer the other crimes of war he will be charged with. Until then, it is empty words. And it is not the Shoah. But neither was the Shoah yet the Shoah on 2 Sept. 1939. The rest of the Polish (and later Ukrainian) Jews weren’t in the way, yet, but only because the Germans hadn’t been able to reach them all, yet.

      That said, I don’t think the Russians intend the destruction of every last Ukrainian even allowing for some to be preserved in zoos (citing Viminitz). They will presumably stop killing Ukrainian civilians once they have achieved (or been defeated from achieving) their military objectives but will keep killing and raping them without apparent compunction or restraint as long as it suits their purposes, which could include merely the entertainment of their troops (who mostly aren’t ethnic Russians.) Mariupol has been under siege. Civilians sheltering in a besieged city and helping it to resist are in for a world of hurt, some of it falling within the laws of war. We are soon going to hear many heart-rending stories leaking out if accounts from today are true that the Ukrainian marines have surrendered.


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