Naming a Problem from Hell: the Language of Genocide Workshop

Thursday, March 17, 2016
Humanities Writ Large

The term “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin in the midst of the epic brutality of the Holocaust. Its use, misuse, and evolution was the focus of the HWL project The Language of Genocide. Project leaders convened an interdisciplinary research team that “met regularly to examine various facets of the [term], focusing on a range of arenas, including current government practices, legal uses in international courtrooms, representations in film, and its multiple meanings through psychological studies.” The culmination of their efforts was a workshop hosted by the Kenan Institute for Ethics at the end of the Spring 2015 semester. At the Language of Genocide workshop Duke students and faculty were joined by distinguished scholars from other institutions representing political science, history, economics, law, philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. The day-long event consisted of three faculty-led panels followed by a panel in which students involved in the project presented their work. The proceedings are summarized in a report by two student rapporteurs, Matthew King and Savannah Wooten.

The first panel of the day, “Naming a Problem from Hell: Languages of Violence, 1880-1950,” traced the contested development of the term. A discussion of the Armenian genocide highlighted the fact that genocide is not simply mass murder. A society can be eliminated in other ways, exemplified by the forced conversion to Islam inflicted on countless Armenians. In contrast to Lemkin’s focus on societies, the human rights agenda focuses on the individual. The second presentation in this panel described how these two approaches emerged in parallel and, to some extent, in competition. The third paper dealt with the political tensions that marked the U.S. response to the language of genocide. On one side, proponents of equality issued a manifesto describing centuries of U.S. policy towards African Americans as genocidal. On the other, segregationists were not keen for such arguments to be given a foundation in international law and were able to hold up ratification of the U.N. Genocide Convention for decades.

The second panel, “Genocides In All But Name? Holocaust and Holodomor” examined the term in relation to three 20th century catastrophes. First under consideration was the problems applying the term to the Soviet-era famine in Ukraine known as the Holodomor. The episode involved death on the same scale as the Holocaust but famine lacks the compelling clarity of gas chambers and mass execution, leading to problems of both rhetoric and accountability. In the Nigerian civil war in the late 1960’s, the term was used not in retrospect but as a way to rally support for the cause. The international PR campaign mounted by secessionist forces was not terribly successful, but it does represent a coming-of-age of the concept.

The third panel focussed on Responsibility To Protect. R2P is an elaboration of the UN Genocide Convention meant to provide guidelines for humanitarian interventions in the wake of international response and non-response to the crises in Kosovo and Rwanda. The difficulties in navigating these situations was brought firmly into the present with a discussion of Syria and Libya—one a case of problematic non-intervention and the other a case of problematic intervention.

The crux of the discussion was the difficulty of taking a term defined by colossal atrocities and putting it to use in a world churning with inter-group violence of all kinds while maintaining its profound moral significance. The cogent summary by King and Wooten describes the discussion after the first panel of The group’s name echoes the title of a document presented to the U.N. by a coalition of civil rights activists in 1948, We Charge Genocide; The Crime of Government against the Negro People, but their focus is much narrower: police brutality in Chicago.

[D]oes a more expansive notion of genocide empower and bring attention to pressing cases of human rights violations, or does it merely water down the [clarity] (and thus the power) of genocide as an abominable crime?

In their discussion, participants expressed concern that a more expansive definition of genocide would lead to overuse and politicization of the term, making it less forceful a condemnation and rendering action in cases of Holocaust- or Rwanda-scale genocide less likely. Watenpaugh and Rabinbach countered that their notion of genocide was not an expansion, but rather a refinement, of genocide that reaches back to Lemkin’s earliest writings on the subject, before he coined a term for the “crime without a name.”

The case of Soviet Ukraine highlighted the poignant complications that arise when the language of moral condemnation meets the drive for accountability.

Irvin-Erickson and Poberezny delved into the nuances of the language of genocide as pertaining to the Holodomor, explaining that deliberateness and intention play a key role in determining whether or not mass death merits use of the term ‘genocide.’ In the case of Holodomor, the panelists emphasized that a rhetorical difference exists between “death by starvation” and “death from starvation.” “Death by starvation” refers to a calculated action while “death from starvation” does not. Establishing the intentionality of the former has become the chief task of those in favor of labeling the Holodomor as a genocide.

The language of genocide, then, is wrapped up in a tangle of conceptual and ethical issues that are as impossible as they are urgent. Students King and Wooten have done an excellent job of summarizing an intense and probing workshop. Their document is well worth reading. Consult it also for a full list of conference participants.

Referenced Projects