The Language of Genocide

The Language of Genocide
2014 to 2015
Emerging Networks
The term “genocide” is a mainstay of contemporary human rights discussion and policy. It is applied to a diverse swath of ethically charged human atrocities, from slavery to microbial disease. But, as Michael Ignatieff writes, “calling every abuse or crime a genocide makes it steadily more difficult to rouse people to action when a genuine genocide is taking place.”
The Language of Genocide and Human Rights will investigate the discrepancies between etymology and policy and between political rhetoric and political action. It will trace the application of “genocide” from Raphael Lemkin’s foundational contributions to its legal definition and modern-day manifestations, paying close attention to the ethical dimensions of such use (or mis-use).
The project will also consider “totalitarianism,” a concept formulated two decades before "genocide" to describe modern forms of dictatorship. Historically and politically, totalitarianism has been more thoroughly mapped than genocide and human rights. Two questions central to the project are, how does discourse on “totalitarianism” and on “genocide” intersect across the political spectrum? And how does it compare with discourse on human rights?
The project is an opportunity for students—especially the ones engaged in its archival aspect—to produce significant new research. They will participate in mapping the development of "genocide," first against human rights discourse and then against international political developments since WWII, with a focus on global sites of genocide. The overall goal is to derive directives for human rights and genocide education—at Duke and elsewhere—as well as policy.
The Language of Genocide and Human Rights is highly interdisciplinary. It will utilize the energies and expertise of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty in many fields, including linguistics, history, literature, public policy, political science, and human rights philosophy. The collaborations across humanities, history, and social sciences will produce original research examining, and bridging, the historical and the contemporary, highlighting the relevance and significance of the humanities in policy creation. The outcomes will reflect its disciplinary diversity, and will take many forms, ranging from short-term to long-term engagement: individual scholarly papers contributed by each team member coinciding with students’ thesis, distinction, and/or dissertation projects.
The project will also produce teaching materials for Malachi Hacohen’s Post War Europe, Suzanne Shanahan’s FOCUS course, and the Kenan Institute for Ethics’ teaching caselets.


Ruth Grant
Professor of Political Science
Malachi H. Hacohen
Fred W. Shaffer Associate Professor of History, Political Science and Religion


Naming a Problem from Hell: the Language of Genocide Workshop
Naming a Problem from Hell: the Language of Genocide Workshop
-- Mar 17 2016

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.... Read More