Draft review of Unspeak

by John Quiggin on August 24, 2006

My draft review of Steven Poole’s Unspeak is over the fold. Comments much appreciated.

The seemingly magical power of words is one of the first and greatest discoveries made by any human being. The ability to ask for something by name gives us, as infants and as adults, a massive increase in our power to control the world around us by influencing the actions of others. It is scarcely surprising then, that magical thinking, both ancient and modern, is centred largely on words and names – to know the true name of something is to control its essence.

On the other hand, most of us rapidly learn the limits and dangers of language. ‘Actions speak louder than words‘, ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ and other proverbs express the disillusionment that comes with the discovery that words don’t always mean what they seem to. But, of course, this discovery can only be expressed using more words, so their power can never be fully dispelled

Steven Poole begins his book Unspeak by quoting Confucius who, when asked what he would do if he became ruler said he would ‘rectify the names of things’. Confucius saw getting language right as the key to clear and reasonable thinking.

Poole shares the Confucian view, coining the term Unspeak, with its deliberate Orwellian resonance, to refer to language that incorporates unspoken assumptions. More neutrally, Unspeak is often referred to in discussions of logic as ‘persuasive definition’ and in social psychology as ‘framing’. Contemporary examples of Unspeak abound, and language is in need of rectification.

Unlike many writers in this genre, however, Poole does not suggest that language has deteriorated from a Golden Age of honesty and clarity. Unspeak has been with us since language began, and the most we can do is struggle to understand and expose it, a task that can never be fully realised.

Is this struggle necessary? Optimists might argue that euphemisms never succeed for long in concealing the underlying reality, and that the power of language to mislead is exaggerated by professional wordspinners. This viewpoint seems excessively sanguine. Phrases like ‘people’s republic’ or ‘free enterprise’ may lose their persuasive power in the long run, in the same way as overused metaphors eventually die, but, as Keynes observed, ‘in the long run we are all dead’.

A critique more suited to our postmodern times is that the whole idea of trying to tease out unspoken assumptions from our language is untenable, relying as it does on the notion that there exists an objective reality that we can apprehend independently of language. At least since the formulation of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, it has been widely claimed that we can understand the world only through language, and that different languages (or different discourses within a language) give rise to different, incommensurable world views.

This kind of thinking is implicit in George Lakoff’s arguments about framing, which have become very popular among liberals and progressives (terms which contain a fair bit of Unspeak themselves) in the United States. Lakoff attributes the success of the Republican party to its success in controlling the language of political, thereby framing the debate in a way that favors their preferred positions. He gives the example of ‘tax relief’, which Poole also discusses. Since ‘relief’ is good, ‘tax relief’ must appear as the removal of a burden, even if the end result is to place greater burdens on those who depend on tax-funded support to get by.

Unlike, Poole, however, Lakoff says ‘If you have been framed, the only response is to reframe. But you can’t do it in a sound bite unless an appropriate progressive language has been built up in advance.’

This argument is superficially appealing, but the proposed strategy is both wrong and futile. The wrongness of the claim that there is no response but reframing is central to Poole’s argument, and his book embodies the alternative denied by Lakoff.

The futility of reframing, as a political strategy for the US left, is even clearer. This is a game the Republicans are always going to win. They have more money, more resources and more professional spin doctors. In addition, they have at least a decade’s headstart. Not only the leaders but the Republican rank-and-file have learned to speak and think in soundbites, and change them in unison (consider all the versions of social security privatisation/choice/private accounts/personal accounts and so on).

Perhaps the most striking evidence of all this is that the favourite sound bites for critics of the Bush Administration, such as ‘Reality-based community’, ‘Coalition of the shrilling’ and ‘Fair and balanced’ have been appropriated from Republicans. The only recent example of the opposite process is ‘Vast right-wing conspiracy’ which was an off-the-cuff remark rather than a considered soundbite.

Now, on to some examples of Unspeak. Some of them are obviously dishonest euphemisms, like the US military’s description of beating someone to death as ‘repetitive administration of legitimate force’. Poole’s critique is effective, and he finds some new and startling examples of the genre. For example, the idea of the ‘surgical striking’ has been extended to the military use of the medical term ‘debriding …’, which literally means the removal of diseased or necrotic tissue, to refer to the process of killing the guerillas of Fallujah, along with anyone else unfortunate enough to be in the surgically-defined blast radius.

Given the nature of war, the use of euphemisms designed to disguise its horros is inevitable. But awareness of these euphemisms is widespread, and critics inevitably cover relatively familiar ground.

Poole’s most striking contributions relate to words that most of us use positively, without any careful consideration of their meaning, such as ‘community’ and ‘reform’. No-one could be opposed to say, ‘reforms promoting community-based care’. But this phrase could be, and has been, used to describe policies of dumping mentally ill patients on to the street without any adequate means of support.

As Poole observes, the word ‘community’ summons up an image of ‘an idealised country village of a few hundred inhabitants at most … a place where, as in the TV series Cheers everybody knows your name’. In reality, few people today are members of a community in this sense, and the implied picture is no more representative of a real village than Cheers is of a real bar.

There’s an interesting contrast here with ‘society’ which has much the same referent as ‘the community’, but lacks many of the feelgood connotations. It’s a cliché to say that ‘society is to blame’ for this or that, but it would seem incongruous to say ‘the community is to blame’.

The other characteristic feature of the term ‘community’ is its use in various forms of identity and interest group politics. Thus, it is commonplace to refer to the Greek community, the gay community, the business community and so on. In some cases, this usage conveys an unspoken essentialist claim, that, a person is defined by their membership of the particular community in question. But few of us are willing to accept this claim, as applied to ourselves. As Poole observes, to the extent that we are members of any community in this sense, we are members of many, reflecting social class, occupation, ethnicity, religion, gender and many other things.

In practice, therefore, use of the term ‘community’ is more commonly associated with a type of politics in which groups and leaders claiming to represent particular communities play a major role. The unspoken assumption is that a person’s political concerns can be partitioned into sets of issues based on membership of particular groups, and mediated through the (largely self-appointed) leaders of those groups. Most commonly, when the term ‘community’ is used group membership is ascribed, rather being than the result of a conscious decision to join an organisation, such as a union or association. This approach to politics has benefits as well as costs, but it should not be smuggled into debate through the use of terms like ‘community’.

As an example of Unspeak, ‘reform’ is even more striking. ‘ The word has always embodied an unspoken theory of history, which explains why it is almost invariably taken to imply change for the better.

Its orginal meaning, still alive in references to the Reformation was to restore something to its original form. Luther and other reformers saw themselves as sweeping away centuries of abuses to restore, as far as possible, the primitive purity of the church. In this sense, the term ‘reform’ fits naturally with the view of history derived from Plato and from the Christian doctrine of the Fall, as one of decline from an ideal state. The reformer may partially restore the ideal, undoing some of the damage of time, but can never improve on it. Theories of history as decline were dominant until the 18th century. Swift’s Battle of the Books marked their end, though with his characteristic pessimism, Swift gave the palm to the Ancients over the Moderns.

From the Enlightenment onwards, ‘reform’ underwent something of a reversal, since it now typically implied forming something new. But since the associated worldview was now one of progress, the assumption remained that reform entailed change for the better. The term was typically used to describe policies favored by the moderate left, in opposition to advocates of revolutionary change on one side and of conservatism and reaction on the other. Although the details changed, the general direction of policy implied by the term was unambigous, implying a greater role for the state and a more egalitarian distribution of power and income.

Since the late 20th century, however, progressive theories of history have come to seem less possible. The seemingly inevitable movement towards greater power for workers and the replacement of capitalism by some form of socialism came to a halt in the 1970s, and went into reverse under governments like those of Thatcher in the United Kingdom and Reagan in the United States.

This pattern obviously creates a problem for the term ‘reform’, since most of the policies now being advocated under that banner, such as ‘industrial relations reform’ or ‘microeconomic reform’ consist, in large measure, of the reversal of previous reforms. This creates an obvious problem for anyone who wishes to refer to these policies without accepting the implicit assumption that they are beneficial.

A variety of devices, such as the use of scare quotes and phrases like “so-called reform” are available. The Internet allows the option of hyperlinking the word to a lengthy gloss pointing out the unspoken assumptions. None of these is satisfactory, leaving the options of avoiding the term altogether or hoping that repeated exposure to unpleasant instances of reform will eventually erode its favorable connotations. Until then, as Poole observes,‘the very word argues efficiently in favour of itself, in paradigmatic Unspeak fashion.

There’s plenty more, as the chapter titles indicate: Nature, Tragedy, Operations, Terror, Abuse, Freedom and Extremism are all familiar terms laden with unspoken assumptions. Even if we can never escape entirely from the conceptual frames attached to words, it is better to struggle to understand and clarify our language than to give up the fight and join the creators of Unspeak.

{ 39 comments }

1

anno-nymous 08.24.06 at 5:50 am

It’s got a lot of commas. You could probably just take some out without any rewriting at all, eg, the one after “then” in the first paragraph: “It is scarcely surprising then, that magical thinking, both ancient and modern,…”

Oh wait, you wanted substantive comments? Like about your ideas and stuff? Well, let’s see. First of all, I’m not convinced that “reframing” is such a bad idea. I’ll gladly grant that it has its limits, but even if conservatives will always be ahead in the frame game, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t also go as far with frames and rhetoric as we possibly can. Any little bit helps. You seem to be arguing that if we can’t win, we shouldn’t play at all.

And the alternative to playing with frames that you seem to be advocating through Poole is somewhat unclear to me. The wonk response to the concept of framing, for instance, is that frames don’t matter — ideas and issues matter. That’s not what you’re arguing here.

As I understand it, you’re in favor of *deframing* rather than reframing. I don’t see how this works as any sort of positive political strategy. As you say, Unspeak has been with us forever, and if after 50 years of hard hard work we finally get rid of the positive associations of the word “reform” the pro-slavery proponents of “Labor Reform” will just start talking about how “Transactional Human Freedom” is the only way to end the Great Famine. (The future in 2056 is all very dystopian — having given up on framing in 2006, liberals have been unable to stem the fifty year conservo-anarchist tide).

A balanced politics would seem to combine deframing with reframing in a complementary manner. I write slogans for us, you deconstruct their slogans. I don’t think the correct response is to focus on an intellectual debate about the nature of language and just give up on the political debate.

Don’t get me wrong, though. Good and interesting review.

2

abb1 08.24.06 at 6:05 am

Steven, if you reading this – is my IP at work banned from commenting on unspeak.net? I press Submit but comments are not posted.

Anyway, I only wanted to suggest an euphemism for arms race: ‘peace thru strength’.

3

Brett Bellmore 08.24.06 at 6:08 am

“Since ‘relief’ is good, ‘tax relief’ must appear as the removal of a burden, even if the end result is to place greater burdens on those who depend on tax-funded support to get by.”

How unsubtle. But in a telling way…

The yoke on your back does not become weightless, just because the plow needs to be pulled. Taking it from your back does not cease to be a relief, even if it results in the crops not getting planted.

It’s not “unspeak” to note this, it’s just a refusal to elide inconvenient detail. Necessary evils ARE still evils, after all.

BTW, it’s really a hoot to see the suggestion that the arrival of “reforms” that aren’t “progressive” created “an obvious problem for anyone who wishes to refer to these policies without accepting the implicit assumption that they are beneficial.”

Because, of course, nobody would ever have a problem with suggesting that “progressive” reforms are beneficial, right? (Where’s that rolleyes smilie when you need it?)

4

constablesavage 08.24.06 at 6:28 am

brett

I think you are missing the point. “Tax relief” is commonly used as an expression as if the “relief” applied to all of us. In practice it never does. Say you increase earned income tax relief, you don’t benefit pensioners. It’s the implication that the relief benefits all of us which contains the false assumption.

5

Peter Clay 08.24.06 at 7:52 am

Doesn’t Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” cover most of this?

6

John Quiggin 08.24.06 at 8:21 am

Brett, I thought it was obvious that anyone who opposed “progressive” policies ought to have had a problem with “reform” all along. Since it obviously wasn’t, I’ll try and rephrase this a bit.

7

Brendan 08.24.06 at 8:28 am

This strikes me as an excellent review, but, insofar as I understand it, I don’t think I agree with the argument (or at least with the argument of ‘Unspeak’ itself, with which, at least according to this reivew, you seem to be in agreement). The basic point of George Lakoff’s philosophy is that there is no such thing as a ‘clear’ ‘objective’ view of reality, which can be ‘seen’ through language (i.e. the so called ‘window pane’ view of language). All linguistic facts are value saturated, and we take our values from our culture (what Wittgenstein called our ‘form of life’).
Now this may be true or it may not. But in any case the arguments in the above review as to why it is both wrong ‘and futile‘ don’t add up. (Emphasis added).

You say: ‘The futility of reframing, as a political strategy for the US left, is even clearer. This is a game the Republicans are always going to win. They have more money, more resources and more professional spin doctors. In addition, they have at least a decade’s headstart. Not only the leaders but the Republican rank-and-file have learned to speak and think in soundbites, and change them in unison (consider all the versions of social security privatisation/choice/private accounts/personal accounts and so on).’

But if this is true for reframing it is, ipso facto, also true for deframing (why would it be any different?). As soon as the left ‘deframes’ the right will ‘reframe’ and so you are left back in exactly the same situation. So, according to this argument the Right will always win because they have more money, more power, more influence, so why bother fighting them, apart from the dubious pleasure of just ‘knowing’ that ‘you are right’ even though the rest of the world disagrees.

Incidentally, I don’t know whether many of on the Left understand this, but it is precisely the emphasis on ‘objective truth’ (i.e. the insistence that the Left possess this and the right do not and cannot) that most pisses off people on the right (and many on the centre). In other words, what pisses people off, is not the idea that it is my opinion that capitalism is a bad thing or that the rich exploit the poor that annoys people: it is ‘my’ (i.e. as a left winger) insistence that it is objectively true that under capitalism the poor suffer, and that it is objectively true that corporations are bad for democracy, and that anyone who disagrees with me is just wrong and their views can be discounted (indeed, that since they just are wrong that they must be bad people, or corrupt, or irrational or deluded or stupid). The view of the left as being self-righteous moralists who believe that they, as a privileged minority, have an objective view of reality denied to lesser mortals, is a key argument in Republican rhetoric.

You would have to be a better man than me not to admit that there is at least a grain of truth in this view.

In any case, Lakoff’s more fundamental point would undoubtedly be that Steven Poole would seem to be claiming that he (and perhaps he alone, who knows?) can penetrate ‘through’ language and touch base with the Ding an Sich that lies behind it. In other words, whereas ‘the others’ use propaganda, he tells the truth. But how did he come by this knowledge, how can he justify this claim in any sense other than that of an empty tautology (‘I’m right because i’m right because i’m right because i’m right’), and how does he explain that other people who seem to be no less rational and/or intelligent than him have NOT managed to reach through language and reach this ‘objectivity’? After all if it was just a matter of pointing out to people that they were wrong then after the publication of this book surely people would see ‘the truth’ and from now on everyone will vote Democrat?

Or, on the other hand, if the argument is that the Republicans will always have the power and influence to ‘reframe’ the situation to their advantage, then surely books like this won’t make any difference, the rich and powerful will always win, it’s all futile, and we should all just join the Republican party and accept that the left is doomed?

8

Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 8:39 am

Well, there’s a lot here. First of all, I don’t agree that the Left is intrinsically poorer at framing. From about 1840’s to the 1970’s, with perhaps some setbacks at the end of the 19th century, the left ruled unspeak. Marx’s popularity was largely because he *defined* capitalist profit as exploitation and generated an elaborate argument to back that up. Who could be in favor of “exploitation”? Who would oppose the “workers” – those who did all the work? Anyone against “human rights”? Offhand, I think the difficulty for the left right now, may be that its discourse is dominated by academic standards, and soundbites are not what the academy aims for; they are the application of the techniques of advertising.

I think the problem with unspeak is not unspoken assumptions per se, which are unavoidable in any discourse, as any discourse has to assume a body of common knowledge (as well as “knowledge”) about the world among its participants. It is implicit value judgements; our value judgements do not belong in the definitions of things themselves.
The difference between the terms “african american” and “nigger” is not in the literal meanings, which are the same, but the implicit value judgements. The same applies to “progressive”, “reform”, “free trade” etc. But implicit value judgements usually fly because they go uncontested, and can be created from whole cloth. The demonization of the word
“liberal” was the imprinting of a value judgement on a neutral term for political reasons, and it suceeded primarily because liberals did not fight for the term. Conversely, “black”, when used racially, used to have a negative associated judgement which the black community chose to overcome and succesfully did so. Language requires consensus. If the term “free trade” were disputed within the mainstream, its connoctations would fly much less. “Fair trade” is a good rejoinder; but it was the far left (Global Exchange I believe), who came up with it. Likewise, “save the planet”. It’s not that the left can’t do this. It’s that the mainstream moderates can’t. Those on the right can’t either. That’s why the Republicans took off when they started letting their extremists rule their rhetoric.

9

Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 9:01 am

Another thing. This whole notion that the mind is made of discourse – it seems to underlie a great deal of 20th century thought. The common ground of Wittgenstein and Derrida, I think. Is it supported by contemporary neuroscience? Is not language a localized function that could be surgically removed without radically altering the rest? Could we feel “love” with having a word or other linguistic concept of love? My sense is that a contemporary neurophysicist would say yes, but most 20th century philosophers would say no.

10

Maynard Handley 08.24.06 at 9:08 am

Mention is made above of the idea that, in the long run, unspeak phrases become recognized for what they are, but that is in the long run. Later mention is made of “community”.

I’d like to ask people to comment on whether they would agree that the process of seeing through the word “community” is already on its way. Speaking for myself (as someone born in 1967) I do not associate “community” with positive associations but rather with a sort of tyrrany of petty-mindedness stupidity, basically a rather less literate version of a home-owner’s association. The question is, is this just me, or am I part of a larger pattern. I’d say, in my reading, that I don’t (yet?) much see “community” used in an ironic and negative sense; but I’d also say that I don’t see it used much in a positive sense either, not the way it was tossed about in the 60s, except in the writings of people who come across as hippy-dippy refugees from the 60s.

11

Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 9:14 am

Brendan, if you’re representing Lakoff accurately – I haven’t read Lakoff, but what you’re describing has been the prevailing view for a while – I think this view of objectivity is too bivalent (for lack of a simpler term). Just because something is never manifest in pure form does not mean it does not exist.

Hence, the statement “no statement is ever purely objective” is entirely different from the statement “objectivity does not exist”, though they are treated as equivalent, and proofs of the first assertion as taken to prove the second. Flip it around: no statement is ever purely subjective, because all human language must refer to the common experience of human beings to be meaningful. If I said something that referred only to my subjective realty without referring to experiences shared with others, it would be utterly opaque and effectively meaningless. Hence, both objectivity and subjectivty exist in all discourse.

This does not mean the balance of the two is always the same. A poem leans more to the subjective than a technical manual. But there is objectivity in the poem and subjectivity in the manual. I think the war on objectivity has been ill-concieved, and has left dissent without the ability to speak Truth to Power, as one cannot do that effectively from a position of skepticism about Truth.

12

David Sucher 08.24.06 at 9:39 am

“I’d say, in my reading, that I don’t (yet?) much see “community” used in an ironic and negative sense; but I’d also say that I don’t see it used much in a positive sense either…”

I agree with Handley. The term “community” is getting shop-worn and people are starting to see through it. Using it dates one. I am most aware of that when it comes to land use squabbles in which 2 or 3 individuals will use it in every other sentence in order to puff-up their stature. Using the term to justify special treatment for particular groups (bi-lingualism, for example) is also helping to undermine its credibility.

13

sw 08.24.06 at 10:03 am

Hi,

Too many words!

You write that Unspeak refers “to language that incorporates unspoken assumptions . . . as ‘persuasive definition’ and . . . as ‘framing'”. Unspeak, as Poole defines it, is more specific than that: it is a term that incorporates an unspoken argument while erasing any opposing point of view. So, while it may be persuasive and may be part of framing the debate, it is not simply euphemism. A euphemism is sugar-coating: Unspeak is about words as weapons.

The response to Unspeak is really rather simple: pay attention to language, listen to it . . . Know that when you are using the term “ethnic cleansing”, you are not just using a term provided by the perpetrators of a genocide to describe their actions, you are using a term that permits governments to get around their obligations to combat genocide under international treaties, and implicitly arguing that dirty ethnicities can be “cleansed” – that murder, rape and torture is like giving the body politic a good scrubbing. And do you see how “ethnic cleansing”, while arguing that it is not genocide, is importing all sorts of assumptions about what it is doing? Even if you don’t agree that the objects of “ethnic cleansing” are dirty and stinking (although you _are_ saying it), you are agreeing to the notion that the purpose of the “ethnic cleansing” is a type of purification. So what do you do? You stop using the term “ethnic cleansing”, and when somebody uses the term, you ask them, “Do you mean genocide?” And if they say yes, then you ask them to use it. If they say no, ask them to explain the difference. If they cannot – or if they lie about the difference – refer them Poole’s section on “ethnic cleansing” in Unspeak.

You are completely wrong that in these postmodern times “to tease out unspoken assumptions from our language is untenable, relying as it does on the notion that there exists an objective reality that we can apprehend independently of language.” On several levels. First, the reason why this book is about political language is because (and people don’t seem to realise this) political language matters, has consequence, even in these postmodern times. We can never know _every_ single unspoken assumption George W. Bush makes about the term “climate change”, but we can know that he uses that term instead of the more apt “global warming” as an act of Unspeak (again, see the book), and that the consequence of this has been years of inadequate US response to carbon dioxide emissions, etc. Even in a world that is not based on objective reality, it’s getting hotter outside. Second, most postmodernists, influenced as we are by Lacan as well as Foucault and Derrida and Heidegger, actually think that we can tease out underlying assumptions from language because it is language that bears the trace and distortions of our will and (un)conscious on “objective reality”. But I don’t think Unspeak really goes in for that.

14

eweininger 08.24.06 at 10:07 am

John,

My 2 cents is that it might be helpful to reflect a bit on an actual example of the “deframing” you advocate that took place–and this is the key–in the context of “popular” political debate, rather than in a academic or semi-academic context. (And CT comment threads would definitely be an example of the latter. For all the weirdness, vituperation, or what have you that can wash through these pages, the kind of hyperlink-happy debate that goes on here adheres to norms which are quite different from those that operate in the wider public sphere. To say nothing of the people who participate.)

The best recent example I can come up with is the one you mentioned: the debates over social security that recently took place in the U.S. They’re interesting precisely because “social security” is so semantically spongy, and it’s spongy simply because it’s hard to understand if you don’t have a background in something like accounting. (I had some undergrads do a survey of student attitudes towards changing the social security system, and I assure you: it’s hard to write survey questions that are both comprehensible and not grossly inaccurate–or loaded.)

I’d be curious to know if people think the implosion of the Bush “reform” was predictable ahead of time. My intuition is that most pundits thought not. Either way, though, it might be fun to debate (in this semi-academic venue) whether it constituted a successful example of “de-framing” or just the eternal recurrence of “re-framing”, albeit with the good guys (provisionally) coming out ahead.

15

Dæn 08.24.06 at 10:27 am

Doesn’t Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” cover most of this?

As it happens, no. Go back and read it again—Orwell only spends about 1/5th of the essay discussing the kind of rhetorical treachery that Poole investigates. Most of PEL is a cranky Strunk-and-White-style disquisition on the absolute atrocity of the author’s pet solecisms, most of which have little to do with politics per se. The bit of PEL that deals with spin/Unspeak always seemed to me like a bit of a left turn from the Sokalish critique that makes up its majority.

16

Brendan 08.24.06 at 10:37 am

To reply briefly to Martin Bento: your point about subjective/objective being an analogue not a digital distinction is something I completely agree with. In other words, just because there is no such thing as ‘pure’ objectivity’ and ‘pure’ subjectivity it of course does not follow that things cannot be more or less ‘objective’ and ‘subjective’…although Lakoff and Johnson wouldn’t put it this way, I think this is essentially what they are getting at (cf the last few chapters of ‘Metaphors we live by’ in which they explicitly disavoe BOTH ‘the myth of objectivity’ AND ‘the myth of subjectivity’).

To take the second point, both L and J would emphasise the embodied nature of linguistic performance (cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embodiment). Johnson uses the phrase: Neurologically responsible philosophy: i.e. all the language we use (and by ‘all’ they do mean ‘all’ i.e. including the ‘languages’ of logic and mathematics) arises from embodied states and potentialities via the medium of metaphor. In other words, as beings that arose from natural selection, we cannot ‘think’ (or to be more specific, ‘speak’) what our bodies ‘will not let us’ speak.

In my understanding this insight is prefigured in Wittgenstein’s aphorism that ‘If a lion could speak, we could not understand him’. (i.e. because a lion’s ‘form of life’ would be too alien for us to understand).

The other point you make (that the problem with much of the ‘left’ in the States is that a large minority of the Democrat party are actually on the side of the Republicans) is of course also true. Which explains why they refuse to fight to ‘protect’ words like ‘liberal’.

17

SamChevre 08.24.06 at 11:00 am

I’m chiming in to support eweininger–use an example.

I suggest the “reality-based community” example, which I think is one of the most successful reframings I have seen. If you remember, the original point was, “You, the reality-based community, study reality; we, the liberal-democratic community, try to change reality.” In this sense, MLK was not part of the “reality-based community”. But by repeating it, frequently, in a different context, it became a way of highlighting the fact that the Bush administration was not basing its actions on any discernable reality.

18

Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 11:36 am

sw, I think “ethnic cleansing” has lost its use as euphemism. Yes, the term itself uses a metaphor of hygiene, but there is no consensus behind that metaphor, so it doesn’t work. In fact, it has the reverse effect: ethnic cleansing doesn’t necessarily mean genocide, it can mean forced expulsion, whereas genocide means murder (unless the definition has been broadened again). Yet, when you say “ethnic cleansing” people do, in fact, tend to hear “genocide” (certainly you seem to).

I appreciate the clarification of what unspeak means though. Like I said “embodying unspoken assumptions” is something language cannot avoid.

Brendan, thanks for your clarification on Lakoff. Like I said, I haven’t read him, and was mostly discussing broader currents of thought in which I suspected, based on your earlier single sentence, he fit.

19

sw 08.24.06 at 3:41 pm

Hi, Martin,

I’m afraid that I must disagree: “ethnic cleansing” was very clever and remains nefarious not because it was partly euphemistic (why “partly”? Nobody really chimes up in support of “ethnic cleansing” because they think it sounds so nice, but it is relatively more sparkling and vague than the harshness of “genocide”).

Its problem is that it is Unspeak. It _appears_ not to lie about what it is doing – you point to “forced expulsion” – and yet it carries with it a certain baggage and pretends it is something it is not (i.e., unspeaks what it is). I explained some of that baggage above, about tropes of cleanliness and the dirty people amongst us (all taken from Unspeak), but can go further: it makes of its victim not a person or people but an “ethnic”, turning its victims into a conglomerate, so that whenever you use that term, you are talking about a group of people as though they are essentially and inherently “ethnic”. Furthermore, you concede to the perpetrators _their_ designation of who is being targeted and why. It can then be part of some larger, often fictional, narrative about “ancient ethnic tensions”. In other words, the term does a tremendous amount of work that “genocide” does not.

In terms of “unspeaking what it is”: “ethnic cleansing” _is_ _is_ _is_ genocide. You say “forced expulsion” . . . how is that expulsion forced? In a harshly worded memorandum? It is forced through terror and violence upon this designated population.

The UN Convention on Genocide provides a workable definition of genocide:

In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

a) Killing members of the group;
b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

(from: http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html)

Whenever “ethnic cleansing” has been used, it has been on account of one or more of the above, and therefore would be appropriately termed “genocide”. But if it gets called “genocide”, then signatories to that treaty would be compelled to act.

Now, I can think of no example of “forced expulsion” of a group that does meet in part or in whole the definitions above. If there were such a circumstance, then I think your term for it is spot on: “forced expulsion” – not “ethnic cleansing”. Perhaps an example of “forced expulsion” is what happened to some Asian populations in certain African states post independence? I’m not sure.

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anno-nymous 08.24.06 at 4:08 pm

Brendan: Incidentally, I don’t know whether many of on the Left understand this, but it is precisely the emphasis on ‘objective truth’ (i.e. the insistence that the Left possess this and the right do not and cannot) that most pisses off people on the right (and many on the centre).

Of course, many liberals hold this view about science. And on a broader level, liberals think that liberals are right on policy — duh. That’s why they’re liberals.

But aren’t conservatives the ones who keep accusing liberals of moral relativism, while conservatives have an ‘objective’ morality? Right and wrong, black and white, all that? Liberals are postmodern apologists? Conservatives think conservatives are objectively right as much as liberals think that liberals are objectively right. Presumably the people who are pissed off are mostly just annoyed because they disagree (with science, with conservative morality).

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John Quiggin 08.24.06 at 5:07 pm

Thanks for all these comments, which are very useful.

I think the two issues of framing and objective truth are related. There’s a conflict between being good at framing and convincing people that you have objective truth on your side. Even if spin works, at some level people know they are being spun.

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Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 5:09 pm

sw, well, you’re right the legal definition of genocide is broader than I had realized. I was going by the common definition, which is, for example, that given by all of the cited dictionaries on dictionary.com. Well, words often mean different things in specialized realms than in common speech. However, the etymology of “genocide” directly maps to the popular rather than the legal meaning, so I think the legal meaning may also be a bit of dissimulation. I could understand Lemkin doing this in 1943, and it turns out that that was genocide in the narrow sense as well. But using a term that literally means “race killing” for something this vague doesn’t strike me as all that upfront either.

For example, suppose we decided to fight Islamic fundamentalism by forcibly removing young orphaned children (many in Afghanistan in the 80s and 90s, I’m sure) from madrassas and having them adopted by middle-class Americans. That would be genocide by the above definition. I’m not saying it would be justified, but would it really be the same crime as the Holocaust?

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anno-nymous 08.24.06 at 5:33 pm

There’s a conflict between being good at framing and convincing people that you have objective truth on your side. Even if spin works, at some level people know they are being spun.

I think the problem is that in a partisan environment, people assume they’re being spun no matter what. Politicians are trying to earn their votes and their support. The choice isn’t (good framing and having people distrust you) versus (bad framing and having people trust you). People distrust you anyway, so you might as well be good at framing.

I’d also like to add that framing doesn’t necessarily need to be purely corrupting of the language. I think the most successful and the most resonant frames are the ones that genuinely help people see an issue in a different light. It organizes their thoughts and forces them make new connections, and the new connections may very well be accurate. Off the top of my head, I think “Pro-Choice” and “Pro-Life” are both great frames for their respective sides. Neither is dishonest, and both do a great job of using a simple name to explain a system of values behind an honest and legitimate way of thinking about the issue. If liberals let conservatives brand them as “Pro-Abortion” instead, that wouldn’t exactly be inaccurate, but liberals would have given up the genuinely and appropriately positive associations related to framing the issue as a “choice” for women.

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sw 08.24.06 at 6:02 pm

Hi, Martin,

“I’m not saying it would be justified, but would it really be the same crime as the Holocaust?”

How is it possible for me to answer that? I know what you’re asking – but it cannot be answered. To require that an event be compared to or in any way comparable to the Holocaust is not helpful for anybody (least of all those innumerable victims of genocides who were not protected because what was happening to them was determined not to be “the same crime as The Holocaust”).

I will, nevertheless, answer your question as to whether your example constitutes “genocide”. If taking Afghan orphans constitutes “forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” and if this act is actually “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, then, “Yes, it is the same crime. By a matter of convention.” Would we be obliged to fight against this as an act of Genocide and a Crime Against Humanity? “Yup.”

But don’t get fooled by this matter of scale. “Ethnic Cleansing” has the reputation of being something “that doesn’t rise to the level of” genocide. And yet, where is there an example of “Ethnic Cleansing” that _is not genocide_? “Ethnic Cleansing” is not genocide-lite.

It’s the same with the Bush administration and torture: what abuse “rises to the level” of torture? If it’s “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity”, it’s torture. Is jamming bamboo chips under someone’s nails the “same crime” as forcing them to piss on their holy book or not sleep for 40 hours or be told that they are going to be executed or having live wires placed on their genitals or having dead wires placed on their genitals while being told that they are electrified? Yes.

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Paul Currion 08.24.06 at 6:32 pm

Martin Bento: “I was going by the common definition, which is, for example, that given by all of the cited dictionaries on dictionary.com. Well, words often mean different things in specialized realms than in common speech. However, the etymology of “genocide” directly maps to the popular rather than the legal meaning, so I think the legal meaning may also be a bit of dissimulation.”

Actually it doesn’t, and it isn’t. The word genocide was specifically created by Raphael Lemkin specifically to describe exactly what is defined in the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Prior to that, it had neither a legal nor a popular definition, so the etymology does not map to the “popular meaning.”

The reason that many people do not have a clear conception of the meaning and practice of genocide is precisely because of Unspeak. Because the Convention requires participating states to act against acts of genocide, successive governments have gone to great lengths to obscure the definition of genocide. For those who are interested, Samantha Power’s book “A Problem from Hell” provides comprehensive, illuminating and depressing coverage of this.

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Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 8:41 pm

Paul, while “genocide” obviously had no popular meaning prior to being coined, it does have one now, which, as I stated, is reflected in dictionary,com, American Heritage, Webster’s, and Wordnet dictionaries: all of these, as shown on dictionary.com, give slaughter as the sole meaning of genocide. I am not enough of a conspiracy theorist to think all those sources were adulterated by the government. Now perhaps I should have said “root” instead of “etymology” as the latter can refer to the actual history rather than linguistic derivation of a word, but I am talking about the latter. The derivation of the word is the Greek “genos”, meaning “race”, and the Latin “cide”, meaning “killing”, as in “homicide”, “pesticide”, “patricide” etc.

Lemkin coined this word to describe the Armenian Genocide and the Holocaust, both of which fit the definition of genocide as murder. However, Lemkin had a broader definition in mind. Frankly, he should then have coined a different word. If I coined a word “thesbiancide”, you would be justified in assuming it referred to the killing of actors. If I wanted to also include attempts to eliminate acting as a profession from a society, I think you would be justified in accusing me of a misleading coinage.

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Martin Bento 08.24.06 at 9:32 pm

sw, I agree with you that what Bush is doing is torture, and his attempts at hair-splitting about it are transparent. No argument there.

If it is out of bounds to ask if the forced absorption of children from the madrassas is the same crime as the Holocaust, well, is it the same crime as the Armenian Genocide? If it’s not the same thing, it shouldn’t have the same name. Legally, it would be genocide, but logically I think the forced imposition of a new culture falls under Imperialism. You object to the term “ethnic cleansing” because the word “cleansing” implies something other than what is happening. OK, but it seems the same is true of “genocide”, where the components of the word itself mean “murder of a race”, but that is not, or not only, what the word means. This discussion is forcing me to the conclusion that the term genocide itself, as originally concieved, is unspeak. It implicitly conflates the deliberate destruction of a culture (removing children) or acts of oppression well short of murder (serious mental harm) with mass murder. Those are certainly contestable equivalences, and the word masks them.

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sw 08.24.06 at 9:48 pm

Frankly, “thesbiancide” has a terribly homophobic ring to it, whereas “thespiancide” sounds like you are want to crush declaiming spiders. My greatest fear is of a terpsichoreacidal maniac.

In any case, “genocide” will never be entirely sufficient, but I hardly agree, Martin, that we should fault Lemkin for imagining a slightly broader meaning than the etymology allows (I fail to see how “etymology” is the wrong term for this). All of the criteria I mentioned earlier are part of and can lead to the orchestrated decimation of a people or race.

Paul, I would dispute the _role_ of Unspeak, though. You write:

“The reason that many people do not have a clear conception of the meaning and practice of genocide is precisely because of Unspeak. Because the Convention requires participating states to act against acts of genocide, successive governments have gone to great lengths to obscure the definition of genocide. For those who are interested, Samantha Power’s book “A Problem from Hell” provides comprehensive, illuminating and depressing coverage of this.”

Genocide is an effective work fairly accurately describing a set of events. The refusal to say “genocide” came from a fear that saying it would require an international response (a completely unnecessary fear as it turns out: see Bush on Darfur). Those who refused to say “genocide” and those who sought to obscure the meaning of genocide – usually by using the “rise to the level” tactic described above – are not necessarily engaging in unspeak. When they were generously given the term “ethnic cleansing” in the early years of the Yugoslavian wars, they were able to make use of the term, and unspeak entered the picture. Obscuring and obfuscating or refusing to utter a term is not unspeaking it – at least, that’s not my understanding of unspeak.

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bi 08.24.06 at 10:12 pm

anno-nymous asks, “But aren’t conservatives the ones who keep accusing liberals of moral relativism, while conservatives have an ‘objective’ morality?”

Yes and no. As you may already know, creationist apologists like to portray their half-baked theory as just an “opinion” when it’s under attack, to give the illusion that they’re being persecuted. The intent, of course, is to get their dogma accepted as objective truth while bypassing the process of scrutiny that should be done on purported facts. And this is done by blurring the line between “fact” and “opinion”.

(I’m sure the nuttier leftists also try to pull off this stuff…)

In sum: In my opinion, it’s a fact!

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sw 08.24.06 at 10:14 pm

Hi, Martin,

You write: “If it is out of bounds to ask if the forced absorption of children from the madrassas is the same crime as the Holocaust, well, is it the same crime as the Armenian Genocide? If it’s not the same thing, it shouldn’t have the same name.” I really think I answered that.

You then write: “Legally, it would be genocide, but logically I think the forced imposition of a new culture falls under Imperialism.” Under certain circumstances and with certain motives, the removal of children from their parents (and the definition above suggests that this is an act applied to large numbers if not almost all of the children in that group) qualifies as genocide. I see no point, though, in essentially quibbling over what is probably the most obscure part of the official definition. Imperialism and genocide may go hand in hand at various points in history, but they are fairly distinguishable conceptually.

You then write: “This discussion is forcing me to the conclusion that the term genocide itself, as originally concieved, is unspeak. It implicitly conflates the deliberate destruction of a culture (removing children) or acts of oppression well short of murder (serious mental harm) with mass murder. Those are certainly contestable equivalences, and the word masks them.” No, it’s not unspeak, however imperfect a term it may seem to be. The motive of genocide is clearly stated, “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”: there are various ways of accomplishing this goal short of mass murder. A good example is Kosova, where the Serbs attempted to destroy the “ethnic Albanian” population: mass murder was eventually one tool, but not the primary one – indeed, the primary one was a decade-long assault on Kosovar professional and communal life, indeed inflicting “serious mental harm”. I think that the charge of “genocide” is accurate. Was it as catastrophic as other genocides? No. Could it still constitute genocide? Yes.

I think, though, that the problem is not the _overapplication_ of the term genocide.

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T. Scrivener 08.24.06 at 11:24 pm

“but most 20th century philosophers would say no.”

No, most 20th century philosophers would agree that it’s possible to be in love without having a word or concept for love.

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Brendan 08.25.06 at 2:32 am

‘In sum: In my opinion, it’s a fact!’

I think the best example of this was in the ID ‘debate’ when the motto of the IDers was ‘teach the debate!’ which, whatever else one thinks of it, is a brilliant piece of ‘spin’ on so many levels.

Conservatives and right wingers DO say that they are concerned about epistemological ‘relativism’. But when pushed they almost always (in my experience) then admit that what they are REALLY concerned with is MORAL relativism, which is a rather different issue and ties them in with a much older tradition of right wing thought (‘rightist’ objections to Marxism were almost always that Marxism led to relativism…Niall Fergusson’s ramblings about religion (discussed in a previous post) are also on this theme: i.e. without religion then anyone will be able to do what they want, therefore moral chaos therefore etc. etc. etc. ).

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Steve LaBonne 08.25.06 at 12:06 pm

without religion then anyone will be able to do what they want, therefore moral chaos therefore etc. etc. etc.

Sometimes I think, with a shudder, that there might be a grain of truth in that- when applied to the kind of people who make that argument.

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Martin Bento 08.25.06 at 12:25 pm

sw, I wrote an elaborate reply, and then realized that my feelings are actually mixed, and debating tends to lock you into a position more strongly than may be warranted. Nonetheless, I think the term is too broadly defined – “assault on Kosovar professional and communal life” – meaning things like job and housing discrimination? Genocide has extreme implications and can be used to justify or compel extreme responses precisely because of its association with the Holocaust. To the extent that it is used for less extreme crimes, it does not warrant the emotional baggage it carries in my opinion. This is not a matter of scale per se. If the town I live in decided to murder all the blacks who live here, I would have no problem calling that genocide – but I insist on “kill”, and I insist on at least a serious attempt at “all”. That deserves a word based on the Holocaust despite its much smaller scale; it is similar in kind. Oppression of one group by another, as is the historical norm, is not.

The implication of genocide in our culture is that it is a worse crime than random mass murder. I think this is also true in international law. Do we have an obligation to intervene in mass murder that is not genocidal? Stalin killed an enormous number of people randomly (and also a considerable number for at least partially racial reasons). For purposes of a reign of terror, random murders are the most effective, as there is nothing people can do to feel safe, though they will always try. Yet, I can see no definition under which random murders are genocidal; they are by definition aimed at no one in particular. I have a hard time saying genocidal murders are worse than random ones, but a really hard time saying racial oppression short of murder is worse than random mass murder. But, because of the Holocaust, genocide rules the roost as the worst crime against humanity.

But the problem is that it’s hard to insist on these kinds of distinctions without feeling like you’re underating certain kinds of crimes because
they’re not as bad as others, or even just not the same as others, and so on, and although we all make and must make such distinctions, it’s disheartening to delineate the circles of hell.

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James Wimberley 08.26.06 at 6:17 am

Two other examples of deceptive linguistic framing:

1. Copyright piracy. A pirate is a violent criminal, Grotius’ enemy of the human race, the seventeenth-century equivalent of a terrorist. IP rights owners have appropriated the term to criminalise a fairly minor civil wrong like trespass.
2. Oedipus complex. Freud deliberately obliterated the sense of Sophocles’ myth to create his own myth that boys desire their mothers sexually. The Greek Oedipus, a young adult, doesn’t desire his mother: he finds out (by blameworthy insatiable curiosity) that the woman he has desired is in fact his mother, and the shocking, nauseating knowledge destroys them both.

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Contradictory Ben 08.26.06 at 6:59 pm

Martin, genocide is not a word ‘based on the Holocaust’, if by that we mean specifically Hitler’s campaign of mass murder against the Jews. The term had its immediate genesis in Lemkin’s need for a better word to embrace all Nazi policies intended to attenuate or destroy systematically other nations in countries under German occupation, including not only the Jews but also Poles, Slovenes, Russians, Dutch, Luxembourgers, and so forth. See Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Analysis, Proposals for Redress (1944), helpfully excerpted by Prevent Genocide International. Such Nazi policies (as discussed by Lemkin) were emphatically not limited to mass killing, the murder of intellectuals, or even discriminatory rationing, but also included (for example) resettlement, Germanization of language, politics, and law, and (ironically, given your discussion of ‘thespiancide’) censorship of the theater and the other arts and the encouragement of pornography and alcoholism in their place. A key point of Lemkin’s argument was that these policies all had one and the same genocidal aim:

Many authors, instead of using a generic term, use currently terms connoting only some functional aspect of the main generic notion of genocide. Thus, the terms ‘Germanization,’ ‘Magyarization,’ ‘Italianization,’ for example, are used to connote the imposition by one stronger nation (Germany, Hungary, Italy) of its national pattern upon a national group controlled by it. The author believes that these terms, are also inadequate because they do not convey the common elements of one generic notion and because they do not convey the common elements of one generic notion and they treat mainly the cultural, economic, and social aspects of genocide, leaving out the biological aspect, such as causing the physical decline and even destruction of the population involved. If one uses the term ‘Germanization’ of the Poles, for example, in this connotation, it means that the Poles, as human beings, are preserved and that only the national pattern of the Germans is imposed upon them. Such a term is much too restricted to apply to a process in which the population is attacked, in a physical sense, and is removed and supplanted by populations of the oppressor nations.

Whether recognizing European imperialism as the killing of nations is an exercise in Lakoffian reframing or fighting Unspeak is perhaps debatable, though I’d guess Lemkin saw himself not as spinning against imperialism but as accurately identifying its ultimate rationale and effects.

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sw 08.26.06 at 8:58 pm

It seems rather risky agreeing with somebody called “contradictory ben”, but here goes: spot on, CB.

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Nell 08.27.06 at 2:05 pm

‘Actions speak louder than words‘, ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’ and other proverbs express the disillusionment that comes with the discovery that words don’t always mean what they seem to.

I don’t think those proverbs mean what you think they mean. They’re not about slippery meanings but the contrast between saying (empty) and doing (concrete, real).

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Martin Bento 08.28.06 at 1:19 pm

Ben. Thank you for bringing Lemkin’s own writing into the discussion. I read the material on the site you linked. You seem to be misunderstanding my position, though. I am not denying that Lemkin intended the term genocide to encompass crimes less severe – in some cases, vastly less severe – than mass murder. I’m questioning the wisdom of his doing so, at least to the extent that he was attempting to construct a general foundation for law on crimes against humanity, rather than simply examining what happened under the Axis powers.

When California had a (successful) ballot proposition to abolish bilingual education, many latino activists, including some people I know, shouted “cultural genocide!”. At the time, I thought this the most ridiculous sort of hyperbolic bombast, but now I see that they had an argument. One of the clear – in fact, I believe one of the stated – goals of the proposition was compelled assimilation. I was living at the time in a predominately latino area, and there was a rich and strongly defined national culture that circled around the Spanish language. It was entirely possible and not uncommon for people to be born in this environment and reach adulthood without learning English. I do not think this national culture can survive compulsory English education, though its dissolution will take a generation. I’m assuming, of course, that Mexican immigration will not maintain its current pace for thirty years, but I don’t see how it could.

So was the end of bilingual education genocide? It is possible to argue for a “severe mental harm” standard, I suppose. Are the troops of Italy and France legally and morally obligated to storm San Diego and shut down the schools where this atrocity is being perpetuated? I don’t think Lemkin would agree that it is, but I also don’t think we can adopt an “original intention” standard in law. Here’s what he wrote:

“The objectives of [genocide] would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups.”

Obviously, this definition encompasses a lot of different things and things of differing moral stature. For something to be genocide, does it have to meet all of these criteria or just any of them? Since Lemkin specifically said that genocide did not necessarily imply mass murder, “even the lives” does not always apply, and it seems that all of these criteria will rarely be met in a specific case. So that leaves “any”.

The end of bilingual education is not an atrocity, nor even a crime; it is simply a policy about which reasonable people may differ. The fact that it is even arguably genocidal shows that there is a problem with genocide as defined, if genocide is expected to denote atrocities.

Let’s take an example that clearly is an atrocity: Srebrenica. I have seen apologists for the Bosnian Serbs argue that Srebrenica was not genocide because women and young children were deliberately spared (for the most part). If your objective is truly eradication of a national group, women and children are the first people you kill. On the other hand, if you have a more mundane objective, like simply acquiring territory, the important thing is to kill the adult and teenage males, as those are the people most able to offer effective resistance.

Now, you may or may not feel that argument holds water. Clearly, the UN did not think so. But if the important question is “Is Srebrenica genocide?”, it is at least an argument to the point. However, to me, that is not the important point. The important point is that Srebrenica was mass murder. The question of genocide is chiefly a question of purpose, which would matter greatly if we were arbitrating between legitimate and illegitimate purposes for mass murder. But I see no legitimate purposes for mass murder. If what California did was arguably genocide and what the Bosnian Serbs did was arguably not, then perhaps genocide is not what we should be arguing about.

Lemkin studied what happened under the Axis powers, and to the Armenians, and coined the term “genocide” to describe it. The term encompasses many things and many kinds of things. By encompassing these things in one term, Lemkin implied, well explicitly stated actually, that they are part of a single process. While that is true as a description of what happened under the Axis, it is not true as a generalization about human history. Imposition of language and the possible destruction of culture that results from it is not necessarily linked to biological destruction of peoples. And many, arguably most, of the 20th centuries greatest butchers were Communists killing people randomly to establish terror, not racists killing them genocidally to destroy national entities. The notion that mass murder for genocidal purposes is worse that for other purposes is questionable; though Lemkin clearly implied this in defining genocide as a crime against national entities that goes beyond the crimes against individuals that may be encompassed in it. But I could at least see an argument for Lemkin’s position, if the definition of genocide is restricted to mass murder. But if genocide can denote various forms of racial oppression or coerced assimilation that fall dramatically short of mass murder, then it is not intrinsically a crime worse than or even nearly as bad as mass murder, and should not carry such an implication (My God! Hitler closed the theatre! And he’s forcing the poor Jews to look at pornography!). If genocide is going to carry the weight that it claims – if it is to merit the “harshness” that sw stated was part of his motive in invoking it – its definition must be restricted to grave crimes. Otherwise, it has no claim to being taken as seriously as Lemkin demanded.

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