Stealing genocide

>> Thursday, June 04, 2009

Over at Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory discusses an anti-abortion activists' handbook recently unearthed by Amanda Marcotte. The brief guide, which can be read here, tells anti-choice folks how to model empathic language and suggests points at which the anti-choicer might concede a point (e.g. the legality and availability of birth control) before offering advice on how to rebut the same point (continuing with the example, several pages after advising anti-choicers to agree that birth control should be legal, the pamphlet presents a case for the alleged ineffectualness of the pill and a religious pro-abstinence argument).

I'll leave it to others to dissect the ethics, potential hypocrisy, and outright disinformation in the document; for me, personally, one of the most grating portions of the thing comes around the seventh page of the PDF version, with the commentary on genocide. I became a History major and Asian Studies minor in college largely out of horror at the Cambodian autogenocide and the Holocaust remains a problem in evil that continues to vex me. Regardless of the ultimate legality of abortion--and yes, I think it should be legal despite a certain queasiness--the "genocide" rhetoric is patently offensive, misleading, inflammatory and dishonest.

The roots of the effort to make genocide an international crime predate the Second World War, and the efforts of Raphael Lemkin to raise consciousness about the Simele Massacre of 1933 and Armenian Genocide during the second decade of the 20th Century. (An excellent account of Lemkin's crusade can be found in the first portion of Samantha Powers' requisite primer, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.) Lemkin's efforts were mostly at a standstill prior to the horrors revealed to the world at the end of World War II: while questions remain about the depth of the Allies' awareness of the extent and nature of the Holocaust during the War, the liberation of the camps was public and devastating. Subsequently, Nazi leaders were tried and hanged, and the young United Nations adopted a definition of genocide inspired by Lemkin's definition and enacted the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide in 1951 (after approval by the body in 1948), eventually ratified by 140 countries.

The Convention defines "genocide" with reasonable explicitness:

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.

Defining the word with reference to a national, ethnic, racial or religious group comports with standard usage of the word, or at least the standard usage of all but anti-choice protesters. So how do the anti-choicers arrive at "genocide"? By changing the definition to suit their needs:

Genocide is a "systematic destruction of a people group."

(emph. in original)

Well, no, no it isn't. By omitting the character of the group (race, religion, ethnicity, nation), the authors of the document render all mass-killings "genocides" and make the term utterly meaningless--one might use their definition to speak of the "Dresden genocide" of 1945 or the "New York genocide" of 2001. If killing a group of people is genocide--and let's leave aside the question of whether fetuses are people--then everything from Death Row to the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki count as genocides.

A pacifist might indeed embrace that absurdity rationally--one can construct a coherent position in which all life is sacred from conception to death and abortion is morally wrong for the same reasons as war. This position may or may not be desirable, mind you, and I am aware that many of my readers would find it violently (no pun intended) objectionable--that really isn't the point. The point is that you can construct the position rationally, with conclusions duly following premises, regardless of whether it's a sustainable, pragmatic or even smart idea to put the derived philosophy into practice. But it would still be unsound and dishonest to label such a broad pro-life ethos as "anti-genocidal," because "genocide" refers to a very specific kind of evil, a special category of crime that goes beyond mere mass killing. To splash the label on all killings is to remove that specialness, to make it equivalent to any non-natural death.

Amongst the limp justifications one finds in the anti-choicer playbook is that the Cambodian autogenocide--commonly referred to as "The Killing Fields" although it included a system of prisons, torture facilities and concentration camps in addition to the millions of deaths in the fields themselves--is frequently referred to as "the Cambodian genocide." But this, really, is the point and the reason for using the clumsy term "autogenocide" in the piece you're reading: the Cambodian "genocide," strictly speaking, isn't--the national and ethnic group slaughtered by the Khmer Rouge was their own.1 "Genocide" is, in many respects, a poor and inaccurate label for the slaughter that occurred under the Khmer Rouge, and the horror begs for a better descriptor. Semantics are important.

It doesn't help the anti-choicers that abortions are private acts (legalized or funded by the state or not), and genocide as a term of art refers to a state act.

What the anti-choicers want is to steal a word because of its shocking effect. Allowing them to do so--regardless of whether they're actually right on the morality of abortion--devalues the usefulness of the word. And devaluing the usefulness of the word has all sorts of nasty effects. Devaluing the utility of the word desensitizes people--and genocide is a crime we should all be vigilant against as a species. Devaluing the word provides safe harbors to those state actors who might wish to minimize actually-genocidal acts committed by their regimes. Devaluing the word makes it yet another abused term ("fascist" is another) that carries a specific, terrifying meaning that is no longer understood by those who use it the most.

Stealing the word is an intellectual crime, an appalling act of dishonesty that shouldn't be tolerated by anybody, regardless of how they feel about abortion.

1Well. Sort of. Actually, it's much more complicated than that, since the "homogeneous" Khmer population consists (unsurprisingly) of a fair number of ethnic subdivisions inevitably produced by geography, not to mention the Chinese-descended population living in-country at the time. And--this shouldn't be a huge surprise, either--although the conventional wisdom that the Khmer Rouge targeted city-dwellers and educated elites isn't wrong, there turn out (upon inspection) to be old ethnic rivalries involved, too. The whole thing is a mess to try to explain, actually.


Leanright,  Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 1:49:00 PM EDT  

I understand what you are saying in regards to using words for their shock value. Genocide is often used to scare the people into some sort of belief in a man made occurance of an epidemic. Perhaps a simple word like "murder" would suffice.

I guess I sound like I too, and using a word to "shock", but I am attaching an article (Sorry, I have no CLUE how to hyperlink this stuff). When is the killing of a fetus or child considered "murder"? The article discusses Scott Peterson's conviction for a DOUBLE murder of his wife and unborn child. Is it murder in all instances? Or just when it suits the cause? My opinion, regardless of which side people are on is "Is it always a living human, or is it not?"

Leanright,  Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 1:49:00 PM EDT

Janiece Murphy Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 1:53:00 PM EDT  

Eric, I'm so glad you're back. You always give me something to think about, even though I know it's a huge pain the keister for you to type right now.

Eric Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 1:55:00 PM EDT  

If one accepts that a fetus is a person, "murder" or "homicide" might indeed be a more accurate word. Note, however, that not all murders or homicides are criminal: self-defense being a standard example. And it might well be the case that even if a fetus is ascribed personhood, abortion might still be defended as a form of justified homicide in some or all cases.

But "genocide" is right out.

Eric Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 1:56:00 PM EDT  

Janecie: yes, it did hurt to write. :-)

John the Scientist Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 2:25:00 PM EDT  

If your going to call the Cambodian incident an autogenocide, then the Great Terror and the Cultural Revolution would count as well. I'm not sure I buy that.

Eric Thursday, June 4, 2009 at 3:06:00 PM EDT  

Interesting point, John, and I'll need to think about it.

It may well be that the Cambodian horrors are what they are, and don't need a special label. Or perhaps, if "autogenocide" is a viable term, the Cambodian horrors were less unprecedented than they seem.

Will need to think about that some more. Thank you.

Anonymous,  Tuesday, June 16, 2009 at 7:50:00 PM EDT  

Yeah! I love the naked arm. I knew it back when. How far you have come. All good!


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