Language of Genocide/Politics of Language

February 2, 2009

At Jewcy, Ben Cohen writes:

“Our view of history — more precisely, the way in which we remember the recent past in the public domain – generally tends to be cluttered by the political imperatives of the present.”

What he’s more specifically talking about is genocide, which has developed different definitions, depending on the situation you’re referring to. In the abstract, legal sense, it

“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.”

That’s very roughly what’s meant when it’s used in relation with the Holocaust – and that would make sense, as this definition was formulated as a result of the atrocities of World War Two. Contemporary political conversation, however, has seen “genocide”

“recast as a ‘civil war in which all sides are committing atrocities’ and, equally, ‘a nasty regional conflict in which culpability can be distributed among several parties’.”

Again, roughly speaking: he’s talking about Darfur, which is commonly called a genocide despite it’s failure to meet the legal definition; and he’s talking about those who refer to Israel as genocidal.

What’s particularly interesting here is the interplay between past and present: altering the definition of a word alters a past action, if that action was inextricably linked to that word (as is the case, I feel safe in claiming, with the Holocaust and genocide). But using that word in a contextually inappropriate present situation applies the older/original definition to the present: the perceived reality of the present is also altered.

That may seem contradictory: present redefining past and past redefining present, the word itself taking on two different yet simultaneous meanings. But imagine it as more akin to the word, used in two different context, flattening the differences between those contexts. It isn’t that one becomes the other, but that both are shifted toward a mean, and neither remain what they objectively are/were.

Or, to bring in the requisite line of Orwell:

“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

See Also: “Notes on Meaning and Language”

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One Response to “Language of Genocide/Politics of Language”


  1. […] toward something particularly sinister about, among other things, The Long War: its corruption of language.  How do we distinguish between the War in Iraq and the semi-militarized 1990s — […]


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