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Post On the Overuse of the Term Genocide (from Gary Moore)
Created by John Eipper on 08/14/20 4:19 AM

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On the Overuse of the Term Genocide (from Gary Moore) (John Eipper, USA, 08/14/20 4:19 am)

Gary Moore writes:

Oh, come on. John E in his comment August 12th wrote that to disqualify some massacres as "genocide" "cheapens" the moral outrage they should evoke.

Give me a break. Genocide is a legal word with a meaning. It means a programmatic attempt to wipe out a distinctive class of people--and as Tim Ashby pointed out (Aug. 9), it thus adheres to large institutional bodies that can fashion such attempts. The real "cheapening" here is in efforts to call any atrocity (like Sand Creek) "genocide." What's cheapened is the solemnity of the real thing.

Imagine a trial judge saying we're just not upset enough about a manslaughter case, so we've got to scream that it's homicide. Do we prefer such exercises to civilization's tawdry old attempt to define laws?

John's comment holds a deeper value, in that here, as we all know, is an interpreter phenomenally reasonable and informed, and yet in a certain vein of discourse, involving political power inequalities, decisive value seems to be placed on how emotionally uncontrolled one can become--either as confirmation of personal virtue, or as call to arms--instead of analyzing what an atrocity concretely was.

And if even saying "analyze" in the context of such a call to empathy sounds like cold "cheapening," we meet the elusive new face of an emerging age--an age thrust by mushrooming technology into seeing in video detail a highly selected version of the world's horrors, while being physically insulated by new comforts and conveniences that dwarf our previous limitations. The evident result, which even a decade ago might have seemed impossible, has filled the streets with cries that, in essence, no screaming is enough. The urgency of defining what this new moment is, and how its pressures fit into rational discussion, outstrips the limited argument here today about a single word. If the verdict of a large segment of society is going to be that analysis really does cheapen what should, more nobly, be torrential outpouring from the heart's true compass, then our dawning age may not be on such an unfamiliar road after all--but only the ageless road that, say, China discovered in the 1950s, when the screaming about who gets to define the words is eventually moderated by the guy with the biggest stick.

JE comments:  Gary, I was trying to make much the same point, but you do so with more eloquence.  I attempted to argue that the claim "X incident was not genocidal" affords two conflicting interpretations:  it's either a protest against the lessening ("cheapening") of true genocides such as the Holocaust, or else it suggests that massacres like Sand Creek were not so horrific after all.  I didn't mean to say that one cheapens an atrocity by denying it genocide status.

Put in another way, I offered a reflection on "genocide inflation."  You hit the nail on the head at the end of your post:  like with everything else, the privilege of defining words goes to the powerful.  Look at the classic distinction between terrorist and freedom fighter.  The current unrest in the US is in part a contest for the power of discourse.

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