Time to Get Rid of Genocide

The word genocide, that is. (Of course it is time to get rid of the thing too.)

For a few reasons.

First, some mega-killings do not seem to count as genocides. Consider the Atlantic slave trade. About 16 million perished in it. That’s such a horrifically big figure it certainly sounds like genocide. But it does not really meet the strict definition of “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” (the words of the Genocide Convention).

The 16 million figure is from Matthew White’s superb The Great Big Book of Horrible Things. White estimates that 10-12 million died in Africa, 1-2 million died on the slave ships, and 3-4 million died of cruelty, disease, etc once landed in the Americas. That is how he gets a total of about 16 million over three centuries. It is remarkable that the great majority were killed in Africa, by other Africans, on gruesome marches to the coast, or executed on the spot if not saleable. By the way, the Mideast slave trade sent 18.5 million to the grave, reckons White.

Second, we need to get rid of the word because accusations or claims of genocide are often thrown about too loosely. Since genocide is the worst accusation you can hurl, such accusation are tempting to use as polemical weapons. Conversely, some groups like to claim they were victims of genocide, as a way to gain recognition for their sufferings.

Capitalism, for instance, stands accused of being a “structural genocide” (in a book called Capitalism: A Structural Genocide). That is devaluing the word. Capitalism is not “structural genocide” because it is not any kind of genocide. Nor is poverty “structural violence” and nor is Third World poverty “structural imperialism” — both accusations that the Norwegian peace researcher Johan Galtung made his name for back in the ’70s when such radical chic was in vogue. Poverty is a bad thing, but it is not a form of violence. Capitalism has its flaws, but genocide is not one of them.

Third, I grow tired of the assumption that killings directed at “national, ethnical, racial or religious groups” should be considered worse than large-scale killings of other kinds. It’s the number of graves, not the kind of people in them, that really counts.

That’s why we need a new word accepted for all mass killing events. Maybe humanicide, or democide, or multicide.

(Prompted by an exchange at Chaos and Governance.)


1 Comment

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One response to “Time to Get Rid of Genocide

  1. I agree with almost all of this, although I think that the idea of poverty as structural violence does make sense under some circumstances. Property rights are ultimately backed by coercion. If A is deprived by B of resources necessary for A to survive, and any attempt to resist this by A will be met with violence by B or another agent (such as a state), then I think that would qualify.

    Of course, this will only apply to certain instances of poverty and the burden of proof is quite high. But there are instances of economic warfare that straddle the line between democide and structural violence, e.g. eradication of the buffalo in the US to undermine the economic base of the plains Native Americans.

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