Paw'd Defiance

The Language of Genocide

June 25, 2019 UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Ben Meiches Season 1 Episode 17
Paw'd Defiance
The Language of Genocide
Chapters
Paw'd Defiance
The Language of Genocide
Jun 25, 2019 Season 1 Episode 17
UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Ben Meiches

Language that surrounded the concept of genocide began in the 1940s—how did it become such a well-known term that can be found today in news media, the Avengers movies, and history books? In this podcast extra, UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Ben Meiches talks about his new book, The Politics of Annihilation. Meiches seeks to analyze the language and concept of genocide as a whole, and explains how the definition we have today has been narrowed over time. 

Show Notes Transcript

Language that surrounded the concept of genocide began in the 1940s—how did it become such a well-known term that can be found today in news media, the Avengers movies, and history books? In this podcast extra, UW Tacoma Assistant Professor Ben Meiches talks about his new book, The Politics of Annihilation. Meiches seeks to analyze the language and concept of genocide as a whole, and explains how the definition we have today has been narrowed over time. 

Music:

[ Intro music]

Ben Meiches:

Hi, I'm Ben Meiches. I'm an Assistant Professor of security studies and conflict resolution in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, and I'm here to talk about my new book, the Politics of Annihilation, a Genealogy of Genocide, from University of Minnesota Press. It was just published. Genocide is my primary area of academic research and it's one that I think is super important for a number of reasons, but I actually take an unusual approach to it in this book, which is, I'm not actually focused per se on any historical event of mass violence, say , the Nazis or the genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s, but I'm actually focused on the language, or the concept, of genocide itself. And this is a project that I started working on when I was a graduate student, right at the beginning at Johns Hopkins University. And I was super curious because I learned that the language of genocide actually was invented in the early 1940s. And what was so puzzling to me about this is that if you hear the term genocide now to describe an event, and it's everywhere, from the news media, history books, to Avengers films. Uh , it is a word that is stilling, it's noticeable, it stands out to people, and it signifies something especially evil about whatever is occurring, which means that everyone kind of recognizes its significance. And in the period of time that that transpired, we're talking like 60 or 70 years, that's a really quick time for a random word that was invented by a Polish refugee who was Jewish, who ran across Europe and Asia during the midst of World War II, And ultimately came up with this to describe a set of Nazi policies randomly in a book that was about documenting all of the legal changes that they had made , for that to become a major part of our popular discourse on harm. So what the book actually tries to do is to outline different areas or components of the discourse of genocide. And to chart how they've changed in the 1940s all the way up until the present. And one of the major themes is that the guy who actually invented the term, it was a Polish jurist named Raphael Lemkin , had a really incredibly robust vision for how international justice and social justice should be pursued. And the notion of genocide as he originally defined it was broad. It was supposed to target any kind of violence, that could target any kind of human group. It included all variety of violences including the things that we typically associate with genocide, for instance, mass physical violence or mass killing. But also social practices targeted at the destruction of language, at specific monuments or religious institutions, at educational practices, he even talks about things like changing the names of street signs as part of colonial occupation. And he had this kind of vast vision. And what the book kind of shows is that both immediately in response to his vision, and over the ensuing decades, there's been a strong effort to kind of whittle away at that, to change the language of genocide, to make it a much smaller set of things that it discusses. So when the United Nations was convening and creating the genocide convention , a number of what we call the great powers, the US, Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, all collectively worked to try to destroy elements of Lemkin's concept. And they did so in a variety of different ways. They limited the groups that could be could be affected by genocide, so who could receive legal protection, they stripped away most of the language about the type of violence that might mean genocide, they eliminated any kind of notion of cultural genocide, and they gave a really strong, intense standard, which meant that , in order to actually prosecute somebody for the charge of genocide, you had to have extra levels of proof that went into it. And one of the main effects of that is that there were actually no tribunals or trials for crime of genocide until the 1990s. And there are some other major changes that occurred in between the 40s and the 90s with the language of genocide. One of the most amazing things actually, is that genocide became coupled with the idea of human rights. And if you go to the 1940s, in the archives, they actually were separate notions at that point in time. And Lemkin was openly hostile to the human rights agenda, and the people who were advocating for human rights were pretty hostile to the notion of genocide, because they have different models, genocide is about group identity , how you fit into a social unit, whereas human rights is sort of about your individual body, what people can or can't do to it. So there's a different vision of who the rights bearing subject is. And one of the effects of that change is that genocide became kind of like our ultimate crime. So we have like an implicit hierarchy. We've got human rights violations, and war crimes, and crimes against humanity, and genocide is somehow up here as the extra special evil that people have to contend with. When in fact that's very different from what Lemkin's original agenda was. Well, the consequences of that shift is that people use the language of genocide now in this way to kind of showcase or highlight what they consider to be particularly gratuitous cases of violence. And because there's such a strong moral framework tied in with the concept, it also justifies, then, a lot of political action in order to try to change things. And actually many of the international legal rules have been rewritten in the past two decades to try to consider the standing of genocide. That includes great things like the creation of the international criminal court, but also things that we're really uncertain about the consequences of, like the responsibility to protect, which has redefined the basis from which a state can declare itself sovereign. And my work tries to kind of tease out, in all of those channels, what the unintended consequences of caring about the language of genocide was. And at the same time, I try to hold onto the one thread that I think is consistent throughout it, which is that genocide has always been a language that people use to try to describe particularly horrible things, things that are so violent and so destructive that they erode the social world that people are part of, that there isn't an adequate language, or even artistic representation, that can really speak to it. And so it's a way for us politically to try to ask questions about what do we do with the worst. And I show how that's happened in my work, in struggles for racial justice in the United States, and climate change action, and all different kinds of venues , that have traditionally been kind of marginalized. Trying to bring out the seeds of future discussion about what the nature of right and wrong are, in a global political scene.

Music:

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