The philosophy of genocide

Armenians_marched_by_Turkish_soldiers,_1915by Massimo Pigliucci

I have recently hosted one of my regular dinner & philosophy discussions in Manhattan [1], and this time we chose the topic of genocide. More specifically, we pored over an as yet unpublished paper by NYU philosopher Paul Boghossian on “The concept of genocide” [2].

I find the topic both fascinating and obviously urgent, and Boghossian’s paper is a study in how to write a good and accessible philosophy essay that actually makes you look at something allegedly “obvious” in an entirely new way. That said, naturally, I have my reservations about the paper’s central thesis, which we will get to in due course.

Right at the beginning of Boghossian’s essay we find out that, perhaps surprisingly, there actually is disagreement about the definition of genocide and — more importantly — people worry that the word is now simply been thrown around for cynical political motives, and is therefore in danger of losing whatever efficacy it may have.

The term “genocide” was coined by jurist Raphael Lemkin in the ‘40s, specifically to indicate what Hitler had done to the Jews and — similarly — the Turkish government had perpetrated against the Armenians living in Turkey [3]. The United Nations quickly adopted the term (in 1948), and its Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide listed the following criteria for the definition of genocide (quoted verbatim by Boghossian):

(a) Killing members of the [target] group;
(b) Causing serious bodily harm;
(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.

Importantly, the UN legal definition of genocide makes no mention of the word “State,” meaning that the actions do not (necessarily) need to be conducted with explicit governmental support. According to Boghossian, then, the 1915 events clearly qualify, regardless of repeated denials by the Turkish government.

There are, of course, objections to this interpretation. One is based on the observation that the concept of genocide did not exist in 1915, so the Armenian event cannot possibly qualify. Boghossian rightly points out that this is as silly as saying — as postmodernist philosopher Bruno Latour actually did say! — that archeologists are wrong in saying that Pharaoh Ramses II died of tuberculosis, because you see, the bacillus responsible for that disease was discovered by Robert Koch only in 1882. Hopefully this sort of thing needs no further comment.

That said, and as Boghossian promptly acknowledges, the application of some concepts is indeed time dependent: for instance, nobody could be hip before the concept of hipness became a feature of our culture. However, it doesn’t appear that this presents a problem for the events of 1915, since the only concept actually required is that of an ethnic group, coupled with the intention to harm such group.

A second objection considered by Boghossian is based on the observation that the UN passed its legal resolution on genocide in 1948, coupled with the idea that laws usually are not applied retroactively. Again, this isn’t convincing according to the author, since it confuses the application of the concept with the application of the law. Even if the law is not retroactive, the concept can still apply.

Boghossian however arrives at a point in his essay where he begins to worry that the UN definition itself is deeply flawed, which may make any application of it problematic, and even morally troubling. Moreover, he does not seem to see an easy way out of the problem, in the end.

The NYU philosopher begins by articulating three purposes for using the word and then analyzing how they hold up against the UN definition: 1) to name a distinctive phenomenon; 2) to associate an unambiguously negative moral connotation to the term (i.e., there is no such thing as a justified genocide); and 3) to highlight that the crime is distinctively heinous.

Concerning the distinctiveness of the crime (#1), the UN wording talks about attempting to destroy a group “in whole or in part,” which of course immediately raises the question of how small can the part be before we stop talking about genocide. This may seem like a trivial, even pedantic, point, but it isn’t. Indeed, there are potentially major practical consequences stemming from it. For instance, a number of Jewish organizations engaged in systematic targeting and revenge killings of Germans after WWII. Was this an attempt at counter-genocide, so to speak? Hardly, but the answer does depend on just how small the “in part” clause of the definition allows a group to be.

Of course Boghossian is aware of the possibility of resolving this by changing the UN wording to “in whole or substantial part,” but then other problems arise: are the 3000 people who died on the terrorist attacks of 9/11, 2001 in the US a “substantial” (enough) part of the American people? If no (as I am inclined to say), then why is there a salient moral distinction between those 3000 deaths and the 8000 killed at Srebrenica, which the UN did declare a genocide (perhaps hastily?)? [4] You see how superficially simple things can unravel rather quickly once we look at the details.

Concerning #2 above, the unambiguously negative connotation of the term genocide, Boghossian points out that — contra to what is implied by the UN definition — it is almost never the case that groups are targeted only qua groups. There are always other motivations operating as well. For instance, the Turkish government had the clear intention (and additional motive) of building a Muslim state when it undertook the events of 1915. Obviously, however, this still does not make those actions justified (analogously, neither does Israel’s desire for security — as much as it is in itself a reasonable goal — justify the regular massive killing of Palestinian civilians that we have seen in recent times).

Two objections to #3 above (how heinous is the crime?) are discussed in some detail by Boghossian: first, why exactly is it morally worse to target a group rather than to just violate individual rights? Do groups have rights above and beyond their individual members? Second, if there are group rights, why are these limited to ethnic, racial and religious groups, but are not extended to, say, political ideology, social class, and so forth?

It could be argued that only groups whose membership is not a choice should be considered as possible target of genocide, but this does not square with the inclusion of religion and the exclusion of gender from the legal treatment of genocide. And at any rate, asks Boghossian, why should choice on the part of the victims determine the degree of immorality of a crime?

One possibility is to amend the UN definition to include hatred of that group, thus assimilating genocide to hate crimes. Boghossian responds with a highly unlikely thought experiment involving a dictator who kills off random ethnic groups for the sole purpose of showing who’s the boss, and who acts without hatred. I think this is likely the weakest link in his argument, though, and I will come back to it below.

Another logical alternative would be to go in the opposite direction, and expand rather than limit the types of groups that could qualify. But this runs into the different problem that there is no clear stopping criterion: Boghossian asks therefore whether people that worked at the World Trade Center on 9/11 would make up a sufficiently coherent group, for instance. Self identified membership doesn’t cut it either, unless one agrees that, say, NYU faculty could be the target of a genocide attempt (on the part of the university administration, perhaps?). As usual in philosophy, don’t be fooled by the apparent triviality of the counter-examples. As contrived as they may seem, they are designed to make a conceptual point clear, and the implications need to be considered, not dismissed out of hand.

In the end, Boghossian puts forth the suggestion that the fundamental problem is the inevitable vagueness of the very idea of killing a people, as opposed to the clarity of the corresponding idea of killing a person. He thinks that the UN definition does not do well with respect to the three purposes outlined, and that moreover it is hard to see how it could be fixed.

He concludes: “Even without the availability of the concept of genocide, we can still point out that in 1915 over a million Armenian men, women and children were either intentionally killed or died during mass deportations that were conducted with wanton disregard for life. … What I think we should resist is the temptation to capture all this in one neat word.”

Well, yes, we could do that, but we would be missing something important, I think, something that goes back to the very reason Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide to begin with. For all the vagueness and pitfalls of the concept, it does seem to point toward a particularly heinous kind of crime, directed at a broad category of people largely, though not necessarily solely, precisely because they are members of that category. And yes, it does also seem that hatred is a crucial component, though by no means the only one making up the toxic cocktail that moves people toward genocidal actions. So the analogy with hate crimes is indeed apt.

Of course we can point to millions of Armenians, or Jews, and so forth that have been killed by one crazy group of people or another (the Ottomans, the Nazis, or what have you). But it wasn’t just that large numbers of people were killed. That, in and of itself, is unfortunately an all too frequent occurrence in human history, up to contemporary times. The point is that it is particularly heinous when the killing is specifically targeted, and systematically carried out, because of a will to eliminate an entire group of human beings. There is a good reason to bring up the analogy with hate crimes more generally — Boghossian’s attempt to undermine that parallel notwithstanding. Hate crimes are recognized in both civil and criminal law [5] as to be at the least in part the result of prejudice. They carry a higher moral valence than similar types of violence undirected toward specific groups because the intent is not just to maim or kill individuals, but to send the chilling message to anyone else who identifies with the same group that they’ll be next, or at the very least that they are not welcome here.

Moreover, the evidence is pretty clear that hate crimes do have measurable effects beyond the direct harm to the immediate victims. These effects are psychological, and range from affective disturbances to generalized terror among members of the targeted group. In the case of genocide, of course, it is also the sheer scale of the violence at which the mind balks, and which deserves singling out.

Yes, Boghossian’s specific points are good ones, and they do need to be considered seriously. Further, we should most definitely resist any cynical political use of the word “genocide” that risks permanently degrading its moral import. Then again, plenty of other words face the same threat. Just consider how easy it is these days to be considered a “hero,” for instance. And the vagueness of some concepts — as Wittgenstein famously pointed out — is often not a limitation of our understanding, not does it mean that the concepts cannot be used properly. Some concepts are inherently fuzzy, and we simply have to learn to live with their fuzziness and engage in serious conversations any time a significant borderline case comes up. Clearly, this is much more than an academic debate. As New York Times Nicholas Kristoff once wrote, we “will be judged in years to come by how [we] responded to genocide on [our] watch” [6].


Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).

[1] Dinner & Philosophy meetup.

[2] Boghossian’s paper can be downloaded in draft form here. It was published in the Journal of Genocide Research in March-June 2010, together with commentaries by Berel Lang, William Schabas (the current head of the UN commission investigating war crimes in the recent Gaza war), and CUNY historian Eric Weitz.

[3] The Armenian Genocide, Wiki entry.

[4] The Srebrenica Massacre, Wiki entry.

[5] Hate Crime, Wiki entry.

[6] Quote from: “Nicholas Kristof: The Crisis of Our Times,” interview by Joel Whitney for Guernica, 28 June 2005.

56 thoughts on “The philosophy of genocide

  1. This is a timely article and I dread that we may soon have to re-visit our consciences.

    Boghossian defines genocide in terms of three properties.
    1. It is a distinctive crime against a people(however defined);
    2. It is unambiguously wrong;
    3. It is distinctively heinous;

    My first problem is that (2) is redundant, given (3);
    My second problem is that it becomes so blandly analytical that we lose sense of how dreadfully wrong it is.

    I suggest instead that genocide is better defined as a process of ten steps (from Genocide Watch).
    These are:

    1. Classification. People are divided into “us and them”. A hate group is identified.

    2. Symbolisation. When combined with hatred, symbols may be forced upon unwilling members of pariah groups.

    3. Discrimination. Various measures are used to deny access and opportunities to the group.

    4. Dehumanisation. One group denies the humanity of the other group. Members of it are equated with animals, vermin, insects, or diseases.

    5. Organisation. Genocide is always organized… Special army units or militias are often trained and armed.

    6. Polarisation. Hate groups broadcast polarizing propaganda

    7. Preparation. Victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic or religious identity.

    8. Persecution. Measures such as beatings, mob violence, imprisonment or arson are taken to target the group

    9. Extermination. Persecution is escalate to killings with the intent of eliminating the group. It is ‘extermination’ to the killers because they do not believe their victims to be fully human

    10. Denial. The perpetrators(and fellow travellers) deny that they committed any crimes which are minimised, justified, excused, hidden or obfuscated.

    Genocide can then be defined as something that has the three properties listed by Boghossian and recognisably follows the process described by Genocide Watch. It may not follow the process in every respect but it will be recognisably similar.

    By adopting such a definition of properties and process we retain the essential horror of what genocide really is. This is necessary because considerable political will and popular backing is needed to effectively oppose genocide. Our failures in Ruanda and Darfur illustrate this.


  2. I’m not sure I understand the necessity for all this complexity. It seems to me that “genocide” is rather easily characterizable (I won’t say “definable”): a genocide is the extermination of a people — where “people” is understood in either racial, ethnic, or religious terms. An intended genocide is an effort to commit genocide. Thus, the Nazis engaged in the effort of exterminating the Jewish people was an effort to commit genocide. That they only partially succeeded means that the effort, ultimately, remained an intended-genocide only.

    I don’t see why one needs to run down the rabbit-hole of tying genocide to hate-crimes. Can a genocide not be affected accidentally? I don’t believe that the settlers of the American continent arrived with the intention of exterminating the indigenous peoples, but that is what they did, through a combination of deliberate violence and un-deliberate passing on of disease.

    The question of when a genocide, precisely has been effected — how many people can still be left alive, with the effort still counting as a genocide — strikes me as misguided, as it presupposes that the term admits of a precise definition, which it does not.


  3. “For instance, the Turkish government had the clear intention (and additional motive) of building a Muslim state when it undertook the events of 1915.”

    The Ottoman Empire was still in existence in 1915. The Committee for Unity and Progress (aka Young Turks) had effectively dispossessed the Sultan of his absolute power, but the Caliphate still formally existed. In 1915 the Tsarist Empire, which had a long tradition of forcefully promoting Orthodoxy, and had a large Armenian population in its empire abutting Ottoman empire with a large Armenian population. Dispossession of the Greeks after WWI was also bloody. Repression of the Kurds continues to this day.

    The Turkish case seems to be much more closely associated with the establishment of Turkish democracy than establishment of a “Muslim state.”

    In general, it seems to me that there is a relationship between democracy and genocide. Ethnicity, race, religion, language and nationality are conceptually distinct in philosophy but they are not in practice. Any analysis of real phenomena by these concepts is inherently flawed. Anyof these things may be valued as providing a sense of community, a comforting “usness,” but historically “usness” is confirmed by periodic expropriation or repression of “them.”

    The UN convention’s definition of genocide omits dispossession from the areas previously inhabited and exclusion from national political life on equal terms. Yet I think this is essential to any reasonable definition of genocide. Also essential I think is a quantitative standard. For one thing, there is only a question of genocide when a measurable proportion of the area’s population is killed or imprisoned or thrust into some sort of servitude.


  4. Several brief thoughts:

    First, I think “genocide” ought to be amended to include gender/sex, and sexual orientation, too. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, movements that have targeted gay/lesbian people, and have done so with organized power, make clear why this is needed.

    Second, I agree that the list of possible perpetrators should not be limited to nation-states. Related to that, even when a nation-state is a prime mover, it may co-opt other entities and groups within its borders to help it out. Or a sub-group may be inflamed by nationalism, etc.; Srebrenica is a good example.

    Third, I think intent has to be considered. Contra Aravis, I wouldn’t consider what happened to American Indians a genocide. (Note: We do have one or two incidents of Euro-Americans doing things like deliberately passing on blankets handled by smallpox victims. So, in my attempt to cut off political wrangling on this, contra far-right people with a “narrative,” it did happen. Contra some far-left people with a “narrative,” it only happened a couple of times, and wasn’t organized.)

    And, I didn’t use the word “decimation” of American Indians, because more than 10 percent were killed and I use that word with its original, etymological-based meaning.

    Back to Aravis. If we leave intent out, would we then call what Europeans did to Africans “genocide”? For their value as slaves, they didn’t set out to deliberately kill newly enslaved blacks, but the Middle Passage was lethal to many.

    Fourth, I do believe there’s a parallel with hate crimes, precisely on that issue of intent. In commonly agreed-upon genocides, by one group against another, we have a paper trail of indications of intent, just as we do with actions by an individual in the case of a successfully prosecuted hate crime.

    And, that brings us to a legal as well as philosophical definition. Intent has to be considered on genocide when we’re talking about the International Court of Justice.

    Fifth, per Srebrenica, which arguably is on an “edge,” perhaps we need a new word, something that covers the group-level equivalent of a hate crime, without quite being “genocide.” I know we have “ethnic cleansing,” but … is that the “right” word, connotatively more than denotatively?

    Sixth, given that much of what we’re talking about is in the last 100 or so years, I think we have a bit more refutation of Pinker’s claim, at least in its most naïve form, that modern time is entering on a semi-Golden Age of reduction in violence.


  5. Hi Massimo, interesting issue.

    1) I like Labnut’s suggestion of using the definition/criteria given by Genocide Watch. I am not sure if 10 points are needed, there seems to be some overlap, but they are clear and cover common behaviors.

    2) I agree with Aravis that we do not need to connect this with hate or hate crimes. In fact I really dislike the whole concept of a “hate crime”. But I’ll leave that to the side for now. The point is that genocides certainly can be carried out without any reference to hate. The eugenics movement, which even Huxley supported, was driven from a supposedly scientific concern for the future of humankind. There was no hatred of those being eradicated, or sterilized. If anything there was pity. Unfortunately these people had to go for the good of the rest.

    3) That said, I disagree with Aravis that you can remove intention.

    4) I agree with Socratic that this has to become inclusive of any group, not just the standard examples from recent history. If they can be identified and dehumanized then a genocide is possible. The example of economic classes given in the article certainly piqued my interest.


  6. A well-done piece, which despite its brevity, covers the salient points of a troubling question. Massimo’s observation, “As contrived as [the examples] may seem, they are designed to make a conceptual point clear, and the implications need to be considered, not dismissed out of hand”, is important. But, as Aravis suggests, genocide (cide from the Latin for killing) necessarily includes murder/extermination, lest it become so broadly used that other terms, such as bigotry and racism, are absorbed and lose their own denotative power. Thus, hate crimes per se don’t necessarily entail either murder or genocide.

    Many of the comments, while raising important issues, further blur conceptual clarity and, instead, would be better taken as the warning signs that labnut provides from Genocide Watch. Otherwise, we compound the problem of conceptual clarity with lazily constructed usage such as “cultural genocide.” As Massimo notes, “we should most definitely resist any cynical political use of the word ‘genocide’ that risks permanently degrading its moral import.”


  7. labnut,

    interesting suggestion to couple a definition with the description of a dynamic process. To be clear, though, that wasn’t Boghossian’s but rather the UN’s definition.


    “That they only partially succeeded means that the effort, ultimately, remained an intended-genocide only.”

    By your characterization there are going to be very few actual cases of genocide in the history of humanity, since complete annihilation is seldom achieved. And I would maintain — with Boghossian — that it is often not really even intended. What is intended is to demonize and attack a people so that they leave (the Jews in Nazi Germany) or become subjugated (native Americans in the US).

    “I don’t believe that the settlers of the American continent arrived with the intention of exterminating the indigenous peoples”

    Interesting point, but I would counter that although they didn’t arrive with that intention they eventually developed it, and engaged in systematic acts of genocide, willfully.

    “as it presupposes that the term admits of a precise definition, which it does not.”

    I agree, but as you know just because a concept can’t be precisely defined it doesn’t mean that it’s meaningless or non operational. I’m sure Boghossian would agree, if pushed on that point.


    “In general, it seems to me that there is a relationship between democracy and genocide.”

    Hmm, that seems to go a bit too far. And are you suggesting that other forms of government are less likely to lead to genocide? That would be surprising, and I’m pretty sure it is not actually the case.

    “UN convention’s definition of genocide omits dispossession from the areas previously inhabited and exclusion from national political life on equal terms. Yet I think this is essential to any reasonable definition of genocide.”

    This point came up during my meetup discussion, and I disagree. While dispossession is obviously highly problematic, and so is disenfranchising, I think the term genocide should be reserved to cases where there is a vast amount of physical violence resulting in death. Perhaps we need other terms for when that is not the case.


    “If we leave intent out, would we then call what Europeans did to Africans “genocide”? For their value as slaves, they didn’t set out to deliberately kill newly enslaved blacks”

    Precisely. That specific example also came up during my meetup, and I made a similar point.

    “I do believe there’s a parallel with hate crimes, precisely on that issue of intent.”



    “I agree with Aravis that we do not need to connect this with hate or hate crimes. In fact I really dislike the whole concept of a “hate crime”.”

    The reason I think the analogy holds is because in both cases it isn’t just that a number of individuals are being harmed or killed, it is that damage is done to a cultural identity (ethnic, religious, gender, etc.). In fact, one could argue that the real target is the identity, with the physical victims being incidental to it (and interchangeable with other similar victims, in the eye of the perpetrators).

    “The eugenics movement, which even Huxley supported, was driven from a supposedly scientific concern for the future of humankind. There was no hatred of those being eradicated, or sterilized”

    And sure enough I never heard the term genocide applied to the eugenic movement (in the US).

    “hate crimes per se don’t necessarily entail either murder or genocide.”

    Right, but remember that the claim is not that genocides are a type of hate crime, but rather that there is a proximity in conceptual space, so to speak, between the two.


  8. I am not sure that genocide is always sparked by hate. Sometimes it is just an arrogant, dismissive contempt. I don’t know if it is always explicitly planned, sometimes it is just an unspoken convention among the powerful group in a country. I am talking in particular about the Australian experience and the treatment of the indigenous population.

    I will have more to say later, but, by way of background, here is a cartoon by the brilliant firstdogonthemoon:


  9. Massimo stated, “one could argue that the real target is the identity, with the physical victims being incidental to it (and interchangeable with other similar victims, in the eye of the perpetrators).”

    This is IMO insightful. But does it really help to clarify what is meant by genocide? It points to a valid distinction in vantage between perpetrator and victim. Perhaps I’m wrong in viewing the usage of cultural genocide as unnecessarily vague if, in fact, the ultimate goal is the obliteration of a cultural identity. But historically cultures meet and mix while identities remain in tact, albeit changed. At the same time, I think it is mistaken to view “physical victims” as “incidental to” the conceptualization of genocide. Nevertheless, I think you have correctly pointed to obliteration of group identity as one goal of genocide.


  10. SciSal wrote:

    ” What is intended is to demonize and attack a people so that they leave (the Jews in Nazi Germany).”


    That was true early on. The Germans’ main focus was expulsion — that’s how my father’s family came to leave Germany, in 1933, for then-Palestine. But later–post-Wansee Conference–the aim switched to explicit, worldwide genocide of the Jewish people.

    As for the other point, yes, that’s right. Most genocides are partial or unfinished. That not only doesn’t seem counterintuitive, but rather, is what you’d expect. Actually exterminating a whole people is in fact quite difficult.


  11. Condemn in international law any unjustifiable system of hatred, and alienation, not just “genocide”.

    One has to justify the qualifier “unjustifiable”. Justification, that is, reason, makes all the difference. It is the human thing to do.

    Example: was the fire-bombing of Hamburg by the RAF justifiable? A justification was that the Luftwaffe had killed 13,000 in Coventry, destroyed many cities before that in Poland, Netherlands… So Operation Gomorrah, the attack on Hamburg, 45,000 dead, was fair.

    An even better justification was that the war against the Nazis had to be won. Precise bombing was not achievable at the time in a sustainable way. To have a huge strategic impact, the RAF found it had to annihilate cities in horrendous fire storms at night. Metal burned, underground shelters turned into graves.

    Annihilating cities was hateful: women, children, the old, whatever was left of civilization, turned to smoke.

    Strategic bombing worked (just bombing Hamburg delayed by months Tiger tanks and 88s production; 75% of buildings were destroyed). Soon, not only were The Third Reich’s major cities fields of smoking ruins, but a million Nazi soldiers were manning the 88mm anti-aircraft guns, in a vain attempt to stop the holocaust they were subjected to (you holocaust us, we holocaust you). The same 88 guns were superlative anti-tank weapons: using them to defend cities from bombers guaranteed that they would not be used against the USSR.

    Aircrews were taking enormous risks: 160,000 British and American aircrew died bombing the Nazis. (40,000 Allied aircrafts were destroyed). Crews could fly into the apocalypse only out of extraordinary hatred (it does not sound as good as “sense of duty”)

    Ditto in Japan: nearly all the war production was from extremely flammable cities. By 1945, Japan was defenseless against B29s.

    Five star admiral Halsey of the USA was extremely explicit about the advantage of hatred. The following is typical: “I hate Japs! I’m telling you men, that if I met a pregnant Japanese woman, I’d kick her in the belly!” Halsey, fighting at the head of his fleet, knew hatred motivates men best.

    Once the Nazis and the Japanese imperial army surrendered, though, hatred against the masses which supported them was not optimal. It was replaced by generosity.
    However, the particular criminals who had launched the whole war (say Goering, Tojo) could still be hated. There the hatred was not directed at the masses, but towards individuals, to build jurisprudence to discourage future potential perpetrators to engage in similar crimes. Moral hatred.

    The case of the Jews shows that “genocide” is not perfect semantics: many European Jews had converted to Judaism, so they did not really share “genes”.

    Unjustifiable mass hatred can be viewed as the definition of racism. It is caused by alienation (in particular by some religions). Unjustifiable mass hatred is the spring from which genocide flows.

    To prevent genocide and mass murder one has to criminalize unjustifiable mass hatred. That may sound a platitude. Until one realizes that some religious texts are full of it.


  12. Sounds like a job for Bayesian reasoning. At least that’s what I always think when something is fuzzy.


  13. First, I would like to agree with what labnut has to say, that the Genocide Watch definition of genocide is stronger and more to the point than the UN’s. (I also wonder if there shouldn’t be a distinction made between genocide and ‘mass murder.’) The importance of having a strong, relatively precise definition has to do with legalities within international courts; but also to address the misuse of the term in the public sphere.

    That said, I want to put forth the suggestion that the systematicity of a genocidal project needs further consideration. Per Massimo: “For all the vagueness and pitfalls of the concept, it does seem to point toward a particularly heinous kind of crime, directed at a broad category of people largely, though not necessarily solely, precisely because they are members of that category.” The categorization of the victims may be all important to the rationalization of the act, if not the motivation. Consider the following:

    “Class X contains all members who present qualities a, b, and c.
    “Qualities a, b, and c represent a threat to the well being of the society.
    “The only way to eliminate qualities a, b, and c, with any future surety is to eliminate all those who present qualities a, b, and c (all members, class X).
    “The only way to assure the elimination of all members of class X is through their extermination.

    [The argument can be extended (‘a, b, and/or c, maybe d?’), or ‘humanistically’ qualified (‘the best way to achieve elimination is extermination, but we can try other means first’).]

    This partly explains the history of modern genocide. One of the first instances of intentionally planned genocide attempted in Europe was the Terror of the French Revolution. To the Revolutionaries involved, the logic was clear: ‘Aristocratic values threaten the Revolution; these values are maintained by the aristocrats; the aristocrats must be eliminated.’ We can see similar ‘reasoning’ involved in some of Stalin’s purges, in the violence of China’s ‘Cultural Revolution,’ in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. (Perhaps the “thought experiment involving a dictator who kills off random ethnic groups for the sole purpose of showing who’s the boss, and who acts without hatred” is not so unlikely.)

    Hitler claimed that his brand of anti-Semitism was “scientific” – i.e., objective and disinterested (despite his rages). He was not speaking (entirely) hypocritically; he really thought that ‘modern science’ (however misinterpreted) could be used to determine how much of a threat Jews posed to Germany, and how best to eliminate that threat. This culminated in the Wannsee Conference with its systemized plan to eliminate Jews across Europe, articulated in coolly bureaucratic language; a matter of classification and logistics, not ‘right or wrong.’

    The point is, not to suggest that such genocidal logic has any validity; but to see that genocide not only kills people, but threatens rationality itself. It is not enough to claim this is wrong, but it must also be maintained that no decent human being would ever think such a thought.


  14. Boghossian’s argument is good by all means. Thus, I will not discuss about his argument on this issue. But, this is one great example for how to ‘define’ a concept.

    Obviously there is no right or wrong for any ‘definition’ but are ‘good or bad’ distinctions. Yet, we can ask the question one step further. Can a fuzzy concept be precisely defined? Then, one step further still: Is there any concept truly fuzzy?

    I will not provide any detailed argument for the answers on the above questions. If I am allowed to give answers without providing the detailed argument, my answers are:

    One, a concept is fuzzy becomes that it is not precisely defined.

    Two, a precisely defined concept will never be fuzzy.

    Then, how to define a concept precisely? Again, if allow me giving an answer, it is:
    Every concept can be defined precisely by using the most ‘general (general, …, general,…) terms’.

    Paradoxically, doesn’t it? No.

    When we define ‘consciousness’ as ‘human-like consciousness’, we are in a dead-end right at the beginning. Only when we define it with the most ‘general-term’, we can then connect it all the way back to the beginning of bio-live and to the base of physics.

    Now, let me use this ‘genocide’ as one example to show an all-encompassing definition. Genocide can be defined with the following points.

    One, a ‘group’ (not individual) is targeted. A ‘group’ is ‘distinguishable’ from others (any groups, far or near …) in a given ‘neighborhood’ (not by size but by continuity). [Note: in the Armenian case, it needs not to be all the Armenian in the world but those in Turkey. The religious, politic, ethnic, … could all be a group. Yet, 9/11 victims do not form a group as it is not distinguishable from other people in New York City.]

    Two, there is a clearly ‘intention’ to ‘eradicate’ the targeted group.

    Three, the above ‘intention’ was carried out with violent acts {killing, raping (changing the bloodline of the offspring, illiterating, etc.}. [Note: there is no genocide if a group disappears from a peaceful assimilation.]

    Four, over 1% the members of the targeted group were victimized. [Note: over 1% threshold, it makes the act to be a fact of genocide. Less than 1%, it is the genocide ‘intention’.]

    Again, I have no intention to provide the best definition for ‘genocide’. I just want to show that the better way of making definition is not to use the ‘narrow’ terms.


  15. Hi Massimo,

    What is intended is to demonize and attack a people so that they leave (the Jews in Nazi Germany) […] one could argue that the real target is the identity, with the physical victims being incidental …

    I would disagree in the case of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. They really did want to totally exterminate the Jews, and indeed saw this as their duty, in order to prevent any intermarriage between Jews and “Aryans”.

    In Hitler’s creationist view the Jews and the “Aryans” were separately created races, that should be kept apart and not interbreed. The Jews were literally not fully human. By interbreeding with “untermenschen” the Aryans were (supposedly) being destroyed, to the detriment of society. Thus the doctrine went far beyond wanting the Jews to leave. This was all set out by 1926 in Mein Kampf:

    “Look at the ravages from which our people are suffering daily as a result of being contaminated with Jewish blood” […] “destroying the fundamental Aryan qualities of our German people.”

    “For it was by the Will of God that men were made of a certain bodily shape, were given their natures and their faculties. Whoever destroys His work [by allowing intermarriage with “untermenschen”] wages war against God’s Creation and God’s Will.”

    “Whoever would dare to raise a profane hand against that highest image of God among His creatures [i.e. Aryans] would sin against the bountiful Creator of this marvel and would collaborate in the expulsion from Paradise.”

    Thus the physical victims were indeed key, and the “final solution” to the “Jewish problem” was to prevent any possibility of interbreeding. Hitler said that God created humans: “… that they might preserve themselves as He created them! Because we support their preservation in their original, God-given form, we believe our actions correspond to the will of the Almighty.”

    All of this is based on a creationist theory that the different human races were separate creations, and thus the physical nature of the victims was at the core of the ideology.

    Hi SocraticGadfly,

    I think “genocide” ought to be amended to include gender/sex, and sexual orientation, too. […] I didn’t use the word “decimation” of American Indians, because more than 10 percent were killed and I use that word with its original, etymological-based meaning.

    I note your strict etymological-based meaning for one word but not for the other. I would argue against broadening the term “genocide” beyond its original meaning of attempted extermination of a race (or religious or national groupings that function much as races). There is something distinctive about genocide. To me, the French and Russian revolutionaries lopping the heads off the aristocracy was not “genocide” in the sense of the Nazi, Armenian or Rwandan genocides.


  16. Here are four definitions of genocide commonly used in the literature:

    1. “Genocide is a form of one-sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group, as that group and membership in it are defined by the perpetrator.” (Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassohn)

    2. “Genocide in the generic sense is the mass killing of substantial numbers of human beings, when not in the course of military forces of an avowed enemy, under conditions of the essential defenselessness and helplessness of the victims.” (Israel W. Charny).

    3. “Genocide is sustained purposeful action by a perpetrator to physically destroy a collectivity directly or indirectly, through interdiction of the biological and social reproduction of group members, sustained regardless of the surrender or lack of threat offered by the victim.” (Helen Fein)

    4. The “concept of genocide applies only when there is an actualized intent, however successfully carried out, to physically destroy an entire group (as such a group is defined by the perpetrators).” (Steven T. Katz)

    The first definition, by Chalk and Jonassohn, seem to me to most accurately capture the idea.

    These Wikipedia articles are essential reading:

    The last post on SciSal about demonology was so appropriate. The literature on demons is the figurative story of the demons that have possessed our species. The evidence of the demonic side of our nature can be seen in the history of genocide and the history of war.

    Steven Pinker titled his book ‘The Better Angels of our Nature’ however it would more accurately have been called ‘The Better Demons of our Nature’. But, in truth, we have two sides to our nature, the angelic and the demonic.

    Which side of our nature dominates, the angelic or demonic, depends on the moral health of society and the institutional health of society. Our shared moral sense and our institutions are the bulwark that hold back the demonic side of our nature and give space for the angelic side of our nature to operate.

    As recent history has shown, our shared moral traditions and institutions are fragile things. Our challenge is to build more robust moral and institutional frameworks. Are we making any progress?


  17. Robin,

    “I am talking in particular about the Australian experience and the treatment of the indigenous population.”

    Well, the line between contempt and hatred is probably a fine one. I think the common denominator is to see others as somehow sub-human, not worthy of the same sort of right to live and pursue goals that we think we enjoy. And yes, you are correct that there doesn’t need to be central planning for genocide to take place. Even so, when certain tactics of maiming or killing people become sustained and widespread it’s hard to imagine that it happened by chance or as a side effect.


    “Perhaps I’m wrong in viewing the usage of cultural genocide as unnecessarily vague if, in fact, the ultimate goal is the obliteration of a cultural identity”

    Right, except, again, that I’d rather not use the term genocide if the *only* (or even primary) thing that gets “killed” is an identity. While that is indeed a phenomenon, I think we need a different label for it, on penalty of devaluing the powerful word “genocide.”


    “Most genocides are partial or unfinished. That not only doesn’t seem counterintuitive, but rather, is what you’d expect. Actually exterminating a whole people is in fact quite difficult”

    Right, but I would still want to retain the full force of the word “genocide” in those cases, not soften it by modifying it with “attempted.”

    As for the Nazi, I’m not an expert on that historical period (or any other, really), but my understanding is that while the rhetoric might have been one of total extermination, the higher echelons of the Nazi party were both aware of its impossibility and did not think it necessary to achieve their goals. Again, though, I may be mistaken.


    “To prevent genocide and mass murder one has to criminalize unjustifiable mass hatred.”

    I don’t disagree. But I don’t think mass hatred is *ever* justifiable.


    “The point is, not to suggest that such genocidal logic has any validity; but to see that genocide not only kills people, but threatens rationality itself.”

    Indeed. For some reason, however, I have trouble wrapping my mind around the idea of a genocide against a social/economic class (your example of the Terror in Revolutionary France). That, presumably, is because I don’t think of rich (or poor, or middle class) people as “a people,” in the same way in which religion, ethnicity, and even gender preference makes possible to talk about “a people.” But I can’t pinpoint the source of the problem any further. Anyone has an opinion on this?


    “I would disagree in the case of the Nazi genocide of the Jews. They really did want to totally exterminate the Jews, and indeed saw this as their duty, in order to prevent any intermarriage between Jews and “Aryans”.”

    See my response above to Aravis. Your references to Mein Kampf are interesting, but I don’t think they support the stronger interpretation of the Nazi intentions. Indeed, when Hitler wrote: “that they might preserve themselves as He created them!” this could be interpreted as saying that, once outside of the Third Reich, the Jews can keep doing their sub-human things, and it won’t affect the purity of the Arian race. All absolutely baloney, obviously. Still, any historian among our readers?


    “in truth, we have two sides to our nature, the angelic and the demonic. Which side of our nature dominates, the angelic or demonic, depends on the moral health of society and the institutional health of society.”

    I don’t know about that. Besides my natural recoiling from so obviously religiously loaded words as “angelic” and “demonic,” I hope you are not suggesting that human nature is so dichotomously simplistic, right?


  18. There is some brilliant work being done, and of course ignored, under the heading of the pathogen theory of disease. Hatred of the outsider apparently made sense long ago when outside infectious diseases, much like ebola, could wipe out a population. Acute resources pressures for food or reproduction appears to trigger ethnic hatred.

    Nothing to do with beliefs-ideology or philosophy, of course.


  19. Massimo, have you seen Eric Posner’s “Against Human Rights article in Harpers? ( he argues that international should deal with tangible goals and particular crises instead of pretending to be enacting universal principles they have neither the authority nor the power to enforce. His argument is laid out in full in a recent book (z Should the people who practice international law concern themselves with fundamental philosophical concepts or practice the more humble casuistry of determining the rightness or wrongness of taking certain actions in certain situations?


  20. A historical note: The General Plan Ost laid out a plan to depopulate the Soviet Union and reduce the Slav population to the “state of the Red [American] Indian.” Long-standing German imperialist rhetoric of Lebensraum preceded that official formulation. The General Plan was dementedly ambitious but even that plan did not imagine complete elimination would be possible or necessary. It is genocidal nonetheless.


  21. The French aristocracy was not a living group in the sense that they could go on living their aristocratic lives and recreating subsequent generations of aristocrats if only they were left alone. Without peasants to parasitize, they are reduced to basically a clique of snobs. Violence against women is deplorable but women aren’t going to reproduce themselves as a group either. Unpaid labor for housework may be a systemic crime too, but it’s not genocide. Peasants starving cities or city dwellers descending upon peasants like a horde of locusts are not separate living groups either. The endless horrors of the Ancien Regime (everywhere) is nothing but the deaths of the Good People are unbearable. The thing about genocide is that it targets the whole population, including the elderly and children, as people whose very existence (at least where they are,) is an existential wrong. In principle aristocrats can get jobs, peasants can move to the city, etc. In principle, no Armenian could become a Turk. (Things do change a little, today a Kurd can become a “mountain Turk.”)

    As to the intent of the Nazis after the Wannsee conference, the resources devoted to transporting and executing Jews really speaks for itself. The Jewish populations under Nazi control could no more pose a genuine military threat than any other occupied people, until they could rely on possible support by incoming military forces fighting the Nazis (aka the Red Army.) Ukrainian nationalists and antiCommunists are still bitter that the Nazis’ insistence on massacres kept them from gaining majority support that would have helped Hitler to win. AntiCommunists back then loved Hitler and there really is no reason to think today’s antiCommunists would feel differently if they were transported back in time. The thing about that is that the devaluation of the word “genocide” is largely driven by a desire to paint Staln, Mao, etc. as worse than Hitler. How conscious they are of acting as Hitler apologists I’ve never been able to decide. But..the Nazi holocaust was an historical outlier. If you use it as the standard for genocide, then so far as I know the only other intentional and largely successful genocide was the Iroquois annihilation of the Hurons. Even the Tutsi massacres of the Hutu in Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo don’t compare. The world support for Paul Kagame shows that clear thinking about genocide is absolutely vital to real-world politics.

    Dispossession of a people so that they won’t be in the dispossessing polity (lest their mere presence change the polity from its ideal) is the useful criterion. So far as the moral heinousness, it is the mass scale that makes it more heinous. This may not be an intellectually profound distinction but it seems to me that it serves. As for the number of deaths? No people gets dispossessed without massive violence and much killing. The Trail of Tears was an act of genocide, even though there was no intention. What I can’t figure out is how anyone can deem the depopulation of the Americas and Australia as genocidal without acknowledging that dispossession kills.


  22. Massimo,
    I must submit two comments to address two questions you raised in your last comment. The first concerns an issue I previously raise. The second (which includes issues raised by others wince I first started writing it), concerns the Nazi strategy for dealing with Jews, which I hope will contribute understanding to the meaning of genocide in its most rigorous form. But I will not be able to comment on that broader issue in the space of the comment, and will simply leave it open to further consideration. I will note, here, that I do think that the Holocaust can be used as a standard for determining the ground and limits of genocide, exactly because it is the ‘complete package,’ so to speak – anything one would want to know about the origins and realization of genocide can be found there, if one is willing to dig through the historic details.

    But, first:

    To the question of the aristocracy and the French Revolution’s assault on it in the Terror: So much has changed in the past 400 years that we tend to forget that the aristocracy was such because they were born such. Possibly, before the renaissance they may have formed a separate ethnic group within their larger cultures. One reason we don’t see that is because the history of the Middle Ages has been written as their story; only in the past few decades have historians tried to recapture the story of their serfs, who would have compromised the other major ethnic group of the period. But we do know that the early aristocrats and the serfs spoke different languages, had different cultures, and may even have looked different. (In Medieval images serfs are always depicted as shorter than aristocrats, and with slouched backs. This is semiotically representative of their ‘lower class’ standing, but there may be a material truth to it, given the kinds of work serfs did, and their diets, which at best were thin shadows of the food enjoyed by the aristocracy.) As the middle class began to develop, and inroads into the aristocracy were allowed for political purposes (the granting of knighthood, for instance), this situation changed; but it remained as a cultural memory, and a powerful one in some countries. I do think the French Revolutionaries (and the mobs they incited) would have seen the aristocrats as a recognizable and easily defined group for elimination.

    That said, the issue you raise, about whether economics alone can generate an identifiable group in the way that ethnic differences can, remains problematic.


  23. As to the strategy the Nazi’s had for eliminating the Jews: I once had to write a rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf which involved historical contextualization, so I can address this issue somewhat.

    Coel is right that Hitler believed in the special creation of each ethnic group separately. He also believed that because of this, the idea of ‘human being’ could be hierarchically defined: e.g., Aryans were fully human, non-Aryan ethnic French less so, Mediterraneans a little less, Slavs almost not, and Jews not at all. Consequently, the ideal world would be structured so that the ‘fully human’ could engage with the not-quite-fully-human for mutual economic benefit, as long as the latter group recognized the superiority of the former and ‘kept their place.’ (Ultimately, their place would be outside of Germany, hence the need to maintain Fascist states in France, Spain, Italy, etc.)

    The Slavs (and other eastern European ethnicities), and the Jews posed special problems: their continuance would maintain a threat to Aryan purity. However, some work-force would be needed to rebuild post-war Germany and its conquered territories. It was decided that the Slavs could be effectively enslaved and worked to death.

    Because of their intelligence and cultural organization, and the fact that they could ‘pass for German’ in appearance, the Jews presented a greater threat to the Aryans. Originally, the hope was to be able to deal with German Jews either by expulsion or by internal resettlement (the model for this was the American treatment of the Indians). Expulsion lost favor once the interests of other countries were taken into consideration (where could they be expelled to?). That left resettlement, and the concentration camps were the end result of this.

    For Jews of conquered territories, the matter was different. They couldn’t be expelled, and there was no point in resettling them for any great length of time. So obviously they needed to be exterminated. Originally this was undertaken piecemeal, murder squads eradicating populations village by village behind the advancing German Army; but by the Wannsee Conference it was clear that this was inefficient and allowed some Jews to escape the net.

    Originally, the conquest of Europe was undertaken just as that, a means of acquiring “lebensraum” for the German people. However, by the time of America’s entry into the war, Hitler became convinced that the influence of ‘international Jewry’ in the politics of other countries was working to thwart his plans. After all, ‘shouldn’t Aryan England welcome membership in the Reich? Shouldn’t Aryan Americans recognize a similar aspiration to their own will to power? It must be the corrupting influence of the Jews preventing this!’ Hence, again by Wannsee, Hitler had redefined the war as a “war against the Jews.” Many people would like to think Hitler was speaking in hyperbole here; he was not. The upshot is that if Germany had somehow won the war in Europe, the Nazis would still have been committed to subverting Jewish interests worldwide.


  24. And, some follow-up points:

    Thomas, I’d like to hear from you which comments’ issues “blur conceptual clarity.” Per my comments on sexual orientation, the Nazis put gays and lesbians in concentration camps along with Jews (and Roma, among others). Without being targeted for … “active elimination” beyond “traditional” concentration camps, like the specific death camps for Jews, nonetheless, death was known to be a likely result of being in a concentration camp. I don’t consider my concerns about that to be either “blurring” or elevating “cultural genocide” into the real thing. I stand by what I say; Genocide Watch needs to update this part of its definition.

    On women, similar. “Honor killings” in the Middle East come to mind. They are deaths targeted at women for … well, for daring to act like men, sexually. I recognize that, short of cloning success plus massive amounts of alternative sexual gratification, the Arab world won’t kill all women. Currently, though, this is an area where cultural genocide at least partially translates into more than that.

    So, women as a “protected group” also qualify.

    On the issue of intent, Genocide Watch includes that. Sadly, an “optional protocol” for the UN Convention that it crafted includes neither group.

    Massimo Yes, the issue of identity is part of what’s at stake. So, while genocide isn’t the same as cultural genocide, they too have a “proximity in conceptual space.”

    Coel There’s something equally distinctive about biological sex, and as the history of the world shows, gender’s face almost as much burden. Honor killings and the like aren’t a modern phenomenon.

    Outright attacks on gays and lesbians are newer, perhaps in part because, claims of “gaydar” aside, sexual orientation doesn’t stand out like race or sex, and gays and lesbians often flew under the radar.

    On things like aristocrats, I’m not the one who proposed adding them, but I would agree that I don’t see them as a sufficiently cohesive class.

    StevenJohnson Trail of Tears (and the Long Walk, in the area of the US where I grew up) were both tragic. Neither one was a genocide. Not only was there no intent to kill, there was no intent to destroy a culture per se. Also, contra things like the Nazis with all of their concentration camp victims, but above all, the Jews, the “five civilized tribes” weren’t totally dispossessed. They lost their land, but they kept much of their personal property, including the “property” called slaves.

    That said, per your reference to the Iroquois vs. Hurons, or others noting Rwanda: it’s a reminder that any group can commit genocide, just as any individual within any group can commit a hate crime.

    All Again, for criminal justice, as I noted about the ICJ, in those cases, intent has to be part of the equation. It’s the difference between murder and involuntary manslaughter. And, I think it’s reasonable to have intent as part of the broader moral definition.


  25. Boghossian is a concept-meaning perfectionist. He makes a good case describing the flaws in the genocide concept. If he were a lawyer, he should have represented Turkey in this dispute. As an Armenian however, he would have had to recuse himself. In taking a contrarian position he creates intellectual stir and puts the issue under a microscope.

    The post-game analysis should be used to fuel future meaning improvements. The flaws should not be used as loopholes to escape justice. I’m ok with however the international community may want to improve the genocide concept meaning, if it leads to positive changes in the thinking and behavior of humanity. Admittedly that’s a big “if” that involves risks.

    Belief affects action. Powerful ideas micro-encapsulated into single words (Logos) can sometimes have magical effects producing new zeitgeists. In fact, they can inhibit free speech. Can anyone think of any magical words that are politically incorrect, that have been rendered unutterable?

    Go ahead, make my day. Add “hate” and expand definition beyond “protected” classes. If the committee won’t approve “hate” then perhaps soften to “loves less by comparison”. In fact go one step further and make genocide a thought crime. Isn’t it really at its core? This way when future-state technology emerges, the U.N. can proactively predict and prevent.

    We know where this is leading. Sacrifice of some level of personal liberty in exchange for security (new unofficial social contract), as interconnected corporatist nation-states evolve globally. If anyone doesn’t like it they’ll have to move off the grid. Or stay home and not utter magic words.

    Caveat for consideration. With advances in DNA technology, perhaps there should be a permanent moratorium on retroactive legal disputes and punishments capped to some to be determined point in human civilized time. Attempted linkage to Prehistoric atrocities may waste valuable court time and much needed emotional cash. That’s where forgiveness should kick in.

    PS: ISIS obviously does not respect this subject matter:

    Islamic State jihadists, also known as ISIS, have destroyed an Armenian church in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, a memorial to the martyrs of the Armenian Genocide of 1915.


  26. Thanks to Massimo Pigliucci for his clear exposition of the argument of my paper and to all the commenters for their thoughtful remarks, which I hope to study in the future and take account of. In the meanwhile, readers of this blog may want to know that my paper is not ‘forthcoming’ but actually appeared in the “Journal of Genocide Research” inf March-June 2010. It is there printed alongside three substantial commentaries on the paper by Berel Lang, William Schabas (the current head of the UN commission investigating war crimes in the recent Gaza war) and CUNY historian Eric Weitz. I reply to my critics in the same issue.


  27. Socratic, no, I wasn’t singling out your comments. We are all struggling with this issue. That, I think, is Massimo’s point. The issue here is whether and how we arrive at conceptual clarity regarding the term genocide, which, as you know, is formed by combining tribe and killing. What you are asking, or perhaps suggesting, is whether certain group classifications should be included. What I wrote in part in my first comment was this:

    Many of the comments, *while raising important issues*, further blur conceptual clarity . . .” Is it your opinion that we will arrive at conceptual clarity by including examples of homophobia and gender bias without further criteria? Both gender bias and racism have “proximity in conceptual space.” But the question is when might we characterize them as genocide.


  28. Hi Massimo, there were a couple points of confusion…

    “The reason I think the analogy holds is because in both cases it isn’t just that a number of individuals are being harmed or killed, it is that damage is done to a cultural identity (ethnic, religious, gender, etc.). In fact, one could argue that the real target is the identity…”

    My problem is with the concept of “hate crime” itself and not your analogy. I agree that genocide would fit the model of a hate crime, with the intent to attack a group identity.

    It just isn’t necessary (to my mind) to create a legal category of “hate crime” for individuals or groups. The physical crimes committed should be sufficient for consideration regardless of their underlying reason. But this is a totally separate topic we don’t need to drag in here.

    “And sure enough I never heard the term genocide applied to the eugenic movement (in the US).”

    I’m not sure if I am missing your point (in the quote above) or you missed mine.

    My point was that genocide can be conducted without hate. I was using the eugenics movement as an example of where the elimination of an entire class of people could be enacted without hate being a central driving force. It can happen out of a positive desire to produce the best for one’s society (and sorry to say “you guys” are unintentionally holding us back). Or it can be driven by fear.

    While the eugenics movement within the US did not reach such a degree that we would recognize its effects as having been a genocide, it certainly could have reached such a level. Nazi planners suggested that they could learn from us and expanded their efforts based on US successes. While they certainly felt hatred to certain groups they intended to wipe out, not every group they targeted (the elderly, mentally ill, and infirm for example) were treated with hatred.

    I might point out that eugenics practices within the US met conditions c&d of the UN definition. Whether we would ever apply standards to ourselves that we would gladly apply to others, is another question entirely. Given that we practiced eugenics it is no wonder that we never bothered asking whether it constituted genocidal practices.

    On another topic, I think genocides against opposing economic/political classes are possible to enact. Whether they can ever entirely succeed is doubtful, but if you are ok with the concept of hate crimes, it would seem that there is class hatred and so class hate crimes. Purges of the “other” class, even if there will always be bodies to refill their ranks, arguable meet the same criteria based on intent.


  29. I split my comment in two parts, this is the first part.

    Most of Holocausts and massive exterminations are caused by political reasons, it means that economy plays an important role in these exterminations committed by humans. Religious, ethnic and cultural reasons also trigger these crimes, but in my opinion the main reason is political and economic.

    Hitler hated/feared the international financial status of the Jewish banking and deplored the loosing of the national pride weakened after the WW-1 and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles. Hitler promised to refute that Treaty, the suspension of compensation payments, to generate employment and wealth, to fight corruption and also promised financial control on the rich people.

    His mate G. Strasser held a speech in Hannover in 1925, he encouraged the expropriation of the real states owned by the nobility and, as a Nazi leader in North Germany, joined the Marxists in the election campaign. Ten years later he was killed by the Gestapo in Berlin. Hitler hated/feared the Marxism, he labeled it a “Jewish science/ideology”. He planned to get in the Parliament with a strong political opposition to Catholics and Marxists representatives.

    Regarding his expansion toward Russia he claimed: “Nature hasn’t booked this land for the future possession of a particular nation or race, on the contrary this land is there for the people who has the strength to take it”. He thought that the maneuver seemed easy as long as Bolsheviks/Jewishs ruled the country, with the understanding that those were weak subhumans with no political relevance.

    The Ottoman forces in the time ordered the deportations and massacres against the Armenians, many of them Jewishs and Christians, for political and economic reasons.

    During the first centuries of the common era thousands, perhaps millions, of Christians and non-Christian discontents were killed by the Roman Empire and local allies, also for political and economic reasons. The nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed 220.000 persons, most of them civilian, it happened for political and economic reasons. The number of people killed under Stalin’s regime was at least 3 million for the same reasons.


  30. brandholm,

    “My problem is with the concept of “hate crime” itself and not your analogy. I agree that genocide would fit the model of a hate crime, with the intent to attack a group identity.”

    I know exactly where you are coming from. I held to the same position for some time. But that’s one of those things about which I changed my mind. I think hate crimes cause additional damage beyond the one done physically to individuals. They intimidate an entire group, and are meant to erase or greatly diminish a given aspect of our culture. Insofar as they do that, then it seems like recognizing them as a separate category, and increasing the punishment, is appropriate.


  31. ej, well, I seriously doubt that the pre-Revolution aristocracy ever formed a separate ethnic group. I’m not aware of any evidence for that, and I think it is highly unlikely, given what we know of how people accumulate riches and land.


  32. jarnauga, but here is a quote from Hitler concerning that very conference: “I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships.” Doesn’t sound like extermination was the goal.


  33. Erik, I’ll take a look, though I’ve come across that idea before. My first reaction is negative. General principles are necessary both for guidance in life and especially when it comes to legal matters. I think the very concept of human rights is a crown achievement of our civilization, so I certainly wouldn’t want to do without it. Which of course neither implies that I think human rights are “natural,” nor that the crucial issue is indeed the practical steps to take in each situation.


  34. BMM, with all due respect, I keep finding your comments along these lines either irrelevant or slightly irritating, or both. But I’m working on the irritation part, as any good Stoic would…


  35. Socratic Gadfly

    A culture is a way of life. Removing eastern woodland tribes to Oklahoma destroys the material basis of the culture. I don’t think it is reasonable to presume that the people who planned the removal somehow sincerely imagined that their old way of life would continue. The conventional thinking as best I can judge was that the cultures would and should be exterminated. Those who pretended to more humane values pictured this as voluntary assimilation, but the more practical ones seem to consciously envisioned removal as a key step in persuasion. Dispossession of a whole people inevitably kills en masse. If someone were to engage in some other crime that necessarily involved mass murder, how is it necessary to insist the prosecution must show intent to call it mass murder?

    As for the Long Walk, Wikipedia cites this correspondence (taken from historian Frank McNitt.) ” On December 1, Col. Canby wrote to his superior in St. Louis that “recent occurrences in the Navajo country have so demoralized and broken up [the Navajo] nation that there is now no choice between their absolute extermination or their removal and colonization at points so remote…as to isolate them entirely from the inhabitants of the Territory.

    Aside from all considerations of humanity the extermination of such a people will be the work of the greatest difficulty”

    It seems to me that if we were to try parsing the intention, we could conclude that the Long Walk was a happy confluence of political expediency and moral benefaction to the Navajo nation. This sort of nonsense result is why I believe intention in your sense is irrelevant to thinking about genocide. I think the claim that the Navajo nation somehow had gotten itself to the point they could only be exterminated or removed is nonsense. And nonsense should not be given weight, no matter how much it bears on intent.


  36. SciSal:

    Are you seriously suggesting that post-Wansee, the German policy was *not* one of outright, worldwide extermination, with Poland as the main killing-ground?

    Sorry, but you’re just plain wrong on this. And its not a matter of controversy. There may be a debate as to *how early* this decision really was made, but there is no debate that this was the policy, post-Wansee. We have documents–from Heydrich and others–that confirm this.

    “The “Final Solution as it is now understood—the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp” (Christopher R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939 – March 1942. Jerusalem. Yad Vashem Magazine)


  37. Aravis, fine, I was remembering reading about the fact that even the “final solution” was not really an attempt at terminate every last Jew within grasp, as you put it. If it was, okay, I really don’t see how this changes the discourse on genocide, and I hope you know I certainly didn’t mean to imply that there was any attenuating circumstance even if German policy after Wansee had not been what it was.


  38. SciSal:

    Of course, I made no such inference. And no, it doesn’t speak to the question of definition — no one has denied that the Holocaust counts as a genocide, or in my parlance and attempted genocide. I was just making sure that everyone is clear as to the facts, regarding the course the Nazi program took, which was an evolution from harassment to expulsion and finally to genocide.


  39. Massimo,
    Well, you’re right, I was engaging in some gross speculation about the aristocracy. I suppose the question on my mind was, if one abstracts a group from a general population and ‘breeds’ it separately from the original population, allowing it to develop a separate culture, etc., at what point does it acquire the distinct differences of a separate ethnic identity? E.g., despite the hopes of some and the suspicions of others, cultures of peoples of African decent in the Americas are just not African cultures – African decent Jamaicans are simply not ethnically African in the way that those in Africa are; indeed. ethnicity in Africa is not all of a piece (or we wouldn’t see the gross inter-tribal violence we do in some places).

    The whole concept of ‘ethnicity’ seems to me wholly unclear at this point. In America, when I was young, it was a common question to be asked, ‘where are you from?’ – i.e, where did the immigrant ancestors come from. This always gave me problems. One side of my family was entirely from Ireland, but I never had any contact with them. The other side of the family was problematic: the grandmother came from Poland, but her parents were apparently not native there and refused to discuss their inheritance; the grandfather would never say where he was from (somewhere in eastern Europe, that’s all), would not even reveal his original name. But both grandparents were complete assimilationists – there was no ‘eastern European flavor’ to their household nor that of any of their children. Eventually I came around to replying to the question, ‘I’m from Brooklyn.’ Sometimes I envy those with an inherited ethnic identity, other times I am very glad to be free of the matter.

    The relationship between genetic inheritance and cultural inheritance is a troubling one. There’s no real ground to assuming any necessary relationship at all (millions like me stand in utter disproof of it), yet it is something many, many people cling to, both for positive reasons (the need for identity and community) and negative ones (defining groups to be confronted or dehumanized). The matter can get pretty silly – Hitler in Mein Kampf actually claims that the German language itself is in Aryan blood, and he wasn’t kidding: his theory of ‘racial purity’ is totalistic.

    I think that eventually we will come to see ‘ethnicity’ as simply a matter of genes, with no cultural component; at which point the word ‘ethnicity’ will be replaced with some term from genetics. Or perhaps, on the contrary, we will leave the genetic question to geneticists, and use ‘ethnicity’ in strictly cultural terms.

    As to the aristocracy – it would have helped my case had they abstained from interbreeding with their serfs, but of course they didn’t, they simply didn’t marry them. But, the question of ethnicity in the Middle Ages is worth some thinking: Originally, group identity was tribal. How did this gradually get replaced by national identity?

    A question for another day.


  40. Massimo:

    “Doesn’t sound like extermination was the goal.”

    I was replying to the views of Coel vs. Aravis, in which Coel asserted that extermination was the goal from the beginning, and Aravis stating that it evolved to that point, citing his own family’s escape. My highlighting of the Evian Conference was to substantiate this. This was prior to the war, and Hitler would clearly have been satisfied with the expulsion of German Jews (the only Jewish population under the Nazis at that point). The Wannsee Conference was substantially later, in the middle of the war.


  41. EJWinner:

    Interesting remarks and musings on ethnicity. Let me add a few further thoughts.

    As I mentioned in a previous discussion, for many, many Jews, the Jewish identity is one of a shared “peoplehood”, where what this means, precisely, is somewhat ambiguous or at least,left unstated. It has elements of an ethnicity, elements of a nationality, and of course, elements of religion.

    I suspect that the intensity with which this is felt, even among many *very* secular Jews, is due in part to the Jewish experience in the Diaspora. One must remember that the Jews were often denied citizenship in the countries in which they lived. In many they were denied the ability even to own land — hence the over-presence of Jews in mercantile professions. They often lived in ghettos and were subjected to periodic and systematic persecution and violence.

    For this reason, their adopted country’s identities never really fit. My mother is from Hungary, but she doesn’t identify as Hungarian. My father is from Germany and does everything he can to reject that dimension of his identity — to the point, even, of changing the spelling of our last name, “Kaufman”, so it would look less German. Those Jews who made the mistake of thinking that they really *did* belong — those Jews who embraced their adopted country’s identity — received a rude shock, once the Nazis rose to power. It didn’t matter that one was a loyal German or Hungarian or Austrian. It didn’t matter that one had fought bravely for one’s country in the First World War, as my mother’s father had. They all went to the gas chambers.

    For Jews, then, this “peoplehood” is the only identity that they genuinely have. My father, who is part of the founding generation of the State of Israel and who served in the Haganah and then fought in the War of Independence, has told me many times that people other than Jews cannot understand the significance of the fact that Hebrew has been revived as a vernacular language — in Europe, the Jews spoke Yiddish, a kind of mongrelization of Hebrew and German, a language that in itself symbolized their displacement and lack of a home. To walk down the streets of Tel Aviv or Haifa and hear Hebrew spoken, like you would hear English spoken in New York or Chicago, is nothing short of a miracle, given our people’s history.

    So, on the one hand, as an intellectual matter, I can understand the discomfort with ethnicity, tribes, and peoples, as potential sources of division and conflict, but it is impossible for *me* to view it that way. Without our sense of common peoplehood, the Jews would not have survived the last two and a half millennia, scattered through Christendom and “Dar el Islam.” And closer to home, without that sense of common peoplehood, my wife and daughter would not have found a welcoming community, here in the Bible Belt.


  42. I agree with Judge Richard Posner that judges, lawyers, and legal academics would to well to turn to economics, social science, and statistics instead of relying too much on theo/politico/philosophic grand themes. The skepto- crowd would like to thrown in some science-based critical thinking too. But I concur with you that saying “farewell to principles” like human rights would be the wrong turn.


  43. Thomas Gotcha. That said, I think both women and non-heterosexuals qualify as “tribes” and meet other “checklist” aspects.

    Paul Boghossian Would love to have further comments from you on some of these issues, after you see more comments by some of us.

    Labnut and Massimo It may be true that each one of us has bits of both better and darker selves, but most of us don’t dwell near 50-50.

    Massimo Your “intimidation” observation is, beyond legally trying genocides in court, one other reason I stress the matter of intent.

    Mario Roy Economic issues do not always get politicized, at least not in actions like that. On specific issues? The nuclear bombs weren’t even close to a genocide; beyond that, the Tokyo firebombings killed more than either nuclear bomb. (I’m a left-liberal of sorts, at least in American terms, but also a skeptical one; “narrative” liberals who spout nonsense about Hiroshima irk me.) Ottoman actions against Armenians started before WWI; the moves may have been political, but weren’t necessarily economic. Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in the middle of the 1920s; yes, he didn’t have a chance to act on it yet, but he wrote it after hyperinflation died back down and well before the Depression. By my definition, the “pogram” against kulaks wasn’t a genocide; riffing on Thomas, I don’t think they’re a unified enough cultural class and related issues. Anyway, the move by Stalin was part of larger moves that primarily weren’t driven by economics.

    Related to this, I want to dispel a myth about the Treaty of Versailles, perpetuated to this day by the likes of Pat Buchanan. While not mild, it was not THAT “harsh.” In fact, adjusting for both inflation and France’s lower population, the indemnity imposed by Prussia on France at the end of the Franco-Prussian War was worse than the Allies imposed on Germany at Versailles.

    All I think that, say, pre-Kristallnacht, or certainly by March 1939, Hitler’s goal was expulsion. But, he had by then noticed the limited response to immigration and after he took over the rest of the Czech lands, followed by British and French guarantees of Polish independence, he knew that war was at least somewhat likely, and surely his thought started changing then, nearly 3 years ahead of Wannsee.

    Aravis Interesting word use, on “mongrelization,” on Yiddish. Of course, Judaism of Eastern Europe had its own culture, and Yiddish, for various reasons, was part of that, and part of sustaining that, just as Ladino was, perhaps to a lesser degree, among Sephardic Jews. And, even if we go back to non-mongrelized languages, of course, at the turn of the eras, Aramaic, not Hebrew, was the normal language for most Jews, not counting those who spoke Greek first. From what I know of Israel, adopting Hebrew rather than Yiddish (or English, which I believe was also considered) created a new culture — and, per your comments on a previous thread, also left an old culture somewhat stranded.


  44. Aravis,
    Thank you for your thoughtful reply.
    Your personal experience reminds us that, although ‘ethnicity’ primarily concerns cultural difference, it includes an extra qualification, that of the passing on of cultural knowledge from generation to generation, primarily through familial relations (which, as noted, I never experienced in my own family). This really does complicate the problem, requiring much other thought.

    One last thought concerning the Nazism question: With his assumption of power in 1933, Hitler became entirely identified with National Socialism, and less than 2 years later solidified this with the murder of Strasser, and all other ‘aberrant’ Nazis. That is important to understanding the following:

    Hitler hated the Jews, with an almost unimaginable passion, The possible notion that his thought included some qualification or marginalization of this hatred is demonstrably false in the documents. There is no doubt that by 1942, Hitler saw the war as a “war against the Jews,” and this could not have stopped at the conquest of Europe.

    It is simply wrong to think that the Nazis were engaging in rhetorical flourish concerning their anti-Semitism. Hitler, at least, was of the type not able to distinguish rhetoric and reality. That is what I learned in my rhetorical analysis of Mein Kampf: he was certainly willing to lie to his audiences, but he never lied to himself concerning his beliefs. The Jews were not truly human, they needed to be exterminated – he was obsessively committed to this, from day 1.

    By 1942 this first meant the eradication of all Jews from Europe; but it also implicated the eradication of ‘Jewry’ world wide.

    Nazism is ‘Hitlerism’ – what he believed, they believed.

    This flies against all reason; but this is partly why I say that the ‘reasoning’ behind genocide threatens rationality itself – once the ‘first principles’ are established, there is no further room for doubt, everything (vile) follows.


  45. ‘Eichmann Before Jerusalem,’ by Bettina Stangneth

    “… genocide and bureaucratic banality are not necessarily opposed,”

    “… “creative” work …innovative masterpiece: “It was actually an achievement that was never matched before or since.””

    “… uncanny ability to tailor his narrative to the desires and fantasies of his listeners”

    “… the great mover behind … policy, which became part of the fear, the mystique of power, surrounding him.”

    “… the drive toward self-preservation is stronger than any so-called moral requirement.”

    “… “fanatical warrior” for the law, “which creates order and destroys the sick and the ‘degenerate,’”

    “… we are fighting an enemy who . . . is intellectually superior to us”

    “… would have fulfilled our duty to our blood and our people and to the freedom of the peoples.”

    “… a consciously wrought racial “ethics,” one that pitted as an ultimate value the survival of one’s own blood against that of one’s enemies”.

    Skulls and Bones – The Atlantic


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