October 20, 2005

How Many Holocausts?

I've recently noticed a few comments on Language Log posts that I hadn't noticed or paid attention to before. One of them is a comment last year by Semantic Compositions on my post on the genocide in Darfur, on which in turn there is a long and interesting comment by Steve of Language Hat and a response to that by Semantic Compositions. Between them they raise a couple of issues. The first, raised by Steve, is the appropriateness of the topic for a language blog. Well, it's true that my post was mostly about the fact that genocide keeps happening with people doing very little about it, which isn't a core linguistic topic, but I thought it was nonetheless appropriate, for two reasons.

The first is that one approach to evading the problem in Darfur has been to quibble about whether what has happened there is, strictly speaking, genocide. That's a use of language to obscure reality and prevent right action, and I think it's just as appropriate to discuss such issues as more technical linguistic matters. To my mind, my post on game-playing over the meaning of the term anti-Semitism is of the same character.

The other reason is that some blogs are very narrowly focused and others are not. Language Log is of the latter sort, so I don't feel too constrained about bringing in topics that are somewhat marginal. You won't find me posting here about my views on, say, the lack of universal health care in the United States (barbaric), punk rock (horrible), Le Comte de Monte Cristo (lovely bedtime reading) manga (booooring), or the softwood lumber dispute (Canada is right), because these really don't have anything to do with language, but topics that have some connection, even if a bit marginal, are fair game.

The other point, the one that Semantic Compositions raised, is whether it is appropriate to refer to holocausts in the plural, or whether we should take the position that there has been only one Holocaust, namely the Nazi attempt to exterminate us Jews. SC's view is that the Holocaust was unique and that it diminishes its uniqueness to use the same term for it as for other instances of mass murder. SC and Language Hat between give a good summary of the issues. You can typologize mass murder according to the number of people killed, the percentage of the target population killed, whether the intention of the killers was extermination per se or merely being rid of the target population (which might be satisfied by driving them out rather than killing them) and various other factors. These aren't entirely quibbles since some of these distinctions imply different degrees of culpability and since making these distinctions can give insight into exactly what happened and why.

For example, when you look carefully at what the Spanish and other European colonists in the Carribean were up to, although it is true that their coming had the effect of virtually exterminating the indigenous population, this was not their intention. The Indians died largely because they had no resistance to European diseases and secondarily because they were overworked as forced laborers. The colonists had no particular bias against the Indians - their motivation was not like that of the Nazis - they just wanted to enrich themselves and didn't much care at whose expense they did it. They would actually have been delighted for the Indians to stay alive - it would have spared them the considerable expense of importing slaves from Africa. If you want to understand what happened, you need to differentiate between genocide and slaving. From a moral point of view I'm not sure that it matters very much - they're both beyond the pale. That's why I tend to side with those who think that for the most part fine typologizing of mass murder differentiates phenomena that are so similar that they should be regarded as falling into the same category.

One reason I'm not interested in too fine a parsing of what should be called a holocaust is that I have an ulterior motive: to save lives. For a variety of reasons the Holocaust of the Jews has name-recognition. Vast numbers of people know about that holocaust and consider it a symbol of a great evil that should have been prevented. Most other mass murders are not nearly as salient and they don't have names. Adolf Hitler famously asked: "Who remembers the Armenians?". His example was good up to a point, in that the memory of the Armenian genocide did little to prevent others, but in a way it was necessarily an imperfect example: he had to choose an example that his audience would recognize. If he had asked: "Who remembers the Dzungarians?", few people would have known what he was talking about.

Because the Jewish Holocaust has name-recognition, assimilating other mass murders to it by using the same term for them serves to make them more salient, more familiar, and more horrible, which, I hope, stimulates action against them. If extending the term holocaust to what is happening in Darfur brings people to equate the Janjaweed with the Nazis and the people of Darfur with the Jews and helps to overcome the attitude that what is happening is too remote and is happening to people who are too different from us for us to feel more than nominal sympathy for them, that's a good thing. Speaking from a Jewish point of view, faced with the decision whether to emphasize the uniqueness of our holocaust or to emphasize its universality, if the latter might save even a single life, there is no question as to what choice to make. This is the way in which the commandments are fulfilled.

Posted by Bill Poser at October 20, 2005 04:22 PM