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June 5, 2019

One of the weapons of advocacy groups is their abuse of graphic terms. Godwin's law, after its proposer, Mike Godwin, states, "As a discussion on the Internet grows longer, the likelihood of a comparison of a person's being compared to Hitler or another Nazi reference, increases." If you say something that someone else doesn't like, you'll be slammed as racist (or [something]phobic). Calling your opponents names is no longer confined to the schoolyard, it has become common in academia and legislatures and has found fertile soil in the media.

Now we have the term "genocide" being used to refer to indigenous women who are victims of crime. What is genocide? Two dictionaries, Dictionary.com, and Merriam-Webster, define it as "the deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group." According to the United Nations, it is "… acts … with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." The Holocaust was a genocide, as was the Holodomor, as was Rwanda, as is happening to Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. Genocide is regarded as one of the most heinous crimes possible.

Does it apply to the murder of indigenous women? Before I get to that question, perhaps it's a sorry sign of the times that I have to point out that I'm against rape and murder, regardless of whom the victim is. They are crimes that demand the perpetrator suffer. That some go unpunished is reality. Sometimes the perpetrator was skillful or lucky, or the investigators were perfunctory or sloppy. Nor do I question the legitimate pain of the victim's family and friends, and I share a desire for vengeance. But a murder, even a series of murders, is as different from genocide as a lapping wave is to a tsunami.

Genocide is an intentional act against a group. Random murders of people who belong to the same group may raise questions about security or social attitudes, but they are not genocide.

Genocide is institutional. One or even many individuals acting alone cannot create a genocide. Some murderous monsters do target groups; the Ecole Polytechnique killings, which targeted women engineers come to mind. But that wasn't genocide as much as the ravings of a vicious mind. Genocide requires a government or, in cases such as Rwanda, another large group that is willing systematically to tyrannize and destroy people they hate.

Okay, but indigenous women are being murdered more often than their non-indigenous sisters. Even if those killings don't reach any reasonable threshold of genocide, where's the harm in using the word? Why not engage in some semantic shock treatment?

For two reasons. First, calling random murders genocide minimizes the true horror of ritualized butchery. Ghastly though the deaths of these women have been, likening them to the evil of the death camps degrades those slaughtered in them by implying they were no more than ordinary murder victims. The second reason is that the misuse of a word trivializes it, blunting the revulsion that the word should create. If that happens, the word will have lost its power and the concept its horror. We won't have the semantics when we're again faced with the real thing.