Let’s Talk About Genocide: Words Matter

For other articles in this series 12345678, 9, 10, 11

alt-5b51feb34c621-5439-8e988795982d8b2f6e682380a3b0adb6@1xSince I’ve started the Let’s Talk About Genocide series, over four years ago, the discussion around Israel in the context of the crime of genocide has grown substantially. And while many scholars, journalists, and human rights defenders have embarked on the arduous task of examining the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (12345678910111213141516); many others have dedicated many words to the various, very partial definitions found in most English language dictionaries (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). Based on these inaccurate definitions- that no genocide scholar in either the Political Science or the legal field would agree on- inevitably the authors reach the conclusion that Israel is not committing genocide against the indigenous Palestinian people.

As the committing of genocide doesn’t just manifest out of thin air, and is rather a process of cultural norms (in the political sense, not the ethnic sense), it is imperative that our cultural output around the discussion of genocide is precise, and doesn’t inadvertently harm victims seeking justice. But we can’t ensure this when our basic sources of information are inaccurate.

So, instead of critiquing every article I’ve come across in the past four years that bases its argument on the dictionary definition rather than the legal definition, I’ve decided to go to the source. Below is the letter I’ve sent to Oxford Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Cambridge Dictionary, Macmillan Dictionary, Collins Dictionary, and Dictionary.com.

Since yesterday, when  I sent the email, Cambridge Dictionary and Macmillan Dictionary have confirmed that the letter has been forwarded to their editorial teams for consideration. [UPDATES| March 6: Read Macmillan’s reply; March 28: Read Merriam-Webster’s reply]

Hello [dictionary publisher],

I’m a human rights defender who focuses on the issue of the Crime of Genocide. I’d like you to consider broadening your definition of the word ‘genocide’ because I find in my daily work that people rely on the definitions that dictionaries provide. In the context of genocide this can save lives or seal their fates. 

Ideally, when discussing such grave issues as genocide, which is inherently a legal matter, scholars, journalists, and pundits would first oblige themselves to the legal definition provided under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crimeofgenocide.aspx), rather than a dictionary definition. It’s understandable however that this is not the case, as the unfortunate reality is that genocide is more widely studied in the theoretical realms of Sociology and Political Science, rather than Law, where application can very well manifest a reality of prevention. 

I believe that you, [dictionary publisher], can have a part in changing this reality.

As a descendent of Holocaust survivors and those who did not survive, I was raised with the knowledge that “the world knew and did nothing”, and the seething question: “Why?” Enacting the legacy forced upon me of “never again”, in a decade of collective effort, I believe I have found some answers in the form of collective and individual accountability. 

Genocide is an accumulative collection of acts over time, driven by- what the legal definition refers to as- “the intent to destroy a group”. The acts can be legislative, economic, socially discriminatory, and directly inciting to violence and enacting physical violence. In the long run, the definitions we ascribe to this collection of acts have the ability to prevent genocide by changing public discourse and deepening our ability to understand the wider implications of what seem to be individual discriminative acts. 

Misdefined, however, a definition runs the risk of diluting the meaning of the word genocide; ejecting it out of existing context of a series of brutalities, formalised into state policy and social norm; confusing the public as to what constitutes genocide and under what conditions; which in turn allows us to perpetuate it.

One might assume that learning concepts such as ‘tolerance’, ‘inclusion’, and ‘diversity’ is enough to prevent genocide, but as with all abstract concepts- ejected from context, they remain abstract and come to mean nothing at all. And in the face of genocide, my experience has been that it is these exact noble concepts which are often exploited and contorted in order to commit genocide. It is therefore a moral and concrete imperative that those of us whose profession is words, especially when confronting such words that carry such great responsibility, that we be as precise as possible.

The use of the very limited definition of genocide in your dictionary, rather than the use of the legal definition, has produced countless public materials which are factually flawed, and unintentionally serve to close the doors of justice in the face of victims of genocide. I suggest to you the very concise articles I and II in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. I believe this will lead to a more informed and precise public debate on the topic, focused on accountability and redress, which is the reason why the word ‘genocide’ was coined in the first place.

Tali Shapiro

Merriam-Webster’s reply (March 28):

Hello and thank you for your message and for sharing your insights with us. I am adding passages of your email to our citation database so that your comments will be considered when our entry for the word “genocide” is reviewed. I will also add material from https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crimeofgenocide.aspx to the database.

The genocide definition in our Webster’s Third New International DictionaryUnabridged reads:

1 :  the use of deliberate systematic measures (as killing, bodily or mental injury, unlivable conditions, prevention of births) calculated to bring about the extermination of a racial, political, or cultural group or to destroy the language, religion, or culture of a group

:  one who advocates or practices genocide

I will recommend that the definition in the online dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com be reviewed and expanded to incorporate the material included in the definition in the Unabridged.

Associate Editor
Merriam-Webster, Incorporated

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