Let’s Talk About Genocide: Words Matter (the Macmillan Edition)

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

Last month I wrote a letter to several major dictionary publishers, outlining the dangerous implications of imprecise definitions of the term ‘genocide’ and the potential of prevention that a precise definition can contain. In my letter I appealed to the publishers to reconsider their existing definitions.

Within 24 hours, Cambridge Dictionary and Macmillan Dictionary confirmed that the letter has been forwarded to their editorial teams for consideration (UPDATE: On March 28 I received a reply from Merriam-Webster). Three days later, I received this reply from the Macmillan team:

Many thanks for contacting the Macmillan Dictionary. We do continually review our definitions to make sure they are up to date but it should be remembered that the Macmillan Dictionary is a pedagogical dictionary for English language learners, so by its nature the definitions are brief and in a style that is easy for language learners to understand. A more nuanced and legal definition would be found in a specialist legal dictionary.

Despite the fact that in my original letter to the dictionary publishers, I inadvertently crafted- not one, but- two alternative definitions for ‘genocide’,  I explicitly directed the the publishers to Articles I and II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide as the example from which to remodel their definition. Seeing their response, I fear my intentions were misunderstood, and that the Macmillan editorial team thought I was suggesting a copy/paste of the letter of the law.

To clear up the misunderstanding, I wrote a second letter. Macmillan has yet to respond. I will of course update if they do, but in the meantime, I present the letter to you, readers, because it’s an interesting addition to my Let’s Talk About Genocide series, concerning Israel’s genocide of the indigenous Palestinian people. Those of you who engage on social media on the topic, may find some of these arguments handy.

Hello ****,
Thank you and the editorial team so much for engaging. I understand your particular concerns, so in the interest of forwarding a practical change, allow me to both suggest a definition based on the legal definition, that still has a chance to meet your criteria; and also to explain why it’s essentially inaccurate- and as such dangerous- to leave your existing definition as it is.

I suggest:
A crime under international law, committed against a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, with intent to destroy it, in whole or in part. Crimes can include acts of killing, causing bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about physical destruction of the group, preventing births, and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

I understand the latter is a long sentence. The idea is to include all the essentials to understand what genocide is, in as little words as possible. I trust that the editorial team can formalise such a definition to meet your own aims.

Now allow me to discuss your original definition:
The murder of large numbers of people belonging to a particular race.

You may have noticed that the most obvious difference between the two definitions is that yours only refers to the act of killing. The effect of this on the understanding of what genocide is, is that of raising the bar to what actually constitutes genocide. The fact is that many a documented genocides consist of much more than just killing members of the group. The Canadian example is very instructive in how killing can be a “byproduct” of other acts that on their own constitute genocide (https://urldefense.proofpoint.com/v2/url?u=https-3A__www.youtube.com_watch-3Fv-3DZpvMwbWSTBw&d=DwIBaQ&c=vh6FgFnduejNhPPD0fl_yRaSfZy8CWbWnIf4XJhSqx8&r=YxoJ1xijtr0jo09N0Tlo2IbhTDD5DBf8u8oVHrrh29A&m=fp6CFY3bAU0Supq9F9GTXX5vEvYtsjtPZTRjMKRq2no&s=bgHkji__-257bLXdm5kb2PDj7J1qweFpqedCJA0up8c&e=).

You also raise the bar by using the word ‘murder’. Within most legal systems around the globe, ‘murder’ and ‘killing’ indicate a different level of culpability. Article II of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide specifically uses the term ‘killing’. This means that murder doesn’t have to be proved as such, the act of killing is enough to be found guilty.

Raising the bar on the definition, while having no effect on the legal definition, changes public discourse substantially, as I detailed in my first email. Because the International Criminal Court isn’t impervious to international politics, it rarely Prosecutes the Crime of Genocide. The up side of this political reality is that civil society can argue for it, creating a political atmosphere which allows for the victims of genocide to demand justice, in turn obligating the courts to take responsibility. But as I demonstrated in the original email, civil society at times fails in this endeavour because it will use whatever dictionary definition it stumbles upon.

The less obvious limitation of your definition is the capping of numbers of victims. Genocide has no numerical qualifier. Its only qualifiers are whether there is a defined national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, and whether there is provable intent to destroy the group. The reason why this is important is that when smaller groups are the victims of genocide, or when the main means of genocide is other than killing, often public debates are framed around the comparably smaller numbers of deaths. As unimaginable is it may be, there are those who would defend acts of genocide, based on the assumption that “not enough” members of a targeted group have been killed. Your definition mentions “large numbers”, which is arguably as vague as “not enough”, and has only the potential to contribute to the blurring of understanding of what genocide is.

Lastly, your definition limits itself to the targeting of a racial group. Not all genocides target a racial status per se, but rather genocide is a political tool that often identifies a potential target group as that of a different religion, ethnicity, or nationality/nationhood. Often times, these statuses also intersect, especially in cases of genocide of indigenous peoples by a colonising entity, where race is openly touted as a “problem” to be violently solved, but the political status of nationhood is erased in order for the coloniser to assert claim to land.

I understand that all of these complexities can’t fit into a single dictionary definition. My argument is that you can improve upon your existing definition to allude to these complexities. The more precise your definition is, the more precise the public debate has the potential to be, in turn promoting justice for victims. The less precise the definition, the less the public will be capable of taking responsibility and sounding the alarm when genocide takes place.

Lastly, if you take this seriously, I suspect other dictionaries may follow. You have the power to significantly change our world.

Tali Shapiro

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