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The Ultimate ‘Concept Creep’: How a Canadian Inquiry Strips the Word ‘Genocide’ of Meaning

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In 208 AD, the Roman warrior emperor Septimus Severus arrived in Britain with 40,000 soldiers, intent on subduing the tribes inhabiting the northern part of the island. These tribes were part of the Caledonian confederacy, which occupied modern Scotland. But to the Romans, most everyone who lived outside the […]


In 208 AD, the Roman warrior emperor Septimus Severus arrived in Britain with 40,000 soldiers, intent on subduing the tribes inhabiting the northern part of the island. These tribes were part of the Caledonian confederacy, which occupied modern Scotland. But to the Romans, most everyone who lived outside the empire was a barbarian, full stop. So when Severus became frustrated by the Caledonians’ (sensible) refusal to submit to pitched battle, the emperor settled on another strategy, which we would now call genocide. In 210, he assigned the job of extermination to his son Caracalla, a mass-murdering lunatic who would later assassinate his own brother Geta in front of their mother. It likely was only Severus’ death in 211 that cut the operation short and saved Scotland from a complete holocaust.

Caracalla always is listed by historians among the worst emperors of Roman history. But tellingly, his attempted annihilation of the Caledonians isn’t typically cited in the historical bill of particulars. In ancient Rome, genocide was seen as an acceptable military tactic if it was directed at indigenous peoples. In a speech reportedly delivered to his troops before the Battle of Mons Graupius, the Caledonian chieftain Calgacus declared: “Robbers of the world, having by their universal plunder exhausted the land, they rifle the deep. If the enemy be rich, they are rapacious; if he be poor, they lust for dominion; neither the east nor the west has been able to satisfy them. Alone among men they covet with equal eagerness poverty and riches. To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of empire; they make a solitude and call it peace.” It is quite likely that the whole oration was invented by Tacitus. But invented or not, Calgacus’ words—especially the widely quoted ending—perfectly captured the mindset of genocidaires the world over, then and now, who always imagine themselves to be improving a society by annihilating it.

Today, we regard this mindset as sociopathic. But even into modern times, genocide often was justified as the cost of “progress.” In the 16th century, Spanish colonists reduced the indigenous population of their Hispaniola colony from 400,000 to 200 within the space of a generation. The Belgian rape of Congo reduced a population of 20 million to about half that number. Stalin’s forced starvation of Ukraine killed about five million. In all cases, the killers believed that these genocides presented a net benefit to the civilized world. Hitler, who slaughtered six million Jews, thought that the entire planet one day would lionize him for ridding the world of what his diseased and evil mind conceived as a uniquely destructive pestilence upon humanity.

One of the painful coming-of-age processes for all of these societies has been to recognize the horror of their ancestors’ crimes. This has produced mixed results. Germany has set the gold standard with its unqualified rejection of Nazi ideology, while other countries remain mired in a spirit of self-delusion—such as Turkey, whose official policies still serve to deny the reality of the Armenian Genocide.

My own country, Canada, now tends very much toward the German model, with politicians and educators frequently stressing the horrors inflicted on indigenous peoples. The idea of “genocide” even has been stretched to include the idea of “cultural genocide,” a vague but emotionally resonant term that is now widely used, despite having only a tenuous connection with the (admittedly murky) legal concept of genocide. (“Despite recent developments, customary international law limits the definition of genocide to those acts seeking the physical or biological destruction of all or part of the group,” declared the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in a 2001 judgment against Radislav Krstic. “An enterprise attacking only the cultural or sociological characteristics of a human group in order to annihilate these elements which give to that group its own identity distinct from the rest of the community would not fall under the definition of genocide.”)

This Canadian desire to confront our past is laudable and well-intentioned. Unfortunately, as I wrote in Quillette, the resultant tendency to apocalypticize every policy discussion surrounding indigeneity now has created a sort of social panic that afflicts much of the intellectual class. In the midst of a 2017 controversy surrounding a white Canadian painter who works in a Woodlands style popularized by acclaimed Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau, an Indigenous artist declared that “what she’s doing is essentially cultural genocide, because she’s taking [Morrisseau’s] stories and retelling them.” For those of us who prefer to reserve the word “genocide” for such acts as throwing human beings into ovens and mass graves, as opposed to the borrowing of artistic styles among painters, this cheapening of language feels very wrong.

In April, Quillette authors Vincent Harinman and Rob Henderson wrote about “concept creep,” a term coined by University of Melbourne professor Nick Haslam to describe how ideas such as abuse, bullying, trauma and prejudice all have been expanded to encompass unrelated forms of human behaviour. Even words such as “violence” and “safety,” which once referred quite specifically to physical forms of injury, now are used to impugn controversial words or even abstract ideas. The cheapening of the term “genocide” presents an extreme example of this trend. A word once generally reserved for the greatest crimes known to humankind now has been reduced to a facile moral hashtag.

This has been done with the full participation of many journalists, who always are happy to draw readers in with dark click-bait headlines that channel the idea of holocaust. On Saturday, for instance, Canada’s most widely read daily newspaper, the Toronto Star, splashed the blood-red word “GENOCIDE” across its front page, along with a sub-headline indicating that “the final report from a tumultuous three-year inquiry concludes that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls” were this genocide’s victims. By way of comparison, another article that appeared on the same front page informed readers that “A few weeks at summer camp leave lessons to last a lifetime.” Between the two, which do you think will sell more newspapers?

The Star article is, in fact, nominally accurate: A national Canadian inquiry truly has used the term “genocide” to describe the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) in my country. But while this term would be accurate in regard to the murderous policies inflicted on Indigenous peoples during much of North American history, it is completely inapt in regard to the modern tragedy of MMIWG—even if it’s considered impolite to point that out.

A 2015 Statistics Canada report indicated that “almost a quarter (23 percent) of [the] 516 homicide victims [in 2014] were reported by police as Aboriginal, a group that accounted for just five percent of the Canadian population.” The overall Canadian homicide rate in 2014 was 1.45 per 100,000 population—which breaks down to 1.13 victims per 100,000 for non-Indigenous Canadians and 7.20 for Indigenous. This large difference in homicide rates—which has been well-known and widely studied since at least the 1990s—is indeed a national scandal. And it is undoubtedly true that this scandal is deeply rooted in the legacy of anti-Indigenous racism that has permeated Canada since its founding, including historical actions that arguably fall into the category of genocide. But one should be able to take stock of these historical facts while also rejecting the perfectly ludicrous claim that today’s elevated rates of indigenous homicide deaths constitute an ongoing genocidal massacre—a claim made repeatedly throughout the inquiry’s report.

Discussing the number of people killed in a genocide has an inherently dehumanizing effect on individual victims. But numbers matter, since the term “genocide” becomes completely meaningless if is used as a catch-all to describe all forms of homicide that afflict disadvantaged groups. The government of Canada recognizes five genocides—corresponding to Armenia, Rwanda, Ukraine, Bosnia and the Nazi Holocaust. The average fatality count for these genocides was about three million. The total number of Canadian MMIWG killed over the last half century is about one thousandth that number.

A finding of genocide does not require the discovery of concentration camps and gas chambers: As with the Armenian and Ukrainian genocides, one may infer genocidal intent based on policies that inflicted deadly conditions on men, women and children by intentionally destroying their property and livelihoods, or casting them out into the wilderness to die by exposure, starvation or pogroms. This is in fact how many real historical genocides against Indigenous peoples were perpetrated. But that has no relevance to the manner by which MMIWG are dying in 2019—which is not by pogrom or rampaging militia, but by the same ordinarily horrible way that most homicide victims meet their end: domestic violence and street crime. Nor is there statistical evidence to suggest that Canadian constabularies as a whole don’t take these crimes seriously—though there are individual cases in which police have acted disgracefully. “In 2014, a higher proportion of homicides of Aboriginal victims were solved by police compared with non-Aboriginal victims (85 percent versus 71 percent),” the government reported in 2015.

The homicide rate for Aboriginal females in Canada, measured in 2014, was 4.82 per 100,000 population. This is about 30 percent less than the homicide rate for the entire U.S. population (6.2). So the statistical implication of this week’s report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (to cite the body’s full name) is that the entire United States exists in a daily state of permanent genocide.

Of course, one could attempt to prove the existence of such an ongoing U.S. genocide by claiming—truthfully—that the higher rates of black homicide are connected to the American legacy of slavery and other genocidal practices. But if this sort of historical analysis is invoked as a means to justify the use of the term genocide, then literally every killing known to humankind can be swallowed up by the word, since no human being exists in isolation from the past. And that is just one of the many bizarre corollaries that emerge from this inaccurate use of language: Since about 70 percent of MMIWG are killed by Indigenous men, the effect of this week’s declaration is to present Canada’s Indigenous peoples as genocidaires of themselves.

Despite this, many Canadians seem anxious to embrace the report, as it affirms the simple narrative that the challenges faced by Canada’s Indigenous peoples are largely the result of white racism, and so can be solved if Canadians simply awaken to their own collective bigotry. Indeed, the problem of MMIWG has been studied comprehensively on previous occasions, and so it was never completely clear what this new inquiry would supply Canada, except a sort of quasi-evangelical call to arms against the forces of racism. Given this, the inquiry commissioners no doubt felt enormous pressure to deliver a dramatic new re-formulation of the moral stakes at play in the MMIWG crisis, which perhaps explains their decision to supply a grandiose new label to stick on front pages.

In the long run, the effect of this will be not only to erode the moral force of the term genocide, but also to hurt indigenous people by encouraging the terrifying and condescending conceit that their status in Canada is akin to that of Tutsis in 1994 Rwanda or Jews in 1939 Germany. The MMIWG inquiry set out 231 recommendations, which deserve to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, the whole $92-million exercise now is coloured by the rhetorical overreach surrounding the final report.

All societies lie to themselves about genocide. But the nature of the lies change over time. In Tacitus’ channeling of Calgacus, the Romans would “make a solitude and call it peace.” In Canada, we now do something closer to the opposite—summoning into being a spirit of genocide that hasn’t existed since those shameful days of universal plunder.

Jonathan Kay is Canadian Editor of Quillette. Follow him online at @jonkay.

Featured image: Steel engraving of a sketch depicting the speech of Calgacus before the Caledonians at the Battle of Mons Graupius, from the 1859 book, The Pictorial History of Scotland: from the Roman Invasion to the close of the Jacobite Rebellion. A.D. 79-1646.

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