Friday, August 11, 2006

How to destroy a group

Martin Shaw (the academic, not the actor) writes on genocide (spotted via PTDR).

He follows the émigré Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who “stressed that genocide involved ‘a synchronized attack on different aspects of life of peoples’ in the political, social, cultural, educational, economic, religious and biological fields.”

Shaw argues for a “broad, sociological concept of genocide” under which the destruction of a social group need not involve the killing of its members: “Killing whole groups was more about destroying social institutions and values than murdering individual bodies, although it often involved that, too.”

There is a fair point in this: you can destroy a community by forcibly dispersing its members and/or preventing them from living their lives in the way they have been used to – without actually having to kill them. And this can nonetheless be a terrible thing to do. But when he notes that, in genocide, “groups are targeted because of their particular identities and affiliations”, I start to wonder. (I’ve written sceptically about identity politics before, and will doubtless do so again.)

What about, say, the ban on fox-hunting? People identified themselves as fox-hunters; it was an important part of their lives; they formed themselves into groups based on their shared passion. The banning of this activity (right or wrong) has destroyed the ability of groups to identify themselves (and hence to survive) by their participation in it.

We could hardly bracket this with the mass butchery of Tutsis, though, or the industrial annihilation of Jews. And of course, no doubt, Shaw wouldn’t do any such thing. Preventing people from participating in some culturally prized activity (thus inflicting perhaps ‘fatal’ damage on the groups so defined), even if some force is sometimes used to enforce the ban, is a far cry from forcing people out of their homes, let alone murdering them.

All of which leads me to ask: if the destruction of the group is the only commonality in these cases, and if the differences between these cases are manifest in the degree of suffering inflicted upon individuals, then what role is the concept of genocide playing here?

Do groups have rights over and above the rights of the individual members? If a group cannot be destroyed without harming its members, then does the destruction of the group constitute a wrongdoing distinct from the individual harms done? Does ‘genocide’ then describe a crime or just a motive?


Matt M said...

“Killing whole groups was more about destroying social institutions and values than murdering individual bodies, although it often involved that, too.”

Isn't the term for this "culturecide"?

In 'Among the dead cities' AC Grayling talks about the plans to "destroy" Germany during WW2 by wiping out its culture - destroying museums, art galleries, libraries, national monuments, etc. Some wanted all post-war German children to be raised abroad. Some even believed that entire German population should be sterilized.

While horrific, I think it's vital to maintain a distinction between the long-term "eradication" of a people though eroding their culture, and a policy of mass slaughter. It's hard enough judging what is and isn't genocide as it stands - if Shaw's argument was accepted the term would become too broad and controversial.

Tom said...

I think you're relying on too broad a concept of "group". Possibly Shaw is too. The UN definition of genocide as "acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group". I wouldn't place fox-hunters in any of those categories. Futhermore, of the list of acts which count as genocide when performed on a relevant group - "a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about
its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group" - only (c) could possibly be relevant to the banning of a culturally important activity, and even that's a bit of a stretch.

You've got to be a bit of a Daily Telegraph conspiracy theorist to think that in banning fox-hunting the government was deliberately attempting to bring about the destruction of rural communities, even if you'd want to argue that that is the effect. And even that's a tough argument to make, given the need to show a) that such communities are being destroyed; and b) that this is a result of banning fox-hunting rather than, say, of city traders buying second homes, or industrial scale farming, or a whole range of other things which might plausibly be said to have transformed rural life over the last few decades.

You could also argue that the fox-hunting ban's effect was to create an identifiable community of fox-hunters as a coherent social and political force, rather than to destroy it.

Tom Freeman said...

On reflection, I think the fox-hunters thing was so far down the 'trivial' line as to make the comparison unhelpful.

But if you compare, say, banning a certain religious group from practising, with killing everyone in that group, clearly both are wrong - but the latter far more so.

Shaw is drawing the line a lot more broadly than the Genocide Convention does, and while I guess it's arguable that you want to catch some of the broader cases, trying to catch them in the same net as the Holocaust does rather dilute the notion.