Friday, October 03, 2008

What Is Genocide?

Sat in on a colleagues class yesterday and they were working on a piece by psychologist David Moshman called "Us and Them: Identity and Genocide" where Moshman argues that the traditional definition of genocide is too broad in that it only looks at the extreme of mass murder.

Genocide, he argues, is not necessarily violent, that is, it is not necessarily a crime against the body. Rather, it should be understood as a crime against identity. Genocide is the attempt to eliminate a cultural identity and one way to do it is to kill everyone who is so identified, but there are also non-violent genocides which aim to strip the identity from those who possess it. The example here is the boarding schools to which Native Americans were sent by the American government in order to "civilize" them, to remove their "savage" natures and thereby eliminate native culture, language, and everything associated with it. This was a crime against identity, he argues, and should be considered genocide, despite being non-violent.

Is this move warranted? Are the grouping of these acts legitimately called genocide or does it water down the concept? What work does the notion of genocide do for us practically and does this move bolster or harm it?