In his famous 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’, George Orwell wrote about how language was being corrupted in “the defence of the indefensible”. When people were driven out of their homes, he wrote, it was euphemistically called “transfer of population”; the killings of people by totalitarian regimes was described as “elimination of unreliable elements”. Orwell developed this idea further in his dystopian novel 1984, when he wrote about how, in his fictional tyranny of the future, Oceania would have a new language called Newspeak, in which the ‘Ministry of Love’ was responsible for brainwashing the citizens, the ‘Ministry of Truth’ rewrote history to suit the Party, and the “Thought Police” arrested those charged with “thoughtcrime”. This brilliant and chilling novel gave the English language several new words, including “doublethink”—simultaneous belief in two contradictory ideas, which, in 1984, made critical thinking impossible.Newspeak seems to be back in today’s world.
A recent piece in The Economist deplored Harvard students in October writing about the “unfolding violence” in Israel without blaming Hamas’ October 7 attack and the killings and kidnappings of Israelis. It was equally critical of those using the term “collateral damage” for the innocent civilians, including large numbers of women and children, slaughtered in the Israeli bombing of Gaza. When Israeli soldiers actually shot some of their own citizens fleeing captivity, it was referred to as “friendly fire”—is fire ever friendly to those at the receiving end of the firing?
The issue became even more complicated, however, when South Africa brought a case against Israel at the International Court of Justice (ICJ), accusing Israel of committing a “genocide” in Gaza. Israel vehemently denied committing genocide and accused Hamas of that very crime instead. So is this a case of misusing language? As with all geopolitical conflicts, it rather depends on which side you are on. But first, the basics: the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines it as acts intended “to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”. The definition amplifies the meaning of genocide as also including, among other things, “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction, and inflicting serious bodily or mental harm.” So which examples of recent history meet this definition?
There is universal agreement on only two cases—the murder by Hitler’s Nazis of six million Jews in the Holocaust, which led to the adoption of the Genocide Convention, and the wholesale massacre of perhaps a million ethnic Tutsis by Hutu militias in Rwanda in 1994. Indians and Bangladeshis describe the elimination of a million Bengalis by the Pakistani Army in 1971 as a genocide (and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman used the neologism “gonocide”, since “gono” means “people” in his native Bangla), but few others concur. US president Donald Trump described the Chinese oppression of its Muslim Uyghur minority as a genocide, but again found few supporters. Opinion is similarly divided on whether the term “genocide” can be applied to Israel’s attacks on civilians in Gaza. Sympathisers of Israel argue that its actions do not meet the acid test: Israel does not “intend” to destroy an ethnic group (the Palestinians), they say, but only the Hamas. Critics of Israel point to the words “in whole or in part” and stress that Israelis are in fact exterminating all the Palestinian civilians in Gaza, which meets the definition.
It would be hard for Israel to deny that it is “deliberately inflicting… conditions of life” leading to “its physical destruction”, and inflicting “serious bodily or mental harm”—the conditions of life in Gaza are inhuman, and continued bombing clearly does cause serious damage to both bodies and minds. But the ICJ is divided on whether what Israel is doing in Gaza meets the definition of genocide. There is obviously no simple formula to apply. The Economist warned writers to avoid both “the evasions of euphemism” and “the temptations of exaggeration”. “Crimes against language,” it observed, “make it harder to describe crimes against humanity”. Whether you call what is happening a genocide or not hardly makes the suffering of non-combatants any more bearable.