Genocide and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 4 of 7)
Few of humanity’s transgressions seem as weighty as genocide. The average American high school student knows this, if they have paid any attention at all. Some see Schindler’s List or excerpts of The Holocaust miniseries. Many read Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Maus. The Holocaust looms large.
A focus on the Holocaust risks endowing it with a sense of uniqueness. Yes, it was unique in its scale, intensity, and efficiency; but genocides had happened before and they have continued to happen since. We must not teach with depth at the expense of breadth, lest students falsely assume that genocide is either a phenomenon of the past or will remain perpetually someone else’s problem.
What is Genocide?
Genocide is the attempted or successful destruction, in whole or in part, of one group of people by another, typically along the lines of race, ethnicity, nationality, and/or religion. The motives can be simple (genocide for the sake of genocide) or complex (genocide as a means to another end), and in the case of the latter, even “unwitting” or “accidental” on the part of the perpetrators. The methods can be direct (execution by shooting or gassing) or indirect (starvation).
By this broad definition, the displacement of Native-Americans by the U.S. government constituted genocide, however ancillary the destruction of entire tribes may have been to the broader project of U.S. expansionism and Manifest Destiny. In its motives and its methods, the Trail of Tears differs from the actions undertaken by Stalin against ethnic minorities only in scale.
The British handling of the Irish Potato Famine may represent more of a gray area. Certain aspects of the crisis would have been prevented or alleviated had there been different imperial policies. Did the British government cause the famine? No. Did the British government let it happen? Yes. And this is a problem. To paraphrase the Act of Contrition, we are guilty for both what we have done and what we have left undone.
Why does Genocide Happen?
Genocide occurs for one primary reason and that reason is conceptual. Genocide fundamentally results from an Us-versus-Them mentality. All other social, economic, cultural, political, and historical factors derive their power from that. This mentality can be psychological, deeply rooted in the subconscious. It can also be ideological, well-thought out and conscious, potentially taking on great complexity.
In either case, we lay the foundation for genocide when we conceptualize people of another ethnicity, race, nationality, or religion as being more different from us than alike. “Separate but equal” inevitably yields separate and unequal, a sense that me and my people are better than you and yours.
Once the poison seed has been planted, a sense of inequality may yield jealousy and then, quite easily, a sense of threat. Given the right conditions, whether economic distress, political insecurity, social chaos, or any other significant large-scale crisis within a given community, the temptation to blame ready-made scapegoats may become great. The temptation may be seemingly too great for a prejudiced populace or for an unscrupulous government to bear.
Whose Responsibility is it?
We citizens of the world must reject notions of absolute moral individualism, of which the fact of genocide as a historical phenomenon represents perhaps the clearest repudiation. There can be great evil committed by the hands of men. Unless those who are not its direct victims intervene, there will be more blood crying out to heaven for justice. Let us not turn blind eyes and deaf ears. Our hands are not clean if they are not busy doing the work of justice.
The descendants of a given genocide’s perpetrators can and should seek reconciliation with the descendants of its victims. It can even be useful for this to happen in the context of repentance. But the danger here is that such attempts at reconciliation would be either self-serving, assuaging the consciences of those who repent, or that a sense of collective guilt would further accentuate the difference that We are fundamentally different from Them.
Because collective blame and scapegoating drive genocide, a sense of collective guilt has limits in setting things right, for it risks setting the stage for retaliation. We are Them. They are Us. They and We are one humanity. There are the different nationalities, ethnicities, races, and religions. But only when we stop defining one group of people or another as belonging to a fundamentally different genus will genocide truly become a thing of the past.
We are all responsible for moving forward. We citizens of the world must open our eyes and be aware of the genocides taking place around us and the potential genocides taking root in the minds of the perhaps-someday-too-willing. We educators must strive to endow our students with a sense of both breadth and depth about why the world is the way that it is and what it means to be human. We parents must do this for our children. Most importantly, we must all act as loving neighbors for each other, for neighbors what we all are, more alike than different, our fates intertwined.