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A Genocide Theory: in Search of Knowledge and the Quest for Meaning

Last modified: 18 November 2007
Henry R. Huttenbach

November 2007

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Henry R. Huttenbach, A Genocide Theory: in Search of Knowledge and the Quest for Meaning, Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on 4 November 2007, accessed 29 July 2014, URL : http://www.massviolence.org/A-Genocide-Theory-in-Search-of-Knowledge-and-the-Quest-for, ISSN 1961-9898

So within the confines of secularity, what can one conclude about the meaning of genocide? One cardinal rule is limiting the evidence; that is, the data must be strictly empirical. Thus, underlying genocidal ideas are an aspect of totalism. Ending up with a genocidal frame of mind calls for a totalistic orientation, which means seeking to eradicate a group of fellow humans and being well aware that conversely, in the right circumstances, the victims would exercise the same existential violence against the génocidaires if given the opportunity (i.e. the power). This awareness obviates the argument that the victims are on another moral plane. They may be innocent at the moment, but as human beings they are still potentially capable of committing the same crime of wiping out an entire group. In that sense, it is sheer good fortune that some groups are not guilty of genocide (or attempted genocide); this is simply the case because the opportunity has not come their way - yet. In other words, the act of genocide is never far from the surface. It lies dormant universally, until it is activated by a combination of three overlapping factors: power (ability), incentive (motive), and circumstances (opportunity). So where does this take one on the road to understanding?

In brief, the sum total of acts of genocide committed by human beings against others spells out a disturbing message: the human species is inherently predestined to annihilate itself. Naturally, that message can be heard in other fields, and is often associated to technology (nuclear warfare), damage to the environment (water, air, soil), and depletion of vital resources. In that sense, humans are not making the planet uninhabitable just for themselves, but for all forms of life. Seen through the prism of this argument, genocide is nothing but a form of mass suicide. The biosphere is in grave danger. From this viewpoint, genocide becomes just one variation of the march of humanity towards its own extinction. What then of the study of individual, specific acts of genocide? How do they contribute to this interpretation? Or do some deviate from the norm of this purported common denominator of all genocides? Are they all part and parcel of the same phenomenon, despite their individual signatures and parochial meanings? Is the theory – that genocide is a form of collective suicide – viable? Can the theory of “species-cide” be sustained? And if the theory is true, what are some of its ramifications?

Once again, prevention takes a front seat, but it requires a radical new strategy; henceforth, genocide prevention will have to be carried out on the scale of the species’ survival. This begs the question of whether genocide is actually that deeply imbedded in the human psyche. Prior to devising a strategy for ad hoc prevention, policy-makers will have to consult philosophers, psychologists and pedagogues on whether humankind is indeed prone to self-destruction and genocide is one of the instruments with which it gradually destroys itself. Should the theory hold true, then radical readjustments will have to be made in the way we apprehend humanity and its fatal flaws. If our understanding of genocide is correct, then a mental revolution must take place if the world is to become a safer place for its human inhabitants.

Of course, there is no direct path from a particular case of genocide to the concept itself. Each one contributes differently to the fund of empirical evidence. The individual fates of minorities – the existential plight of Muslims in Pol Pot’s Cambodia; the Jews of Europe under Hitler; the Armenians in Ottoman Turkey – were all victims of totalistic intolerance. Ideologies – from the Left and Right, nationalist and internationalist – provided rationalizations for eliminating humans from the global population. In this way, the study of specific genocides and near–genocidal events contributes, piece by piece, to an ever-deepening recognition of the meaning of genocide in the context of human history.

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