In Conferences

By Dr. Thibaut Gress

I would like to suggest some thoughts on the notion of genocide, and to discuss the precise meaning of the word, by asking who is being killed and what is being killed in the event of genocide. One can indeed understand what is meant by regicide, homicide or parricide, but, in the case of genocide, a collective entity is at stake, an entity that is nearly abstract and one difficult to define. What does killing a collective entity mean? Is it the fact of killing a group of individuals, or are we speaking of a phenomenon of emergence in which eradication of the group would eliminate more than just the sum of the individuals within the group? The issue is nearly metaphysical, as it questions the reality of a collective phenomenon: if an assembly is but a sum of individualities, genocide is but the addition of individual murders. But if something exists within the group that is above the group, genocide then eliminates more than a mere sum of individuals.

To answer this first question, I would suggest a short historical and etymological review to understand the purport of the term, which is rather vague and contains some ambiguity.

Let us therefore go back to the origin of the word.

Raphael Lemkin, an American professor of law, created it in 1944 by using it in a famous text: Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The word makes a bizarre alliance between Greek and Latin, as the root comes from the Greek genos, meaning ‘birth’ or ‘gender’, and the suffix comes from the Latin caedere, which means to kill. My first remark is therefore straightforward: etymologically, genocide does not kill a people, but a gender, a species.

What do we mean by ‘gender’? The word comes from the Greek genos and the Latin genus, which refer to the origin, to the beginning. It evolved into a general reference to a set of elements sharing common characters. Etymology, therefore, allows us to define two criteria for the meaning of genocide:

– First criteria: a group of individuals sharing common characteristics is systematically eliminated. Let us refer to those individuals with common characteristics as a ‘people’.
– Second criteria: the systematic riddance of this group erases its origin, eradicates the traces of its origin. If we combine both elements, we may define a people on the basis of a common past, be this past real or imaginary.

Two points can hence be made:

– The physical elimination of a group cannot define genocide under any circumstance: said elimination must come with the eradication of the memory of origins, the loss of a beginning, the inability to retrace the meaning of what one originates from. The memory of the people is therefore here at stake: genocide has the purpose of erasing the memory of the origin of the people, to make it impossible for the survivors to remember the meaning of their origin.
– Without such a collective memory, without such a common trace, peoples are unable to construct themselves as a people, and are but a collection of individuals with no binds other than economical usages. The founding principle of the people is outside of the individual, outside of the individual atom: there is no people without something that transcends the individual.

The issue of genocide is therefore particularly difficult to address within a democracy. Tocqueville brilliantly demonstrated that democracy is not merely a political regime, it is more of a social process, a process of mental transformation always going in the same direction, that of an equalisation of conditions. The result, however, is that anyone who does not tolerate the domination of others ends up putting himself at the centre of the system and to only think in terms of himself and of his own interests. This is what Tocqueville calls ‘individualism’, a democratic affect that takes us over and brings us to consider only our wellbeing, our private interest, and ourselves, as matters of consequence. Worse still, acting this way ends up as matter of fact, natural, rational. And we begin to consider as irrational any attitude that steps away from the self.

You may ask how relevant this is to the issue on genocide. It appears to me as rather obvious: if I only perceive my own person, my own private interests, my own wellbeing, my own enjoyment, what happens to the memory of the peoples? If Latin is of no interest to my professional life why should I learn or study it? If Greek is a bore, why should we keep teaching it? We, in France, now live in a situation whereby it will soon become impossible to learn Latin, Greek or the History of our country. This means that it will become more and more difficult to understand what builds us a people. It will become harder and harder to understand where we come from, where our language comes from, what its words mean, what is the significance of the historical flesh of the words we employ. We shall perceive our language only as a mean of communication, and not as sediments having piled up for ages to define what we are today. We shall be transforming our language into a simple communication tool between individuals, instead of seeing it as a testimony of what has defined us as a people.

This is why I ask myself whether the etymology of genocide, which implies the obliteration of the memory of origins, shouldn’t be widened. The notion is obviously valid first and foremost for the physical elimination of a people, which is what I would call Direct Genocide. But there might exist Indirect Genocides, exposed with time, in the form of destruction of memories, of destruction of understanding of the language, of destruction of physical sites, making the perpetuation of peoples impossible. Living as individuals, physically, biologically, does not mean that we continue to live as a people.

Finally, I wish to extend the reasoning to humanity as a whole. In some way, and if there exists several peoples, humanity itself is a people. Humanity is a genos. As such, it holds a collective memory and, even though I am French, the History of Israel, of Babylon, of Palmyra, of Beijing is also my History, that of a human being. If I raise myself to human universality I must recognise what makes me belong to the human people: a collective memory, Palmyra, Alep, Assur, Latin, Greek. I shall not die if those cities are destroyed, obviously, and my heart will keep on beating. I shall go on consuming and buying even though I cannot learn Latin or Greek anymore, obviously. But this will not help in defining my belonging to the human people, to the multiple successive strata that characterise my humanity, even though they are not part of my specificity.

For all of these reasons, I believe that we are now faced with Indirect Genocides, genocides that prevent us from building ourselves up as a specific people and, more generally, as a human people. What is now occurring in Palmyra, and indeed at any place where collective memories are being destroyed, is not the destiny of a nation, it may well be, first and foremost, the definition of humanity itself being put at risk. Are we atomisedindividuals defined only by our economical behaviour of consumers/producers? Or are we a people transcending our specificities, a people that can only make sense if it is able to trace back its memory, to hear the roots of its language resonate? And, last but not least, are we worthy of the humanity within us?


Dr. Thibaut Gress is philosophy lecturer at the IPC, Paris, France. This was presented at the Coptic Solidarity Sixth Annual Conference held in Washington, D.C., on June 11-12, 2015

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