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Absurd Misuse of Words Only Damages an Argument

Column byAnders Hove
Executive Editor

Last week, when the governor of South Carolina ordered the Confederate battle flag removed from the state capitol, state senator Glenn McConnell went on television accusing him of committing a cultural genocide. Now I admit to a personal bias in this matter, since I think the Confederate flag is a divisive symbol. However, in some sense I am more frightened by the absurd uses of words like "genocide" than by anything any flag might still represent.

Forget about political correctness; let's just talk about correctness. Genocide is the killing of an entire people. Or, to cut people some slack, genocide is at most the attempted murder of an entire people.

Calling the removal of a $10 piece of cloth from a pole "genocide" amounts to setting the bar for genocide a bit low. If that is genocide, then certainly I have committed several of them today, having removed my Made-in-America socks, irreverently tossing them into the laundry hamper, or inadvertently mushing my Montana license plates against the bumpers of parked cars. The way people bandy about words like "genocide" these days, we must be committing millions of genocides each day.

Sarcasm aside, I understand that McConnell did not really mean genocide as such. He merely saw in that word a convenient and shocking rhetorical substitute for the word "death." Removing the flag, he implies, will cause the death of Southern culture.

What a frail thing Southern culture must be if the lowering of a flag can cause its death. It's absurd to think that what the Civil War and Reconstruction could not do would be accomplished by the removal of a flag. Certainly Southern culture springs from the South's diverse peoples, the product of their aspirations, and the collection of their unique (and diverse) mores and virtues.

The trivialization of shocking words is not limited to conservative Southern politicians. From the way people talk, you would think the concepts of slavery, mass murder, and other oppressions were no longer sufficiently horrible to hold the attention of any audience.

Perhaps the cheapening of these horrible words shows how far their horror is removed from our experience. Yet genocide is not rare in the world. In the very recent past, we have seen Rwandan Hutus attempt to to eradicate the Tutsis, then be overturned by their victims, and murdered in mass by them. Mass murder (another horrific atrocity) has also wreaked havoc on Bosnia, Cambodia, and Indonesia within the short span of my generation's lifetime.

Of course, American history is streaked with blood as well. Though the U.S. fought fascism in World War II, it avoided recognizing the Holocaust until the war's end. (The word "genocide" was coined in America in 1944 to describe that atrocity.) Earlier, of course, the U.S. government sanctioned atrocities, whatever their name, in the form of "Indian wars" and slavery.

My point is not to emphasize the real sufferings of people, past and present, but to urge people to avoid trivializing them by misusing language.

Considering the social cost of cheapening horrible mass crimes, what use is it to employ words like "genocide," "fascist," and "Nazi," except to describe the genuine articles? If you can't convince people that something is bad without calling it "genocide," then will doing so help your cause? More likely, the wrongful use of these expressions will turn people away from your argument.