Challenging hierarchies of harm in mass atrocities: cultural destruction as genocide

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The world we live in today is one of increasingly visible social, political, and economic fracturing. From this uncertainty, we see a return to the politics of fear, manifesting in the rise of nationalism and authoritarianism across every region. Narratives of cultural war and dehumanization are permeating daily conversations in ways that drive increased ideologically motivated hate crimes and foster policies of disenfranchisement targeting minorities. This sets the stage for an increased risk of mass atrocities.

But while international attention is quick to highlight instances of mass death or displacement, cultural genocides find themselves enveloped in a deafening silence. Even astounding cases, like those of Uyghurs and Indigenous communities in North America, have been met with a little more than narrative claims and functional indifference over time. It seems that unless violence is intense and fatal, the international community is not willing to truly confront mass atrocities.

This lack of attention is neither new nor a mistake. The idea of cultural destruction has long been intentionally sidelined in social, political, and legal discussions of genocide. Despite the fact that Raphael Lemkin, creator of the term “genocide”, firmly believed that the destruction of a group’s culture could be genocidal, our views of genocide are tinted by the mass extermination genocides of the 20th century. Even the legal definition of the term is a political construction, failing to explicitly allude to the idea of cultural genocide. This was derived from the agendas of colonial powers, which lobbied for its removal to shield themselves from accountability. However, under a climate of increased risk and perceived impunity for mass violence, understanding the realities of cultural genocide takes on a renewed importance.

This is not without its complications – culture is a complex idea, naturally eclectic and subject to constant change, a multi-generational project through which we interpret human experience. These attributes may challenge measures of how it is attacked and destroyed. However, this should not dissuade us – the only way to effectively affect and transform genocidal patterns is to explore the variety of ways in which they manifest and be ready to respond. In the protection of basic human rights, cultural diversity is not a secondary target, but an inalienable pillar that gives meaning to social lives and enriches human existence. As such, we must stand in its service.


The danger of dominant framings: questioning the genocide paradigm

As noted, when thinking about genocide our minds likely evoke images of the great mass atrocities of the 20th century – horrific, intense, systematic campaigns of mass killings that have become embedded in public consciousness. This is not without reason. The 20th century is considered to be the bloodiest in human history, with the death, displacement, and abuse of millions. Few can forget the chilling images of the Holocaust, Rwanda, Srebrenica, and Cambodia, from the wired fences of the camps, to piles of machetes, or unending mass graves.

But there is a risk to this association. When we envision genocide solely as a campaign of mass death, we exclude and forget the experiences and abuse of those that live to endure. Indeed, we don’t even consider whether the conditions survivors are subject to might be akin to death. In adopting the conviction that genocide fits a specific profile – one we can spot with little inquiry – we lose the ability to recognize other means of communal destruction, dismissing unfolding tragedies. In doing so, we condemn ourselves to watch as emerging genocides unfold undeterred.

Cultural genocide has often been excluded from public imagination for not always conforming to the aesthetics of genocide. However, this dominant view is exceedingly narrow and overlooks more inclusive views of what genocidal campaigns entail. Every genocidal campaign recorded is a result of an intersection of patterns of violence – from death to torture, sexual abuse, displacement, starvation, forced assimilation, and the destruction of culture. In failing to recognize this, we simultaneously devaluate many prevalent forms of victimization beyond mass death. This is neither a neutral nor realistic view of genocidal violence. It is not neutral because the collective most likely to be directly killed is adult men. As such, in considering genocide solely as a campaign of mass death, we marginalize the experiences of communities most often subject to non-fatal iterations of violence – most notably groups like women, the disabled, or the elderly. This perspective is also not realistic. Multiple patterns of victimization in genocide create immense harm to those that suffer them. Sexual violence, forced-intracommunal violence, forced internment and the destruction of sacred sites are fundamental abuses that compromise core elements of the lives of victims and can have devastating long-term effects – even echoing in future generations through inherited trauma. In essence, when we maintain this association we define some abuses as lesser in an artificial hierarchy of harm that marginalizes the lived experiences of most victims of genocidal violence.

Creating or upholding hierarchies of harm and abuse is a fundamental problem in the way we assess and respond to mass violence. Can we really affirm a hierarchy of pain? Take the following examples: Is it worse to see your child die or to die yourself? To be executed or to die of starvation? To be tortured or be forced to torture another? To lose all sense of cultural and communal life or to be permanently displaced from your ancestral home? These are all too real situations in genocide, and to attempt to classify them is a disservice to the reality of those that live and endure these abuses. It neglects the varied realities of how we interpret and survive trauma, and imposes external valorizations of pain that inherently undermine the experiences of survivors.

If we really want to move away from reductive views on genocide, we need to reassess our understanding of its fundamental harm: the destruction of collective identity. A more holistic way to assess genocide looks at the way it destroys the social connections and relationships that make up this collective identity, as well as considers the variety of means it may leverage toward this aim. Claudia Card, an American philosopher and academic, provided a groundbreaking framework to do this. Card argues that what genocide ultimately targets, damages, and seeks to destroyis not necessarily the population per se, but the connections and institutions – whether social, economic, cultural, or political – that make a population a community. In response, she uses the concept of “social death” to centralize the trauma of mass violence and provide a more inclusive harm-based assessment of genocide.


Social death as a harm-based approach to genocidal violence

The concept of social death was originally coined by Orlando Patterson in his book Slavery and Social Death, where he used it to explore the internal dynamics of slavery. He notes that people can become “socially dead” and their descendants “natally alienated” when their community’s basic social structure is disintegrated or fundamentally transformed. Social death occurs progressively as these relationships are destroyed or severely damaged. As a result, members are no longer able to build upon their traditions and culture. These cultural spaces are where individuals come together as communities to generate shared meaning and collective identities; where traditions, practices, and beliefs are cemented, developed, and preserved. To lose these practices or sites of heritage is more than a punctual or material loss. As Helen Malko states, “the reality that our world as humans rests on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced”. When we lose these anchors, the rest of our culture and identity begins to crumble as well, impeding fundamental aspects of life and development as a community.

In applying it to genocide, Card situates social death opposite to social vitality. The latter refers to the social connections and relationships – familial, communal, or generational – that create identity and give significance to individual and communal life. As such, when social vitality is lost, it compromises both personal identity and existential meaning. At a fundamental level, are we truly living if our family and community relationships are destroyed? If our culture, beliefs, and fundamental practices are eroded until their disappearance? We are inherently social beings, and we cannot fully live or define ourselves outside of these structures. Norbert Elias affirms this when arguing that individuals don’t fundamentally exist prior to experiencing social relations, nor can they fully do so without them. This implies a relational understanding of self-identity – that is, an unavoidable tie between individual and collective dimensions of harm in genocidal processes. As a result, the abuse of a member due to their identity reverberates through the community, as so does harm to the community – whether to its rituals, language, or cultural practices – damage and harm individuals within it. In this way, we can see how the loss of cultural heritage, generational links, and notions of belonging emerge as central targets for genocide. The underlying assumption is that, in the same ways that groups are socially constructed, they must also be socially destroyed. Indeed, Card notes that the decision to target individuals based on group membership demonstrates that physical life is not the main target of the violence; instead, it looks to destroy the social vitality behind group identity.

Card states that social death is the central evil and main purpose of genocide. In doing so, she also questions whether social death is necessarily less extreme than physical death,  something that has been echoed by survivors of genocidal campaigns around the world. Notably, this doesn’t situate social death as worse than biological death in an abstract hierarchy of harm; rather it notes these harms as distinct and deserving of individual recognition.

Because social vitality can be targeted by multiple means, a social death approach allows us to very clearly see how varied forms of non-fatal victimization can generate social destruction and become genocidal. Even more so, it situates lived experiences of violence not only as consequences, but as the core object of destruction. In fact, certain forms of harm cannot be truly understood to their full extent outside the context of mass death – such as, for example, cultural genocide.


From symbolic to embodied: cultural destruction as genocide

Social death allows us to understand the harm of cultural genocide in a new light. By seeking the elimination of a group through the destruction of their culture, cultural genocide can effectively lead to the disappearance of a group without needing to destroy it physically. In the words of David Nersessian, it “preserves the body of the group but allows its very soul to be destroyed”. This in no way means that it is less destructive, rather the means it undertakes toward destruction are different. Acts of cultural genocide can include the prohibition of religious practices, customs and traditions, the illegalization of a language, the destruction of heritage sites, art, historical records or books, and practices of forced indoctrination and assimilation into another group. Some notable cases are those of the “Stolen Generations”: caused by the forced removal and abuse of indigenous children in Australia and Canada, among others. In the latter, assimilationist policies sent indigenous children to residential schools where they lived under inhumane conditions. These centers sought to “civilize” indigenous groups by imposing Christian values and separating them from their communities. In this line, Theodore Fontaine states that these schools created a “complex tangle of political, social, cultural, economic, mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual harms” for survivors and their descendants. They aimed to accelerate the slow dispossession of natives of their land and culture, creating a long-term devastating intergenerational legacy of trauma that still endures today. In this manner, cultural genocides leverage trauma instead of death as the engine of social destruction, slowly eroding community connections and lingering even when situations of violence subside.

This raises another important issue: the intersection of genocide and colonialism. Cultural genocide has been used to extensively victimize indigenous populations, eroding their way of life until their continuity remains only under almost post-apocalyptic conditions. When we focalize mass death, we continue to ignore the violence of settler colonial genocides – a slower, more attritional approach to group destruction anchored in cultural erosion. Notably, most indigenous genocides have included both physical and cultural destruction throughout their histories, but it is the latter that remains most overlooked. To decolonize our view of genocide we need to take cultural genocide for what it is: a violent driver of the destruction of a people. Taking the perspective of indigenous scholars and activists allows us to see the horror that can follow long-term cultural genocides – the way cumulative harms build up and, in the words of Pauline Wakeham, their effects and intent become “undeniable and, therefore, undeniably intended” as they proceed in slow motion.

An example of a recent iteration of cultural genocide would be many of the crimes ISIS committed against the Yazidis, Christians, and Shia Muslims of Iraq. While the brutal systems of sexual slavery and mass executions that ISIS used to terrorize these communities have been broadly recognized, less attention has been paid to the destruction of their cultural heritage sites. Some organizations, like UNESCO, even used terms like cultural cleansing, rather than cultural genocide. However, this is an unwarranted derogation – cultural destruction is in fact a means of direct communal harm. Catherine Malabou, in her work Ontology of the Accident, explains how biological and symbolic elements of life are reciprocal and co-constituted. This means that trauma can become physical and, as a result, the separation between the two becomes impossible. Helen Malko further elaborates that cultural heritage is “a living and evolving cultural process of meanings and memory making and remaking. Its destruction, therefore, is an attack on memory, identity, and the sense of belonging felt by local communities, i.e. a cultural genocide”. When considering the objectives pursued by ISIS, the destruction of these sites of memory – whether monuments, practices, or rituals – became a way to deprive communities under occupation of a shared past or future. This was a cornerstone of ISIS’s attempts to make conquest irreversible, generating immense psychological damage as a way to destroy the identities of those they subsumed within their terror. As a result, cultural abuse became a manifest harm upon the peoples of Iraq.

Cultural genocide emerges thus as a more inclusive framework to understand genocidal campaigns – one that can challenge the artificial hierarchies of harm we continue to unjustly uphold by demonstrating how symbolic harm becomes individual and lived experiences of trauma define community destruction. It is this recognition that we need to embrace if we hope to confront and react to the varied ways in which genocides manifest and, above all, support those protecting the fundamental human rights of identity and culture.


Conclusions: the renewed importance of assessing cultural genocide in the 21st century

As modern genocides move away from mass death toward more varied attritional campaigns of communal destruction, cultural genocide may very well become one of the prime manifestations of future mass violence. Perpetrators have been strategically adapting their methods to decrease international support and humanitarian aid for those they seek to victimize. They have realized that, in the absence of mass death, policy responses become limited and far less ambitious, the international community lessens pressure, and efforts are slowly redirected toward more rapid, intense, or immediately deadly campaigns. As cultural genocides stretch throughout the years, these situations become further ignored and framed as unresolvable or intractable systemic issues, rather than targeted campaigns of violence. In this way, inadequacies in international responses are now coming to define the strategic rationale of future mass atrocities.

We have not reconciled, or even truly acknowledged, the legacy of cultural destruction that shapes the modern world, yet we find ourselves in a position where we must safeguard humanity from further irrecuperable losses to the fabric of human experience. Unless our approach and interpretation of genocidal harm becomes more inclusive of the realities of cultural genocides, we will be unable to prevent and punish mass atrocity.




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