How does genocide happen?

Palestinians transport the injured to the Indonesian Hospital in Jabalia, north of the Gaza Strip on October 9, 2023.
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How does genocide happen?

Written by Álex Mesa

What gives rise to thousands of hands engaging in the systematic slaughter of a particular group of human beings? The answer is complex, but it begins with a process of dehumanisation of the victims, which, as history has shown time and again, is the prelude to ever greater atrocities and horrors.

There is a recurring image that I can’t get out of my head: watching a film set in the Second World War, seeing the horrors of Nazism and hearing my mother ask herself: “How could someone do such a barbaric thing?” Always the same stupefaction, always the same incomprehension, “can’t they see that they’re human beings too?” And to that I give a tremendous and crude response from me: “No, the problem is precisely that they don’t see human beings when they look at them anymore”.

The process of dehumanisation of different groups or groups of human beings is something that we have been witnessing for thousands of years. The use of the concept of dehumanisation is familiar to us and makes the issue simpler, although, to tell the truth, it is not entirely accurate. Often, what is observed is a resignification of what a human group is, a segregation of their characteristics from the dominant and hegemonic group, resulting in them being condemned in and for their difference.

It is not always necessary to deprive them of their humanity (although in some cases this also happens), but rather to attribute to them characteristics that lead to their rejection: alien cultures and customs, social organisations that are considered inferior or primitive, a way of looking at life that is much more miserable or cruel…

Thus, for example, the ancient Romans did not consider barbarians all the foreign peoples whom they subsequently invaded and tried to assimilate (the Greeks were not considered barbarians), but those they considered culturally very distant: those from whom there was little or nothing to learn. In this sense, although Roman racism or xenophobia has little to do with contemporary eugenic racism which based mainly on skin pigmentation, there is no doubt that these Romans hierarchised and classified different human groups on the basis of their cultural proximity, which made those groups more distant from them somewhat less human, and therefore less susceptible to proper or pious treatment.

No moral filters 

So, let us return to the questions with which this text began: How does genocide happen, what causes thousands of hands to engage in the systematic slaughter of a certain group of human beings? Well, we now have the main lines of understanding genocide: we need to understand the mechanisms by which we end up cancelling our moral, ethical and other filters that appeal to empathy and solidarity through a certain identification, and prevent us from systematically killing our fellow human beings (because, to tell the truth, they must be our fellow human beings to a large extent for these filters to operate and resonate in us).

In the second half of the twentieth century, many schools of thought emphasised something that, although it was already recognisable, needed to be developed: language is not an accumulation of words that allows communication between a sender A and a receiver B. In this sense, Lacan’s psychoanalysis or Michel Foucault’s philosophical theory did not agree on many points, but they did agree in understanding that language is not a sort of external tool that serves as a vehicle for transmitting thought, but rather that language is, strictly speaking, the condition of possibility of human thought. In any case, this is a very bold approach on my part: we do not have the space and time to develop it in the slightest.

Nevertheless, to make a concrete point and get to the heart of our question, we can point out that the philosopher Michel Foucault warned that discourse is not something closed in itself, it is not something that has no operativity outside the very language from which it is nourished: discourse has clear material affectations because, strictly speaking, discourse is material (this is the hypothesis of the materiality of discourse). This means that when we begin to refer to something in a certain way, for example, our view of that thing changes and we act accordingly. Why is it important to point out the specificity of a violence such as gender-based violence and to refer to it as such? Because if we do not talk about it, we cannot think about it, and if we cannot think about it, it is as good as ignoring its existence, which ultimately prevents us from acting effectively against it.

Thus, when government ministers of the State of Israel appear on television and refer to an entire population as animals, in an obvious and clearly derogatory and non-descriptive tone of the animality to which we belong, the impression conveyed to public opinion is that the proper treatment of these people cannot be that which we assume every human being deserves, because they are not our equals, but are on a lower rung of the existential hierarchy (here there are a myriad of assumptions about a hierarchy that has also been constructed on the basis of a segregation of any non-human life form).

Thus, if the media insist on giving you the names and even the Instagram profiles of the Israeli victims, but you hardly know anything about the Palestinian ones, because they only tell you how many are dying and not who they are, you see in the first victims a reflection of someone who could be your mother, your son, your sister or even you, but in the case of the Palestinian victims you hardly see a figure, a calculation, a accounting note.

Of course, these are not examples of unfortunate coincidences, they are not coincidences that nobody knows where they come from. People are killed, numbers die. You won’t be able to empathise with a number, but you will be able to empathise with someone who has already made it clear to you that they are like you and therefore might actually be you.

In short, genocides require, in one way or another, this process of resignification, a process which, as I have said, is often vulgarly called dehumanisation, but which in any case implies this: the life of a certain group is not worth the same as ours.

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How does genocide happen?

Written by Álex Mesa

What leads many people to participate in the systematic killing of a group of human beings? The answer is complicated, but it begins with a process in which we treat these people as if they are not really human. Throughout history, this has been the beginning of terrible atrocities and even worse horrors.

If you have ever watched a World War II movie with your parents, you may have wondered why some people did such bad things. I used to watch those movies with my mum, and she was amazed at how someone could be so cruel. Sometimes she would say, “Don’t  you see that these people are human beings too?” But I would reply, “The problem is that these people  have stopped seeing others as human beings.”

This process of not seeing others as human beings is something that has been going on for a long time. Sometimes, people start to think of others as different or strange, and this leads them to treat them badly.

For example, a long time ago, the ancient Romans did not call all foreigners “barbarians”, but only those they considered to be very different in terms of culture. This made them treat those people very badly.

Genocide happens when people start to stop seeing others as human beings. This starts with changing the way they talk about them and the way they see them. It is essential to remember that we are all human beings and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.

No moral filters

So, let us return to the questions with which this text began: How does genocide happen? What leads many people to engage in the systematic killing of a particular group of people? The answer is complicated, but it has to do with a process in which we cease to feel empathy and solidarity with these people. This allows us to see them as “different” and therefore prevents us from stopping the killing of people who should be similar to us in some way.

In the second half of the 20th century, several schools of thought began to highlight something important: language is not only a means of communication, it also shapes how we think. This means that the words we use can influence our view of the world. For example, talking about “gender-based violence” helps us to understand and deal with this problem. If we do not talk about it, it is as if it does not exist, and we cannot take effective action.

When political leaders or the media refer to a group of people in a derogatory way, as if they are less than human, it influences how the public views them. If we believe they are different and less important, we are more likely to accept cruel treatment of them. 

It is important to note that victims of conflict are sometimes portrayed in different ways in the media. We know the names and stories of some, but hardly know anything about others. This influences our empathy towards them. It is easier to identify with someone whose story we know than with a simple number.

In short, genocides happen when we stop seeing certain groups of people as equal, when we consider them different and less important. This often begins with the use of derogatory language and a lack of empathy. It is essential to remember that we are all human beings and deserve to be treated with respect and compassion.

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