When we don’t want to get involved in a foreign conflict, it’s a ‘civil war’ or a ‘tragedy’, language which absolves us of our responsibility to intervene, unlike genocide, which we have a harder time ignoring.
We call it two-sided, an inevitable.
We do this with other social problems, too.
We say, ‘the poor will always be with us’, because that makes it seem like it’s not our fault, that we’re the richest country on the planet and children still lack a place to sleep and enough healthy food to eat.
We talk about breakdowns in family values as though parents are solely responsible for their children’s educational failings.
We use language that doesn’t seem as dire, because then our failure to act doesn’t seem as inexcusable.
Americans are mostly good people–I mean, individually and collectively, there are injustices that we just will not tolerate, once we recognize them as such.
So, then, actors who want to prevent outraged response are skilled at labeling problems in order to minimize the likelihood that we will rage.
A Problem from Hell featured prominently Raphael Lemkin and his struggle to coin a phrase that would capture what happened to the Armenians, Jews in Nazi Germany, and other peoples targeted for genocide, before that word existed…he understood the power of naming, and so did his opponents.
Once Winston Churchill called these targeted, mass killings, in 1941, “a problem without a name” (p. 29), Lemkin resolved that they should have one.
While, certainly, coming up with the term didn’t make genocide stop, it did–and it still does–change the calculus. For example, support for intervening in Bosnia jumped from 54% to 80% in some polls when Americans were told that what was happening to Muslims there was ‘genocide’.
And we should learn from these hard-fought lessons.
We need to name other problems that are unrecognized today. What should we call the widening class gap in higher education, for example, and the related fact that the high cost of college acts like a gate to make sure that most talented young people from low-income families can’t compete effectively with those more privileged?
And we need to make sure that names do justice to those afflicted by the ills they represent. I mean, what is the ‘feminization of poverty’? (It still pops up on spell check.)
One of the grave truths that a study of history makes clear is that we need a ‘hard principle’ that elected officials are going to weigh against other interests, if we are to prevail. We need to make it clear that the problem we want solved–poverty, or violence, or environmental destruction–is something that violates core tenets of who we are as people and as a nation.
When, in contrast, it’s a vague and squishy ill–nameless or poorly named–that we’re stacking up against constituent or special interest pressure, we’ll lose.
We need to call injustice out. By name.