I first heard the term in the early 1990s, in relation to the war that broke up what was Yugoslavia into several smaller states, and it always bothered me. It’s shocking (but not surprising) how widely used it is, to refer to specific events, as well as being an accepted generic term for what would more properly be called Genocide. If we understood and acknowledged the significance of language.
The First Casualty Of War Is The Truth, goes the cliché. Actually, the first casualty is usually language. If we fuck around with language enough, there is no possibility of truth – hence the “post-truth” nonsense we are currently experiencing. “Post truth” is a novel term for bullshit, and another egregious example of linguistic butchery. (It suggests that we live in a world where objective Truth is simply impossible, which is no more or less plausible than it would have been twenty, a hundred or a thousand years ago. We don’t need to invent words to describe dishonesty. We’ve got loads. We’ve also got adequate words to describe the current US administration, if only we would use them.)
There is absolutely no reason to accept the utterly reprehensible term “ethnic cleansing”. Killing and/or exiling large amounts of people in a concerted attempt to rid a geographical area – or, indeed, the planet as a whole – of an ethnic group is called Genocide. “Ethnic cleansing” is a euphemism for genocide (or attempted genocide, if you’d prefer to be more generous to people who try genocide and fail at it), and the only reason to use it is to signify a belief that a particular geographic area would be “cleaner” without the targeted ethnic group. So, the only reason to describe genocide as “ethnic cleansing” is if you are in favour of genocide. In that way, it’s a useful term. An appropriate response to someone (for example, a newscaster) using the term “ethnic cleansing” might be “Are you in favour of genocide? Would Bosnia be “cleaner” without Muslims? Would Turkey be “cleaner” without Armenians? If the answer is “no”, then the term “ethnic cleansing” is inappropriate and should not be used by those who do not support Genocide. If the people, and their presence, is not dirty, then removing them is not cleansing.”
This matters. This is a very good example of just how much language, and even individual words really matter. If it’s a separate category, not as bad as Genocide, then “ethnic cleansing” is useful only for downplaying what is a matter of life and death. Like when a newspaper columnist calls people “cockroaches”. The connotation of the term is clear – even for those who don’t know that the Rwandan Genocide was preceded by a propaganda campaign which used the term frequently to describe a targeted ethnic group. Even without that historical context, it’s clear what someone means by describing groups of people as “cockroaches”: these are beings that should be stamped on, so they don’t bother us, so they don’t breed. So they don’t live in the shadows of our comfortable houses, bothering us merely by their presence.
If language isn’t important, how come English is the Official Language in 53 countries that are not England? Is it a sponsorship thing, like The Official Muesli of World Cup 2018? Like the commonwealth? Commonwealth is another interesting term. It suggests that wealth is common, which is a nice aspiration. Although in the case of the British Commonwealth, it means “bow to the queen and give us all your money and accept our Orwellian language and be grateful about it”. So it’s actually a piece of cynical sophistry/delusional grandeur. And this matters as well, because it is good indicator that the United Kingdom has not reckoned with the end of its empire or the crimes committed by it, and in its name.
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.”
If we have no words for these things, we can’t even discuss them let alone agree on a way forward. Fortunately, however, language is not static, and is a living thing, constantly evolving. Which sounds like a contradiction of the above. But it’s not. Because I can accept that language is constantly changing, while still commenting disapprovingly on specific changes. It’s called being an adult, isn’t it? And I’ve been trying it out for at least two of the years since I became a legal adult.
These kids, they say bad when they mean good! Like every generation of kids from anywhere ever. How dare they. They react against their parents – much like their parents before them, ironically. And the circle is complete.
By the time bad means bad again, maybe we’ll have acquired the courage to call things what they are. And/or change language in a way that actually benefits people, instead of inventing new words to make it seem more acceptable or normal to lie, or advocate mass killing.
Genocide is genocide. It is not cleaning.