Without reading into the societal, political, and cultural scenarios that lead to genocide, it would be easy to say obvious statements like “I would never participate in genocide” and degrading questions like “How could they let that happen?” But reading up on genocide and its origins help us understand how we can prevent ourselves from getting too far on the continuum that leads to genocide.
Ervin Staub discusses this continuum and its slow progression that people find themselves on, albeit unwilling. He states that “small, seemingly insignificant acts can involve a person with a destructive system.” He then references the greeting used by the Nazi party: “Heil Hitler.” This greeting, by itself, was initially a sign of respect for the strong political leader. Eventually, Hitler was able to gain control over his people and accomplish his goals. Again, it is easy to reflect on this statement and see it as purely evil. But in the time of Hitler’s rise to power, the phrase seemed harmless to the general population.
With this thought in mind, I urge us to reflect on the behaviors, rituals, and traditions we might engage in that are destructive. We may not be using phrases that are as negatively connotated as “Heil Hitler,” but what do we say on a day-to-day basis that could lead to the destruction of another’s emotional state?
What I immediately thought of upon reading this section was the use of “retarded” and “gay” in our culture. Both phrases are popular for describing something in a negative light. I wouldn’t say these words fit onto a continuum leading to genocidal destruction, but they are certainly destructive in nature. It’s easy to say phrases like “that’s so gay” and “she’s retarded!” nonchalantly. But what are we really supporting when we say things like this? Are we differentiation? Even dehumanization?
I ask that when we use “hot” words such as the phrases above, we consider the bigger continuum along which these words fall and think about the consequences before using them flippantly.