The Role of Language, Naming, and Identity in Genocide

By Sarah Foster

When we look at genocide, we tend to see only the glaring, extreme acts of violence. We focus on the dead bodies lined up in rows, the refugees pouring over the borders into surrounding countries, the innocent children starved and without family. We may think that the cause of genocide is psychopathic behavior and thinking. But at the root of genocide is language: propaganda, hate symbols, and hate speech are necessary components of the process of killing an entire group of people. Genocide theorists note that identity plays a large role in the process; the construction of the “other”, creating an “us vs. them” mentality, is essential to marginalizing a group slated for genocide. The construction of this marginalized identity requires repeated language.

Language is one of mankind’s most powerful tools. With language we form social groups and social bonds. Language holds the power for both immense good and immense evil. We use language to either promote positive change or to promote destruction. We use language to name people and thereby form identities.

In the article Key Issues Associated with Genocide, three causes of the behavior leading to genocide are discussed: “(1) the society’s cultural construction of a worldview (reflecting the views of its political leaders, (2) the psychological construction of the ‘other,’ the group targeted for extermination, and (3) the social construction of cruelty in that nation” (21). The author notes that “central in all these causes is the role of ‘language and imagery’ in the nation-state . . . language ‘dehumanizes and demonizes’ the potential victims in the society” (22). Language is the key ingredient in forming the ideas behind genocide and executing them.

Dehumanization can only happen after classification and symbolization have first taken place. By nature, we as humans classify and categorize the world around us using symbols in order to create meaning and make sense of our lives. This process of creating meaning can be used in positive ways and is not inherently evil. As Gregory H. Stanton states in “The Eight Stages of Genocide, “classification and symbolization are universally human and do not necessarily result in genocide unless they lead to the next stage, dehumanization” (127). Dehumanization is what makes mindless slaughter humanly possible: when a group of people become nameless and faceless, killing them becomes much easier. Desire for power easily capitalizes on the dehumanization process. Dehumanization takes away the potential for empathy leaving a gaping hole for greed to fill.

The Zimbardo experiments clearly illustrate the fact that when people become faceless after the deconstruction of their identity, it is much easier to needlessly harm them. Social psychologist Philip Zimbardo simulated a prisoner encampment with guards and prisoners. From the beginning “no side was allowed to address the other by name; strict impersonality was the rule” (Psychological Perspectives, 274). These categories and this process of dehumanization resulted in “construed superiority” which “tempted the guards into further displays of their powers, which were then duly reflected in more self-humiliation on the part of the prisoners” (274-275).

Understanding the power of language in shaping the conditions that can result in genocide is important in preventing genocide. First of all, we must recognize that when language is wielded in unhealthy ways against people, cutting at the identity of a group, acting violently against that group becomes easier. We are all capable of believing false classifications and symbolizations that lead to dehumanization. Pride and greed can easily seep in when dehumanization is present. We must therefore be wary of categorizing people, even in innocent forms such as commonly accepted stereotypes. Furthermore, we can use language to combat hate speech and propaganda – giving back dignity and worth to groups of people when it is stripped from them.


Nazi PropagandaRwandan Propoganda

“The second image is from a Hutu magazine called Kangura that was published in 1991. This was the cover of the issue with the vertical caption on the left reading, “What Weapon Shall We Use to Conquer Cockroaches One and For All?”  The caption is next to the machete, which became the symbol of the Rwandan genocide, because of the brutal killings it was used for.[i]  The first image is a poster that the Nazis put up in Poland which shows a bug going after an ugly face, possibly a Jew.  The text on the poster says, “Jews are lice, they cause typhus.” [iii] Both of these images describe the enemy as something disgusting or vile.  Images produced fifty years apart and still the same message, destroying the enemy.”


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