The Narrative of Genocide: What Story Are We Telling?


As a Writing, Rhetoric, and Technical Communication major, I am inclined to notice the impact and power of words. My professors have taught me to focus on the discourse we use to talk about situations and circumstances. I understand that our rhetorical choices, whether intentional or unintentional, impact the actions we take. And so, as I have studied the history and present day reality of genocide over the past few weeks, I have continually asked myself: “what story are we telling?” and “what type of rhetoric surrounds this topic?”

Unfortunately, the answer to the first question is often that the story is not being told. Too many people, including myself, have gone through life unaware of the reality of genocide in our world today. Most of us are ignorant of the truth that genocide has been four times as deadly as war.

That fact deserves repeating.

For every person who has died in war, four more people have died in genocide.

Most of us grow up learning about war in our history classes. We learn about how foreign policy is affecting international conflict and peace. But genocide is strangely absent in our education. Consequently the story of genocide is simply left out of our timeline of human history.

For those who do know about genocide, there are several concerns about the choice of rhetoric we use to discuss the issue. First of all, we have a tendency to look at death as a text instead of life as a text. For example, we focus on the rising death toll instead of the the current victims. Telling the story of death instead of the story of living people at risk can lead to a lack of action and advocacy which leads to more death. In essence, we are choosing to look back at the consequences instead of looking ahead at how these atrocities can be prevented in the future.

Secondly, we tend to focus on the scene of genocide instead of the motive or agent. A narrative framed around the country, such as Sudan or Syria, implies that the scene causes the act. When we focus on the place of genocide rather than the people/groups leading the act of genocide we can easily fall into the mindset that these atrocities are symptomatic of the scene and therefore cannot be prevented. We categorize certain parts of the world as always being places of conflict. However, this is not true. Genocide is a systematic and intentional plan that is enacted by public arguments. Genocide doesn’t just spring up out of the ground. An actual person serves as a catalyst for this horrific violation of human rights. When we move from a scene-act framing of genocide to an agent-act narrative, we actually open up space for positive discussion of how to end genocide – namely, by stopping the perpetrator.

Another hindrance in the current discourse surrounding genocide is the international focus on state sovereignty over individual rights. Ultimately, the fact that the UN does not always intervene when genocide is taking place within a country reflects the selfish value of state>individual that has permeated our foreign policy. This value system in turn affects the way we tell the story of genocide which then affects whether we move to action or not. While I do not pretend to have a solution for the complexities of UN policy, I do believe that we should be aware of this emphasis on state sovereignty so that we can actively choose to value individual rights and life in the narrative of genocide we tell ourselves and share with others.

If genocide is brought about by the words and public arguments of a perpetrator, if silence is what hurts the victim the most, then perhaps our words and the way we choose to tell the story of genocide is the starting place for a solution. If your heart is burdened by the staggering statistic I shared at the beginning of this post, you can begin to move toward positive change right now. Start here: What story of genocide are you telling yourself? How can you make appropriate changes to that story to reflect the truth of genocide and the value of human life? Now, go share that story with others. This is how you can begin.


Further resources:

~Sarah Foster


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