|Notify me of new HIR pieces!|
What is a genocide, to
the social scientist?
( Written for the general public )
Investigative Research - 24 May 2006
This piece argues that genocides are best
analyzed using a medical model. The argument is that genocides are
caused by epidemic mental diseases producing widespread insanity. Once
understood this way, the nature of genocides is more easily grasped, as
are the possible ways of preventing genocides in the future.
We wish to answer the question, ‘What is a genocide?’ But let us begin with a different yet useful question: ‘What is an epidemic?’
An epidemic is something like the Black Plague of the 14th century. This was a contagious disease, spread by rats, and then by humans and rats, that started in Central Asia and then spread all around the world. European cities at the time were perhaps the most unsanitary in the world, because they were overcrowded and without sewage or garbage collection as a consequence of the spectacular indifference of the medieval upper classes for the welfare of commoners. Because of this extreme filth, the Black Plague was especially cruel in the European continent, killing some 25 million people. Though harsher on the poor it also savaged the rich: of every four people, one died. However, this is an average, and some areas and social classes were hit harder:
“In the 14th century…the number of deaths was enormous, reaching in various parts of Europe two-thirds or three-fourths of the population in the first pestilence. It has been calculated that one-fourth of the population of Europe, or 25,000,000 persons, died from plague during the great epidemic.”
Many large families were wiped out entirely. Many children were orphaned. This was happening all over Europe. Some people quickly adopted the theory that everybody was going to die, and who can blame them?
The Black Plague is the sort of thing that people mean by ‘an epidemic,’ so one could summarize the meaning of this word as follows: ‘a contagious disease that affects a relatively large number of people in a relatively short period of time.’ Although the meaning of the term is somewhat broader than this, the above does capture its main meaning, which we may confirm by consulting Merriam Webster Online:
1 : affecting or tending to affect a disproportionately large number of individuals within a population, community, or region at the same time <typhoid was epidemic>
2 a : excessively prevalent b : CONTAGIOUS <epidemic laughter>
Notice the importance of contagion. It is true that “By the late 20th century the definition of epidemic had been extended to include outbreaks of any chronic disease (e.g., heart disease or cancer) influenced by the environment.” In other words, one may speak of the dramatic incidence of tendonitis in the modern workplace as an ‘epidemic.’ But this is a recent way of speaking. The original and still main meaning of ‘epidemic’ is a suddenly catastrophic contagious disease caused by some type of parasite -- for example, the Black Plague.
Our question, however, was this: What is a genocide? But I had a purpose. A genocide is a suddenly catastrophic episode in which a relatively large number of humans are killed by other humans, in a relatively short period of time, for racist reasons. So there is at least one formal similarity between an epidemic like the Black Plague and a genocide: lots of people are affected in a short period of time.
Finding a formal similarity is not necessarily important: it is certainly not the same thing as understanding a phenomenon. And finding a level of abstraction at which we can identify pattern similarities between epidemics and genocides does not mean that we understand the causes of genocides. But suppose it were true of our Universe that finding pattern similarities between two kinds of effects (here: epidemics and genocides) raises significantly the probability that there will be one or more pattern similarities in their causes? In this case, social scientists interested in explaining genocides should spend some time thinking about epidemics (or perhaps just a carefully chosen example of an epidemic), to see whether it may help them discover historical patterns betraying the operation of the causes of genocides (or perhaps just some types of genocides).
As it turns out, the universe indeed has the property mentioned, and the design of human psychology is the evidence. Humans enjoy puns, metaphors, and analogies intensely, accounting for much human behavior. For example, a rather large market exists for the consumption of metaphors and analogies in all manner of poetry (this includes pop-songs, which are chock-full of metaphors and analogies, and which are nearly universally enjoyed). Formal similarities also form the backbone of a great many jokes, nearly universally enjoyed, from the lowliest pun to the most complex story. We just love to point out to each other: “this thing is just like this other thing!” The more unexpected analogical relationships are, the more pleasurable, and this encourages ‘thinking out of the box.’ But why is the human brain designed with this particular reward system? Because in a technological, problem-solving species, those who possess the best causal theories of the world will typically leave the most descendants, so natural selection in due course produced a human mind-brain that works hard to satisfy a built-in craving for analogies, since the noticing of them is a good aid to discovering causal forces.
I think the Black Plague will prove to be a productive analogy, as it will help us discover patterns that betray the causes of one major category of genocide, at least. Put another way, I will argue that it makes sense to think of genocides as caused by suddenly catastrophic and contagious mental diseases, transmitted through human contact via social learning.
One note of caution: I am not a partisan, as Dan Sperber and some other anthropologists are, of thinking of all social processes that involve the transmission of ideas as ‘epidemics.’ I am making a much more limited claim: I believe that certain very specific social processes that involve the transmission of ideas may profitably be compared to epidemics. For example, genocides. But not everything.
My definition above of an ‘epidemic’ is somewhat loose: ‘a contagious disease that affects a relatively large number of people in a relatively short period of time.’ Indeed, as Wikipedia states, “Defining an epidemic can be subjective.” And given that it can be subjective there is likely to be some controversy in a number of cases over whether something ought to be called an epidemic or not. This is due in part to the fact that the public designation of ‘epidemic’ has consequences for public policy and political behavior, and therefore will affect the individual interests of different people differently. Thus, for example, the general public, the medical industry, and the government bureaucracies may all have reasons to place the threshold for ‘epidemic’ status -- that is, the proportion of people who must die (or otherwise be affected) in a relatively short period of time before you can use the term ‘epidemic’ -- in different places.
Here we find another similarity to genocide, because a genocide is ‘a relatively large number of people killed for racist reasons in a relatively short period of time,’ and the exact threshold here is also something of a practical problem. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 1948, established a definition of ‘genocide.’ This means that ‘genocide’ is not a simple English term but one with consequences under international law. Article 2 of the convention defines ‘genocide’ as follows:
“any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”
The key ambiguity is “intent to destroy…a…group.” How do you establish “intent to destroy”? Since the use of the term ‘genocide’ has consequences for international law, it will affect the interests of different people differently, so that the UN, the affected population, the perpetrators, and the onlookers, may all prefer to put the threshold -- the number of people who must be killed in a relatively short period of time before something is called ‘a genocide’ -- in different places. And indeed, “Much debate about genocides revolves around the proper definition of the word ‘genocide.’”
This means that the boundary for designating something a ‘genocide’ is what students of categorization now call a ‘fuzzy boundary.’ The boundary exists, because some hate crimes are definitely not considered genocide (a racist suicide-bombing), and some hate crimes are definitely considered to be genocide (the Holocaust), but it is fuzzy because a quantity that we may want to label technically as ‘controversy’ rises as we move away from these clear cases. In other words, if we hold constant the length of time in which some category of people are attacked with racism, and we let the horizontal axis be the rising number of victims, controversy over whether or not to call it a ‘genocide,’ the quantity on the vertical axis, will start low on the left (everybody agrees it is not a genocide), rises in the intermediate ranges (there is a greater diversity of opinion), and becomes low again as the numbers of victims gets very large (everybody agrees that this is now a genocide). This is how fuzzy boundaries between two categorical poles behave.
What is a ‘disease’? Merriam Webster Online defines it as follows:
1 : a condition of the living animal or plant body or of one of its parts that impairs normal functioning : SICKNESS, MALADY
2 : a harmful development (as in a social institution)
And here are the same dictionary’s definitions of ‘parasite’ and ‘parasitism’:
1 : a person who exploits the hospitality of the rich and earns welcome by flattery.
2 : an organism living in, with, or on another organism in parasitism
3 : something that resembles a biological parasite in dependence on something else for existence or support without making a useful or adequate return
1 : the behavior of a parasite
2 : an intimate association between organisms of two or more kinds; especially : one in which a parasite obtains benefits from a host which it usually injures.
Finally, here is the same dictionary’s definition of ‘contagion’
1 a : a contagious disease b : the transmission of a disease by direct or indirect contact c : a disease-producing agent (as a virus)
2 a : POISON b : contagious influence, quality, or nature c : corrupting influence or contact
3 a : rapid communication of an influence (as a doctrine or emotional state) b : an influence that spreads rapidly
Notice, in all three definitions, that the English Language, as a matter of standard usage, already makes analogies from the medical to the social domains. This suggests that the kind of analogical reasoning I am advocating here is the sort that humans regularly engage in with zero problem. Now I will defend the view that we can usefully think of genocides as epidemic diseases caused by contagious parasites.
The Black Plague of the 14th century was an epidemic caused by a contagious disease, produced by a parasite: the bacillus Yersinia pestis. -- in other words, this was a disease that one person could easily transmit to another (bubonic plague can become pneumonic, and when it does it can be transmitted by droplets in the air produced by exhalations of the infected persons). Yersinia pestis indeed injures its human hosts: it kills them.
The thing that Yersinia pestis injures -- the human body -- is a complex information system. You may not be used to thinking about it this way, but all of the body’s functions involve complex exchanges of information. A parasite such as Yersinia pestis, a bacterium, will exploit some features of the body’s information system in order better to replicate. Specifically, this parasite is designed in such a way (information) that it produces certain proteins (information) that attach to proteins produced by the human body (matching information), and in this way it turns the human body into a factory for producing more copies of Yersinia pestis DNA (information, again), spreading by contagion from human factory to human factory. In doing so, however, Yersinia pestis harms the human body. So we may describe Yersinia pestis as a relatively small piece of biological information that parasitically disrupts the healthy operation of a relatively large system of biological information that we call ‘the human body.’
There are lots of useful formal similarities to the phenomenon of genocide, here.
For a genocide to take place, many people who are non-As must feel a desire to kill people who are As. This desire to kill As is caused by an idea -- or a set of interrelated ideas -- in the minds of the murderers. The human mind-brain is a complex information system, and ideas are pieces of mental information. So from the point of view of the analogy I am pushing, we may view genocidal ideas as relatively small pieces of mental information parasitically disrupting the healthy operation of a relatively large system of mental information that we call ‘the human mind-brain.’ This interpretation requires that genocides are bad for the murderers too. Because if genocides are good for the murderers, then the relationship between genocidal ideas and their human hosts is not parasitic (though certainly unfortunate for the victims of genocide).
But I think the argument that genocides are also bad for the murderers is easily defended. Let us use the 14th century as an example, again.
At the time of the Black Plague, the illiterate masses of European Christians had been hearing for centuries, every Sunday, that ‘the Jews’ had supposedly murdered God.
Moreover, for two centuries, the illiterate European Christians had also been hearing, again from their religious authorities, that ‘the Jews’ supposedly kidnapped young Christian boys in order ritually to murder them and perhaps even eat them in their satanic rites. This, naturally, was also a slander. In this climate of ignorance and hysteria regarding Jews, it should not be too surprising that, when everybody started to die in the Black Plague, the survivors readily believed the next anti-Jewish slander: that everybody was dying because ‘the Jews’ were supposedly poisoning the European wells!
Although the accusation against the Jews was false, this does not automatically mean that the murderers of the Jews did not benefit. It is possible to benefit materially from a false idea. However, it is quite obvious in this case that the murderers did not benefit.
First, a genocide is costly and dangerous, even for the murderers, because some of their intended victims may choose to put up a fight. So if the population being murdered is not a threat in the least -- as the medieval Jews were not -- then it is much better for you personally to stay at home than to go out to exterminate the Jews, because becoming a murderer naturally carries many risks. In the middle of the Black Plague the risks to the murderers were especially high because mass killings produce lots of spilt blood in close quarters, and this of course raises the risk of infection for the murderers compared to staying at home.
But there were other costs to the murderers, because the Jews had been dying in relatively smaller numbers from the Black Plague due to the fact that the Jewish laws command forms of hygiene far superior to the Christian European norm of the times. In exterminating the Jews, the Christians were destroying a population from which they could have learned a number of things they could do to reduce the number of casualties. But learning from the Jews would require that, having observed their superior performance in the middle of a catastrophe, they could be held up as a model to admire and imitate; the mental ecology of medieval Christianity, which despised Jews as slaves and theological rivals and supposed metaphysical murderers, made this highly unlikely, and it interpreted the lower numbers of Jewish casualties as supposed evidence of Jewish guilt (the fact of many Jews nevertheless succumbing to the Black Death did not work as a refutation for the average Christian mind).
Finally, another cost to the exterminators was that the medieval Jews were giving a thriving demonstration of the benefits of Jewish law, which promoted widespread literacy, freedom of thought, rational debate, and democratic decision-making. Medieval Jewish civilization therefore was far superior to the steady diet of violent nonsense about Jews to a mass of illiterate and obedient Christians in the Church’s thoroughly authoritarian and totalitarian structure. The Christian ecology of ideas was not very good for the great majority of Christians, and endangered them greatly in times of catastrophe, but the Jews were pretty nice to each other.
So the extermination of the Jews in the 14th century was a bad thing -- a very bad thing all around -- for the frightened Christians who murdered their successfully peaceful and hygienic Jewish neighbors. I think this is a general feature of genocides: they do not bring benefits to the great majority of murderers, but rather impose costs (sometimes very high costs). One has only to think of the recent anti-Jewish genocide of the 20th c., and the horrendous costs it imposed on millions of non-Jews who were also killed by the antisemitic fascists, plus the obvious costs to the antisemitic fascists themselves (as brought out so well by the recent movie on Hitler, The Fall). If a genocide ever benefits anybody, it can only be the tiny elite in power, for whom it is useful to keep the masses divided and attacking each other rather than uniting to reform the system; but for the overwhelming majority, whether perpetrator or victim, every genocide is a bad thing. And precisely because genocides are bad for the murderers too, we may push the analogy with epidemics such as the Black Plague even further:
a genocide is caused by a parasitic, contagious disease of the mind-brain, transmitted through social learning, and which attacks the healthy operation of our decision-making information system.
In other words, genocides are caused by parasitic ideas that amount to contagious mental diseases whose transmission via social learning becomes epidemic, just as the mass deaths during the Black Plague were caused by a contagious biological disease -- the parasite Yersinia pestis -- whose physical transmission became epidemic.
In the case of the Black Plague, the filth of the European cities (a consequence of the indifference of the European upper classes towards the poor), created a physical ecology that made it easier for the bacillus Yersinia pestis to travel from host to host, with devastating consequences. In the case of the genocidal ideas that swept the same 14th century,
1) the absurd and irrational prejudices against the Jews, instilled by an authoritarian Church on an ignorant and illiterate populace; plus
2) the memory of recent European exterminations of Jews (e.g. the 11th c. anti-Jewish mass killings that took place during the First Crusade), which made them seem normal; and
3) the fear produced by all that Black Plague dying;
created a mental ecology that greatly assisted the spread of the accusation that the Jews had supposedly poisoned the wells. In this mental ecology, the well-poisoning accusation was believed and shared, traveling quickly from human mind to human mind, and finally tilting social processes in favor of genocide.
When people engage in extreme behaviors that hurt their own individual selves, psychologists will say that they suffer from some species of ‘insanity.’ The perpetrators of genocides engage in extreme behavior that hurts their own selves. It follows that genocides are produced by the rapid contagion of parasitic ideas that produce epidemics of insanity. In other words, just as an epidemic such as the Black Plague represents a health disaster, the epidemics of ideas which cause genocides represent a mental health disaster.
Here is the demonstration that the analysis so far has been useful:
Before the advent of modern medicine, the conditions of extreme filth in European cities lasted many centuries. During all those centuries Europe suffered one epidemic catastrophe after another (the Black Plague was just the worst of them; there were many others, with stunning regularity). Similarly, because some features of Western ideology have been very stable, Westerners have also suffered epidemics of genocidal ideas, producing the immeasurable tragedy: mass killings of Jews almost every century for the last 2000 years (consult the footnote to see a list). In other words, the West is a mental-health disaster area.
But it need not be.
The advent of modern medical science, with its germ theory of disease, led to a recognition of the importance of hygiene. In other words, the realization that germs thrive in filth led to a transformation of the structure of European cities, making them much cleaner and thus reducing dramatically the frequency and intensity of epidemics. Similarly, once we recognize that the filth in our Western ideology makes us highly susceptible to contagious forms of insanity that cause antisemitic genocides, we can get rid of the filth in our Western ideology.
But we can keep what is good. Not everything about medieval European cities was bad, and we have kept what was good: the endearingly picturesque medieval architecture of many towns has been preserved for future generations to enjoy. There’s also lots of Western ideological stuff that is worth keeping (the American trial-by-jury system, Western music and graphic arts, modern science, …etc.). But some stuff we really need to let go, so that we will not eagerly jump to accept any and all accusations against ‘the Jews,’ rushing off on periodic anti-Jewish killing rampages like a horde of cannibals. It is time we stopped behaving like that.
This is the beginning of Enlightenment: a proper diagnosis. Social science may yet fulfill its promise.
The body has what is called an ‘immune system,’ the point of which is to combat invading parasites such as, for example, the plague-causing bacillus Yersinia pestis. Some people have better immune systems than others, and therefore have superior immunological responses that make them more likely to survive the ravages of Yersinia pestis or other such parasites.
I believe we have here another useful analogical parallel.
A population can more easily become the victim of an epidemic parasite such as Yersinia pestis when the average immunological response is poor; similarly, a population of potential murderers can more easily succumb to genocidal ideas if its social ‘immunological response’ is poor. This will happen when the mental ecology of the potential murderers offers many ‘places of attachment’ for the genocidal ideas to get a foothold in the mind.
But we can apply the same analysis to the victims of genocide. Just as a particular mental ecology in the population of potential murderers can make certain genocidal ideas spread more easily among them, so can a particular mental ecology in the population of potential victims make their self-defense difficult, and we can think of such a mental ecology as constituting a weak immune system against attempted genocides.
Thus, for example, many have commented on how easy it was to kill the European Jews during WWII. It is certainly true that the odds were heavily against the Jews, but many authors have nevertheless remarked on the docility of the European Jewish population when faced with the threat of extinction, an analysis that has produced the view that the European Jews went to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughterhouse.” This view was shared even by some Jewish leaders who fought hard to defend the European Jews. For example, Abba Kovner.
“In 1940-1941, when Vilna was the capital of the Soviet Republic of Lithuania, Kovner was a member of the underground organization. After the German occupation in June 1941, Kovner hid with a few friends temporarily in a Dominican convent in the city suburb. After he returned to the ghetto and became aware of the killing of thousands of Jews, Kovner expressed the idea of revolt and began to build a Jewish force to fight against the Nazis. On the night of December 31, 1941, Kovner read before a meeting of delegates of all Jewish Youth Movements a public announcement:
‘Hitler is plotting to destroy all European Jews. Lithuanians Jews will be the first in line. Let us not be led like sheep to the slaughterhouse. It is right, we are weak and without defense, but the only answer to the enemy is resistance!’
Many Jews find the claim that Jewish self-defense could have been much better during WWII an offensive accusation. I think they would do better to take the claim seriously. If Jewish self defense can be improved, the only way to do it is to analyze and expose the vulnerabilities in the mental ecology of the Jewish people that sabotage their ‘immunological response’ to antisemitism. Naturally, it is crucial that Westerners unlearn their antisemitism, but it is foolish not to examine what patterns in Jewish culture might be modified to make the self defense of the Jewish people more effective. The point of this analysis, after all, is to save Jewish lives. I have been laboring to examine the problem of Jewish self-defense here:
A final analogy between the medical and social domains that I believe is useful here is the concept of ‘immunization.’ Medical science has discovered that it is possible to inject certain pieces of information into the body (e.g. a weakened virus) in order to teach the body to defend itself from dangerous parasites: these are called ‘vaccines.’ Applying the analogy, it should be possible to inject certain ideas into the mind in order to teach it to defend itself from antisemitic ideas.
This website, then, is attempting to be a vaccine. Those people who read its demonstrations will be less susceptible to believe fraudulent accusations against ‘the Jews.’ As in the case of biological vaccines, however, to have an effect on a population many people must be immunized, so this website will not fulfill its purpose unless many people read it. Those of my readers who understand this will work especially hard to get other people to read the website, and if they are effective, then we will have a large effect on the population of potential genocidal murderers or indifferent bystanders, thus averting the next great antisemitic Catastrophe.
Similarly, by analyzing the difficulties Jews have encountered in mounting an effective self-defense against antisemitism, this website may improve the ‘immunological response’ of Jews, and in this way reduce the probability of an antisemitic genocide by affecting both ends of the problem. Thus, it is also important that many Jews read the documentation in this website.
Footnotes and Further
 Consider this wonderful quote by Andrew Dickson White, writing at the end of the nineteenth century:
SOURCE: White, A. D.
1955 . A history of the warfare of science with theology
in Christendom. London: Arco. (Chapter XIV).
"plague." Encyclopędia Britannica from Encyclopędia Britannica
"epidemic." Encyclopędia Britannica from Encyclopędia Britannica
 Sperber, D. 1996. Explaining culture: A naturalistic approach. Oxford: Blackwell.
Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of
Genocide | From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
 To get your bearings in categorization theory, read this:
"plague." Encyclopędia Britannica from Encyclopędia Britannica
 The following piece contains a refutation of the gospel accusation against the Jews:
 “Blood libels against the Jews were a common form of anti-Semitism during the Middle Ages, though there is no ritual involving human blood in Jewish law or custom. Though the first recorded instance was in the writings of Apion, who claimed that the Jews sacrificed Greek victims in the Temple, there are no existent records of the blood libel against the Jews from that period until the legend surrounding William of Norwich in the 12th century, but the libel afterward became an increasingly common accusation. In many cases, anti-Semitic blood libels served as the basis for a blood libel cult, in which the alleged victim of human sacrifice was worshipped as a Christian martyr, but the claim has pre-Christian origins. Many Jews were killed as a result of false blood libels, which continued into the 20th century, with the Beilis Trial in Russia and the Kielce pogrom in Poland, and the persistence of blood libel stories in the Arab world.”
Here below is an excerpt from James Carroll’s history of Western antisemitism. Notice that the language he uses -- comparing antisemitic ideas such as the Blood Libel with viruses -- is not too far from the analysis I am pushing (Carroll is a Catholic ex-priest but still a Catholic):
 Here is an account of what the First Crusade was like for the Jews:
SOURCE: Carroll, J. 2001. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (pp.261-262)
 Carroll, J. 2001. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (p.339)
 “Jewish life at the millennium was humane and thriving… I read this history as a Christian, but it seems fair to say that the Talmudic system had shaped a way of thinking by the very seriousness with which the commentary of rabbis was taken. That way of thinking, in turn, shaped Jewish communal life. The problems and crises of Jews were addressed and resolved through commentary and further commentary—an inbuilt commitment to text, reading, imagination, and community. All of this was organized around an admired collective whose authority was rooted in study and in the proven wisdom of its ‘responsa,’ its responses to questions. Though based on the Law of Moses, Judaism had emerged as a community ordered not by legislation or decree but by the influence of its interpreters, reflecting on a compilation of the commentary of ancestral masters. This is the culture of Talmud, a culture not of codification but of conversation, written and oral; a culture not of hierarchy but of mutuality.”
SOURCE: Carroll, J. 2001. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. (p.248)
 To see a list, consult:
Abba Kovner (1918-1987) | Jewish Virtual Library