Further Explorations of the Social Death Hypothesis

Chapter 14
Further Explorations of the Social Death Hypothesis


Claudia Card


If genocide is the murder, not simply the destruction, of a people, then genocide can never be justifiable but is always an evil. I will defend the view that genocide is a kind of murder, even when it is non-homicidal. It is not obvious what it means to murder a people. Neither is it obvious that genocide can never be justified, especially on my hypothesis that social death is central to genocide. For, the vitality lost in social death can surely include evil forms. And so, I am led to explore further than I did a decade ago the implications of the social death hypothesis. I aim to show also its helpfulness for making progress with such commonly asked questions as:


1. How do genocides differ from non-genocidal mass atrocities?


2. As a crime, is genocide redundant, given other war crimes and crimes against humanity in International Humanitarian Law? Does it identify something distinct?


3. Is genocide the worst crime, or greatest evil, imaginable?


4. Against whom or what can genocide be committed? Could there be a gay genocide? Is femicide a kind of genocide? What about people with disabilities? Evil groups?


5. What kinds of acts can be genocidal? What about expulsion? Mass rape?


I borrow the social death concept from historian Orlando Patterson (1982: 5–9). He used it to describe the plight of slaves captured in Africa who survived the middle passage to the Americas. They had been torn from their roots, chained together with captives who spoke other languages, and in the New World were continually robbed of the security of family connections through the practice of selling off children, spouses, and other kin. In the Americas, Patterson argued, relationships among slaves had no social sanctions or security. Slaves were, as he put it, socially dead. Later generations born to a condition of social death he called natally alienated—cut off from social ties in both directions, to ancestors and to progeny (Patterson 1982: 7). These hypotheses are controversial among historians who take seriously the idea of slave culture (Stuckey 1987). If Patterson’s critics are right, genocides may offer clearer instances of social death than was offered by slavery in the Americas.


I begin with the idea of social vitality and then understand social death as a major deprivation or loss of social vitality. By social vitality I understand the meanings, shapes, and contents given the lives of individuals by social relationships, personal and institutional, contemporary and inter-generational, that unite them into a people or other significant community. Social vitality takes many forms: linguistic, educational, political, economic, artistic, and religious practices all contribute, as do friendship and kinship networks. Major loss of social vitality is a loss of social identity, consequently, a serious loss of meaning for one’s existence. Putting social death at the center of genocide takes our focus off body counts and directs it instead to relationships and interactions. Social death has degrees, and it typically also has stages. Sometimes social vitality is recoverable or re-creatable. Often it is neither. Or the new forms of vitality are impoverished, as compared with what was lost.


Social death sounds like something suffered by a group. It is. But what makes it morally significant is that it is suffered by individuals, as members. Major loss of social vitality often robs one even of the ability to give meaning to one’s life, thereby destroying a fundamental aspect of one’s humanity. Social death can have other sources—slavery, banishment, disfigurement, illness, self-chosen isolation (becoming a hermit). These need not cut one off from a shared language, history, traditions, and the like. Causes of social death are not always violent, as they typically are in genocide.1 In genocide, social death is extreme. And massive.


I leave the notion of being “central” relatively undefined. But when I say that massive social death is central to genocide, I mean at least that it is an organizing core of the most paradigmatic instances. Also, that it is key for appreciating the kind of evil genocide is. It suggests a certain approach to answering the commonly asked questions. It helps to distinguish genocide from other mass atrocities. It is useful for explaining how genocide differs from other murders. It helps us identify which groups can be victims of genocide, a matter of some consequence in international law. It should be useful for identifying a genocide-in-progress, where interventions might interrupt it before it ran its course.


It is a gross understatement to say genocide is wrong. Genocide is not just wrong; it is an evil—not in the popular loose sense of “evil” that applies to anything bad or wrong but in that stricter, narrower, more specific sense in which “evil” is a very strong term of opprobrium. For many years, I have focused my work on particular evils, such as torture, and on the meaning of the concept of evil (Card 2002, 2007, 2010), taking on two tasks. The first is to distinguish evils from lesser wrongs. I no longer say “from ordinary wrongs” because that implies that evils are not ordinary. On my view, evils are not just more extreme than other wrongs. They are more complex. My second task has been to work through tough moral and conceptual questions about notorious evils of our time, especially, torture, terrorism, and genocide. Neither torture nor terrorism is wrong by definition. So there is room to argue about justifiability or excusability. But if genocide is the murder of a people, there is no room for that kind of argument. Homicide can be justified (in self-defense, for example); murder cannot. This is a conceptual point. Killing in justifiable self-defense is not murder. Confronting genocide morally is analogous, in a certain way, to confronting rape. The question is not when, if ever, it is justified. Rather, the questions are how to recognize it, how grave it is relative to other crimes, how it is justifiable to respond, and so forth.


It has seemed to some of my students an arbitrary stipulation to say that genocide is a kind of murder, implying that it is wrong by definition, rather than simply a kind of killing, leaving open the possibility of justification. I know no scholars or politicians trying to define genocide who have taken the view that it could be anything but wrong. The Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 1948 (hereafter, “the genocide convention”) took as its task the definition of a crime not previously defined in international law. Still, it is philosophically interesting to inquire how, apart from size of the target, destroying an evil group would differ from genocide. If social death is central, it should be natural to ask why it would not be committing genocide to destroy an evil group that gave its members social identity and vitality. If that were genocide, too, some genocides would appear justifiable. This is not how the concept is used. But is common usage arbitrary? Or is there a basis for refusing to call any justified destruction of a group “genocide”? I will argue that there is such a basis. I call this issue “the Murder, Inc. problem.”


Consider the organization known in the 1940s as “Murder, Inc.,” later as “the Syndicate” and “the Mob.” Authors of the book Murder, Inc. describe it as a “fantastic ring of killers and extortionists” that constituted organized crime in the United States (Turkus and Feder 1951: 1–2, xi). In one decade, they report, Murder, Inc. was responsible for a thousand murders “from New England to California” (Turkus and Feder 1951: 1–2). If Murder, Inc. seems too small or too thin to constitute a people, consider the Ku Klux Klan, a group larger and perhaps more complex. When sociologist Kathleen Blee interviewed women who had been Klan members in the 1920s, they described it nostalgically as a way to socialize with like-minded others (Blee 1991: 1). Or, consider the Nazi Party. The vitality contributed to members of these groups may have been as important to their lives as that contributed by a national or religious culture is to others’ lives. Must we grant the possibility of a good genocide? Is imposition of social death necessarily an evil? To make progress on these questions, it is necessary to explain the conception of evil in play here. I turn to that next.


My book The Atrocity Paradigm: A Theory of Evil (Card 2002) develops a theory of evil that takes large-scale mass atrocities as paradigms. By a “paradigm,” I mean an uncontroversial instance, something uncontroversially an evil. My approach is secular. I do not presuppose a theological context, although my theory is compatible with most aspects of the theological problem of evil, which ponders how an omnipotent perfectly good creator could produce a world as flawed as ours.


My initial definition was that evils are reasonably “foreseeable intolerable harms produced by culpable wrongdoing” (Card 2002: 3, 16). I changed “culpable wrongdoing” to “inexcusable wrongs” in my second evil book, Confronting Evils: Terrorism, Torture, Genocide (2010: 16ff.), to yield the definition that evils are reasonably foreseeable intolerable harms, produced by inexcusable wrongs. Thus, evils have two basic, irreducibly distinct components: an agency component and a harm component, connected by reasonably foreseeable causality. I take the noun “evils” (plural) as basic, but am not interested in the idea of evil as a metaphysical force. I treat adjectival uses of “evil” as derivative. An evil intention, for example, is an inexcusably wrongful intention to do reasonably foreseeable intolerable harm. An evil practice inexcusably does reasonably foreseeable intolerable harm. A practice inexcusable today might have been excusable in the past, not then an evil but an evil today. (Slavery?) My motivating interest is in identifying deeds, practices, even environments that are evils, not in labeling evil perpetrators, although I think that can sometimes be done. My approach highlights the plight of victims and resists immersion in perpetrator psychology.


My conception of evils is ethical in that it presupposes the idea of moral wrongs. Atrocities do not include natural catastrophes (such as earthquakes), although such catastrophes can be as harmful. Although I do not specify a definition of “wrongs,” my definition of evils is compatible with many non-utilitarian theories of the distinction between right and wrong. Key concepts to clarify are “intolerable” in “intolerable harm” and “inexcusable” in “inexcusable wrongs.”


By intolerable harms I mean substantial deprivations of basics ordinarily necessary for a life (or death) to be decent for the person whose life (or death) it is. Such basics, in a life, include access to non-toxic air, water, and food; the ability to move your limbs and to sit, stand, or lie down, to make choices and act on some of them, to have affective bonds with others and interaction with some of them, to be free from severe and unremitting pain or humiliation, and so on. These basics cut across cultural differences and stem from our common needs not only as members of a species but as mammals. How much deprivation? Enough to make a life or death indecent and so, intolerable, for the person whose life or death it is. Being intolerable is not simply a matter of subjective preference, even if preferences are not totally eliminable. This conception of the intolerable is normative—not what you cannot in fact tolerate but the absence of conditions required for your life (or death) to be decent. Millions tolerate the intolerable daily. Next, consider inexcusable wrongs.


Wrongs can be inexcusable in two ways. Evils are inexcusable in both. First, what I call a metaphysical excuse exists when you act under diminished capacity, such as physical disability or mental illness. Second, what I call a moral excuse exists when you have a partial moral justification. There is some excuse, morally speaking, when you have some good moral reason for what you did, even though it was not good enough to justify your deed on the whole (what is justified needs no excuse). There is usually some reason for any deed, but not every reason carries moral weight. When your reasons carry no moral weight, then, if your deed is wrong, there is no moral excuse for it. A reason that carries moral weight for some deeds may carry none for others. For example, the fact that someone’s feelings would be hurt if you did not do something carries some moral weight as a reason not to always speak frankly, but no moral weight as a reason to kill someone. Evils are inexcusable both metaphysically and morally.


The etymology of the components of Raphael Lemkin’s coined term “genocide” seems to leave open whether genocide is necessarily an evil.2 If the Greek “genos” meant “clan or race,” the Latin “cide” is from a verb that meant “to cut down.” It could be applied cutting down trees but was also used to mean both “to kill” and “to murder.” Clearly Lemkin’s intent was not to leave open the question of justifiability. I find it clear enough that genocide satisfies the harm component of evils, that for those who suffer it, social death is an intolerable harm. What is at issue in the Murder Inc. problem is the agency component: could agents be justified in inflicting social death on a people or other significant community? If so, would genocide not necessarily be an evil? Or, would the infliction not be genocide?


When Lemkin agitated for international recognition of genocide as a distinct crime in the 1930s, his paradigm was the Turks’ slaughter of the Armenian Christians in 1915 (Power 2002: 1–30). Turkey has rejected the charge of genocide. The United States has officially agreed, perhaps to avoid questions regarding the US in Vietnam (Balakian 2003). Still, there is widespread consensus among scholars that the slaughter of the Armenians was a genocide. An account of the meaning of genocide and how it differs from other mass atrocities should illuminate how Turkey could soberly maintain its denial. The most widely cited definitions do not settle the issue.


Most widely cited is the definition in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which says:


Genocide means any of the following acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a nation, ethnical, 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.3


Every clause of this definition is controversial: the scope and content of “intent,” the meaning of “in whole or in part,” and the scope of the whole definition: is it too narrow in naming only four kinds of groups and only five kinds of activity? Is it too broad, because of the non-homicidal acts it includes as apparently sufficient when coupled with the right sort of intent? Why does it fail to mention violence?4