President Biden made history this past weekend by calling the Armenian genocide what it was. The underlying historical injustice—in which the Turkish regime uprooted and murdered roughly one and a half million Armenians—occurred during and immediately after World War I. As with all complex events, historians differ over some details, but the basic facts are not in dispute, except perhaps among the types of miscreants and cranks who deny the Holocaust or call COVID-19 a hoax. Why, then, did it take a century for a U.S. president to speak the truth?
Although the Ottoman Empire was formally in power during the initial phases of the genocide, its forces were led and eventually supplanted by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who would come to be revered as the founder of the modern Turkish state. Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is less secular than before but remains the country Kemal founded. Unlike modern Germany, which has made responsibility for and repudiation of Nazism central to its identity, modern Turkey has never acknowledged the atrocities committed by the ancestors of today’s rulers. Yet because Turkey is a NATO member that remains strategically important in the West’s conflicts with Russia and radical Islamists, American rulers have hitherto been reluctant to recognize one of the worst crimes against humanity of the last century.
President Biden deserves credit for ending a century of denial. At the same time, one might ask why the use of the word genocide carries so much weight—for the descendants of both the perpetrators and the victims. The answer is that how we speak reflects how we think, which in turn affects how we act. That’s true of genocide but also many other words. Here I’ll discuss some ways in which language matters with reference to genocide, torture, eugenics, taxes, and Humpty Dumpty.
Denial and Euphemisms
The Armenian genocide does not just resemble the Nazi Holocaust. The events are historically linked. In preparation for and justification of the murderous 1939 invasion of Poland, Hitler reportedly asked rhetorically “who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” Although there is some dispute whether the quotation is accurate, there is little doubt that, just as the Jim Crow American South inspired the Nuremberg Laws, so the world’s indifference to the fate of Armenia gave the Nazis confidence that the other great powers would not spend blood or treasure intervening to protect human rights.
To be sure, contemporary Turkish attempts to erase the Armenian genocide are not a precursor to repetition. Yet they function as a kind of justification. As Professor Sherry Colb observed in a column here on Verdict in October 2018, the people most likely to deny the Holocaust tend to be either Nazis or Nazi sympathizers. She explained that for them, denying that the Holocaust occurred is a coded way of saying that it was not wrong. Denial, she noted, can function as a kind of devaluation as well.
More broadly, sometimes the refusal to call an evil by its actual name does function as a justification for perpetuating that evil. Not all that long ago, the Bush administration and its apologists referred to waterboarding as mere “enhanced interrogation.” It did so for the obvious purpose of avoiding legal accountability for torture, which violates both U.S. and international law.
Where silence and euphemistic language serve to downplay great evils, sometimes words are abused in the other direction. For example, in 2019, I noted on my blog how Justice Clarence Thomas tendentiously referred to abortions based on various fetal characteristics, including likely disabilities, as serving an interest in “eugenics.” Recently, three judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit adopted that same label to describe the target of an Ohio law forbidding doctors from knowingly performing abortions motivated by Down syndrome. As Professor Colb explained (also on my blog), the word eugenics inevitably calls to mind the Holocaust. Indeed, one judge expressly drew that comparison.
Although I believe that comparisons to grave historical injustices like slavery and the Holocaust ought to be used sparingly, that is not the objection that Professor Colb was making, nor is it the one I am making now. Indeed, in this very column I have already compared the Armenian genocide to the Holocaust. Sparingly does not mean never.
Rather, the objection to calling abortions based on fetal disability “eugenics” is not simply that such abortions are not as bad as the Nazi program of forced sterilization of the “feeble minded,” much less extermination of European Jews. Rather, the point is that the comparison is inapt. Even if one believes that some or all abortions are immoral, the individual decision to have an abortion—or even the aggregate impact of numerous individual decisions to have abortions—differs so much from a mass program of sterilization or extermination that use of the same word confuses the issue.
In some circumstances, language is stipulative—that is, speakers can assign to words specific meanings that do not necessarily align with common understanding. This phenomenon is useful in law, where precision often matters. Thus, statutes frequently contain specialized definitions that make clear that some commonly used word should be given a technical meaning. In such circumstances, insisting on everyday usage can be obtuse or a sign of bad faith.
Meanwhile, in many contexts the law rightly looks to substance over form. Consider in this respect the debate about a decade ago over the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare. The law imposed what its critics called an “individual mandate” on most persons who lacked other forms of health insurance to purchase it from the exchanges that the law called into existence. The Supreme Court, in an opinion by Chief Justice Roberts, rejected a challenge to the law claiming that it exceeded the powers of Congress. Not so, the Chief Justice wrote, because the enforcement mechanism that Congress chose fell within the power “to lay and collect taxes.” Four dissenting justices objected that the law could not be a valid exercise of the taxing power, because Congress did not label the mandate a tax. Yet, as the Chief Justice explained in detail, prior cases and common sense led to the conclusion that whatever Congress calls a legal provision for statutory purposes should not control whether an Act falls within its constitutional authority.
Put differently, legislators are a bit like Humpty Dumpty in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty rather scornfully told Alice, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” So too in law, Congress may have good reason to call an exaction a tax in some contexts but not in others. The important point is to be clear.
By contrast, in most everyday contexts, words have accepted meanings. Misusing or abusing those meanings can be confusing, offensive, or even deadly.