Defining Violence

In the field of genocide and mass atrocities, definitions are often a contentious issue.  Many policy makers and advocates feel as though definitions are an arbitrary process that takes up massive amounts of time, while people are dying.  In contrast, academics are typically strong proponents of definitions.  They feel as though definitions provide structure and a universal mechanism for understanding human behavior and conflict.  I stand somewhere in the middle.  Definitions are required, so that everyone can be on the same page, but they also cannot be an excuse for inaction in the face of mass violence.

Take the micro analogy of your own personal health.   Imagine you fell over and seriously injured your arm – to the point where you were blinded by the pain and you could tell, simply from looking that some of the bones were out of place.  Of course the next logical step would be to go to the ER and seek treatment.  So you arrive in the ER and the doctor calls you back.  He looks at your arm and without a physical examination the ER doc says, “You know I think you fractured the bone.  I am not totally sure, but it seems that way.  So heres what I am going to do, I am going to give you a cast, then you come back in a few weeks, you get the cast taken off, and we’ll see if anything is any better.”

Now if a medical professional told you to take the “wait and see” approach you would be furious.  You would demand that he take x-rays, MRIs, and other tests to appropriately examine the injury.  Because if he didn’t, if he sent you home casted and treated for a fracture, when you clearly had a protruding bone, then your arm would heal incorrectly.  And when you came back in a number of weeks to have the cast removed, you would realize that you had lost a portion of the function in your arm since the doctor had misdiagnosed you and suddenly nothing would ever be the same.

On a macro level, in the field of genocide and mass atrocities prevention, the analysis or diagnosis is the same.  When violence breaks out in a certain country there is a tendency to jump to conclusions.  Within moments, a complex situation is diluted into “ethnic tensions,” “age old tensions,” or some other cliched analysis.  Now there is the institutional problem that there is no consensus on how different types of conflict should be defined.  Scholars constantly argue on how genocide, atrocities, and human rights abuses should be categorized.  So some have the tendency to abandon definitions in the name of action.  Whereas other argue about appropriate definitions until all of the bodies have been buried.  Now these are the polar extremes and neither is effective.

Conflict, as most things in life, must be approached with a delicate nuanced approach.  Definitions, used appropriately, have the potential to change the ways we respond to and analyze conflict, but they must be dealt with carefully.  Imagine if we had the same definitional rigor in the social sciences that we do in the hard sciences.  Imagine, when a conflict broke out if analysts, activists, and policy makers were able to quickly asses the type of violence at hand.  Then they would be better equipped to respond to the crisis, since they could sense or understand the trajectory of the problem. On the flip side, misdiagnosis is extremely dangerous in the social sciences as it is in medicine.  If your doctor casts you for a fracture, when you actually have a shattered bone, the injury will not heal properly.  Your arm will be permanently and seriously damaged.  The same is true in war, when conflicts are simplified or misunderstood, they have the capability to do greater damage to the society.

Take Burundi for example, people were quick to call the violence either a genocide or pure ethnic hatred.  As I previously wrote, this analysis is not only wrong but problematic.  The violence in Burundi is a complex power grab by the sitting president, who is not ready to give up office.  This is complicated by other regional actors who are not prepared for a democratic transition of power.  The violence being perpetrated towards civilians is awful, gruesome, and problematic, but it is not genocide.  It is violence of subjugation, meant to oppress the people so that the president can maintain his position.  When we misdiagnose genocide, we give his regime more power, we create greater fear, and we separate the problem as a unique event.  Calling genocide does not acknowledge or address the regional intricacies of the problem.  The international response to Burundi has a direct impact on what happens in the country, so we cannot risk inaction or incorrect assessments of the type of conflict.

In a developing environment of conflict, where traditional states are continually facing less traditional non-state actors it is important to come to a consensus on assessment.  Learning to diagnosis violence is an overlooked field, that many activists consider a stalling technique by policy makers.  That is not the case.  The humanitarian, government, and military communities need to come together and develop a singular language so we can collectively develop creative solutions to complex conflict problems.


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