Can a person be a genocide?

August 7, 2008

I can’t help but comment on this very strange usage (from a comment at Dispatches):

So, were [sic] having a discussion about the applicability of a book written by middle-eastern [sic] goat herders (who were also genocides), added to by bipolar preachers and opportunists, edited and translated by politicians, and interpreted by more politicians, scam-artists and cult leaders.

Yeah, I can [sic] were [sic] all going to learn something valuable and useful from this. (emphasis mine)

I was very puzzled by this usage, since genocide is so very rarely used to describe people – it is almost solely used to describe events or even extended campaigns (like the Holocaust, which is the backdrop for the word’s coining by Raphael Lemkin, a Pole, in 1944). What is still stranger is that this usage is meant to describe the perpetrators of genocide as opposed to the victims.

I am somewhat comforted in observing that this usage is not widely recognized; the OED only mentions it in the context of a thing or event.

One appropriate Google hit came up in the first few tries:

  • Besides, would anybody blame the US troops of genocide for bringing this disease to Europe, then why are there people saying Spanish conquistadores were genocides when it is proved that most of the indians who died after the Spanish arrival in the new world were because of illnesses that did not exist in America? (source)

Strangely, suicide – a word with a similar structure – does in fact have this sort of usage:

One who dies by his own hand; one who commits self-murder. Also, one who attempts or has a tendency to commit suicide.

1732 Lond. Mag. I. 252 The Suicide owns himself..unequal to the Troubles of Life.
1769 BLACKSTONE Comm. IV. xiv. 189 The suicide is guilty of a double offence: one spiritual, in invading the prerogative of the Almighty..: the other temporal, against the king.
1838 W. BELL Dict. Law Scot. 953 The wounds inflicted by a suicide upon himself are usually in the front, and in an oblique direction.
1861 F. NIGHTINGALE Nursing (ed. 2) 77 A fourth [patient], who is a depressed suicide, requires a little cheering.
1870 R. C. JEBB Sophocles’ Electra (ed. 2) 47/1 Suicides used to be interred with a stake through the body, ‘to lay the ghost’.

So I suppose it’s not unthinkable that the perpetrator of genocide might be called a genocide, but the usage is still rather odd.

Has anyone else noticed this usage? I find it curious and would like to see if it is more common than my search has indicated.

Blog-apathy, an exhortation, and a farewell

July 12, 2008

I was saddened to see in my RSS reader yesterday that John DePoe of Fides Quaerens Intellectum is calling it quits. John has had some excellent discussions over his way (he’s been on the blogroll here for quite some time), as well as some quick updates from the philosophical blogosphere and elsewhere (such as William Lane Craig’s recent essay in Christianity Today) that are invaluable.

His reason is one that I have sometimes struggled with: a lack of desire to blog, and John adds that “blogging has felt more like a chore than an enjoyable hobby.” I’ve been there, and it’s hard to muster through with other things happening.

I’ve been blogging off and on (although probably more off than on) for about 3 years now, and the only reason I still feel like doing it is because I still have things that pop into my head, some (relatively) original thoughts and some reflections on various mental stimuli (like reading the blogs of others), that I want to put down (in a metaphorical sense) in writing. It used to be that I felt like my voice needed to be heard because I had important things to say that other people needed to hear, but now my reasons are more selfish (and paradoxically less egotistical): I’ve realized that blogging is more about catharsis for me than relaying important facts or personal wisdom. I also deeply value the use of blogging for reflection, something that drives me (for reasons sometimes unknown to me) to keep two blogs, one specifically to reflect on my teaching/learning experiences.

For any bloggers reading this that might be suffering from similar troubles with blogging, I would make the following suggestions:

  1. Reassess your reasons for blogging. Unless you have a relatively large readership and are a proficient writer, you’re probably not going to write to appease others who want to read what you wrote. The best thing I think the average blogger can hope for is to have some small regular traffic and other sporadic hits that indicate that someone cares about what you’ve written. Comments are even better, but blogging in the hopes of receiving feedback is probably a futile effort as well unless you choose to write on only the most controversial topics (abortion and evolution are ones that have driven feedback for me).
  2. Keep your mind thinking about things you might want to write about. I started using Google Notebook to track ideas, some of which have been sitting around for months now, and it has been very useful to provide content (when I don’t spontaneously blog with my ScribeFire interface – another useful tool). Jeremy Pierce of Parableman has stated that he keeps a text file of ideas for blogging that he searches every so often for things to write about. It might even be useful at times to review past writings and follow up or amend previous statements on different topics – maybe even to find holes in them.
  3. Read, read, read – and then read some more. The best way to keep ideas moving is to take them in – ingest whatever you’re interested in to keep your mind sharp. It doesn’t even matter if you blog about what someone else has written; you may simply be inspired to investigate a certain topic or to find analogous arguments elsewhere, among other things. When you stop consuming writing – something that seems to be a common thread among writers of all types – then you will probably see your own writing flow diminishing as well.

I wish John all the best and thank him for his great site, and I hope that other bloggers will see this as an opportunity to reflect on their own habits and struggles as writers.

On correct meanings and “dusty old words”

July 10, 2008

As any frequent reader here should have picked up on by now, I hate false etymologies. I hate to say it, but the study of word origins has been co-opted for so many ill purposes (the infamous argumentum ad etymologia), and I despise that given that I enjoy the study so much.

So I’m especially irritated to see Graham Kendrick, a well-known Christian worship songwriter, make a statement like this:

Orthodoxy sounds like a dusty old word, but actually it means right glory, in other words representing God as he actually is.

There may be a nugget of truth in here: the Greek doxa, from which the word is derived (along with ortho, “correct”), is sometimes translated as “glory” or “praise” (c.f. Matthew 4:8). And in a sense, I think I can give Kendrick a little bit of poetic license, since orthodoxy may have at its roots a desire to glorify God by accurately representing Him. That’s fine, but the word “orthodox” doesn’t mean that – it means “correct belief.”

The OED says this regarding etymology:

[< post-classical Latin orthodoxus, ortodoxus, adjective and noun (4th cent.; freq. in Jerome) and its etymon Hellenistic or Byzantine Greek òρθóδοξος right in opinion (see note), person holding a right opinion < ancient Greek òοθο- ORTHO- comb. form + δóξα opinion, glory (see DOXOLOGY n.). In English perhaps partly via Middle French, French orthodoxe (1431 as adjective, a1565 as noun). Compare Italian ortodosso (1478 as adjective).
Ancient Greek òρθοδοξεîν ‘to have a right opinion’ appears first in Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics, but remains rare. The cognate noun òρθοδοξíα appears first in Origen; the adjective óρθóδοξος does not appear until the late 3rd, or early 4th cent. With the exception of uses in commentaries on Nicomachean Ethics the group of words is restricted almost entirely to Christian writers.] [Ed. Greek characters should now display correctly]

So the usage existed prior to the Greek writings of the NT, and certainly one cannot say that orthodoxy does not today refer to belief, not to glory of praise.

Finally, a note: words, like books, don’t get dusty if they are used, and orthodox has been in great use for centuries now, thanks in large part to the insistence of religious organizations’ desire to see correct belief (i.e. adherence to their doctrines) among those who associate themselves with the organization. What Kendrick seems to be doing here is setting up orthodox as an elitist word, high and lofty and out of the comprehension of the common man. This is of course untrue; orthodoxy is easily understood by anyone who has been introduced to the idea of believing in the right things.

Mitigating circumstances

June 26, 2008

In my post yesterday, I neglected to discuss an important aspect of abortive considerations: mitigating circumstances. I cannot in good conscience leave out this subject since it plays a part in the premises of the previous argument.

Read the rest of this entry »

Abortion and a principle of prudence

June 25, 2008

I hate to write about abortion again – people might mistakenly think it’s a “Big Issue” for me – but this objection brought itself forward in my mind, and I have to get it out.

There are two premises that I cannot seem to find good reason to deny:

  1. Abortion deprives a distinct and biologically human organism* of a vital future right.
  2. In any scenario involving two human organisms, one of which is fundamentally dependent on the other, where there is a conflict of rights between the two, prudence demands that, ceteris paribus, the autonomous party allow her rights to be abrogated (especially when they are of lesser importance) in order that the dependent party’s rights are satisfied.

The first premise is merely a definition which I think is quite defensible. The second, on the other hand, is a matter of prudence: if we have to choose which human gets to have her rights validated when there is a conflict (given the above situation), the non-autonomous individual’s rights trump the autonomous party’s.

The evidence I have for this matter of prudence is largely that which I feel as a parent: if my children, who depend on me for their survival, require something (time, resources, etc.) that will deny me something in return (as is very common in parenthood), then I am obligated as a parent to make the sacrifice. It would take an extreme case to bring about any potential counterexamples: for instance, if one’s child is standing in front of an oncoming train, I might have a hard time saying that it is obligatory for any given parent to put herself in front of the train in order to save the child (although I am of the personal conviction that I would feel obligated given those circumstances). There are, as such, many cases where such an action would be supererogatory: it would be a great personal sacrifice that would befit a parent’s general responsibility to protect his or her child as much as is humanly possible but not necessarily immoral if not performed. (Indeed, if a parent did not make this choice, then they are likely deserving of compassion rather than condemnation.)

If I am right and this premise holds, then it is equally applicable to the type of parenthood that obtains upon conception (the genesis of a biological child). This would seem to demolish many pro-abortion arguments, especially the notion that the mother’s right to bodily autonomy supersedes any rights of the fetus since the mother’s autonomy (which the fetus lacks) is precisely the reason why the mother should make the sacrifice in the vast majority of circumstances (see here for some more circumstantial considerations). In the act of procreation, the woman assumes a responsibility as a mother to her child that demands obligation. Abortion is thus an outright violation of that responsibility – not mere negligence, but willful violation.

Thus, I come to the following syllogism (Pind = ‘independent party’; Pdep = ‘dependent party’):

  1. For any action A performed by Pind, it will be immoral if the net shift in rights from Pind to Pdep results in an outcome beneficial for Pind and detrimental to Pdep.
  2. The deprivation of a fundamental right to Pdep in order to secure another for Pind results in a positive net shift to Pind.
  3. Therefore, any such A will be immoral.

Since this class of actions seems directly relevant to abortion, it would appear to be both valid and sound.

Have I missed something? This seems a reasonable objection to abortion along grounds that are not religious.

*This is true even in the cases of identical twins and chimaeras: there is at least one biologically human organism which is genetically distinct from its parents.

Putting ignorance in its place

June 25, 2008

You won’t see me link to Pharyngula often, but this response posted on P.Z. Myers’ blog is too good not to refer to, even given my often unfavorable opinion of his statements on religion: Lenski gives Conservapædia a lesson. Lenski here is Richard Lenski, one of the authors of a recent study showing a very interesting novel evolution in a population of E. coli, and he’s responding to the Wiki site Conservapedia, which is fairly well known for being a refuge for – how should I put this? – very right-wing, authoritarian sorts of individuals. (The fact that, in a thread there, Michael Behe – the posterchild for the Intelligent Design movement – was denigrated for adhering to common descent, evolution, and an old earth – as well as for not being a “Creation Scientist”! – should speak volumes.)

Most of it requires no comment – Lenski is clearly being very level-headed, given the sorts of criticism (if you can even call it that) that he is getting from the Cons. people – but the last two postscripts to the letter are worth noting:

P.P.P.S. You may be unable to understand, or unwilling to accept, that evolution occurs. And yet, life evolves! [] From the content on your website, it is clear that you, like many others, view God as the Creator of the Universe. I respect that view. I find it baffling, however, that someone can worship God as the all-mighty Creator while, at the same time, denying even the possibility (not to mention the overwhelming evidence) that God’s Creation involved evolution. It is as though a person thinks that God must have the same limitations when it comes to creation as a person who is unable to understand, or even attempt to understand, the world in which we live. Isn’t that view insulting to God?

P.P.P.P.S. I noticed that you say that one of your favorite articles on your website is the one on “Deceit.” That article begins as follows: “Deceit is the deliberate distortion or denial of the truth with an intent to trick or fool another. Christianity and Judaism teach that deceit is wrong. For example, the Old Testament says, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.'” You really should think more carefully about what that commandment means before you go around bearing false witness against others.

Lessons that all well-meaning Christians should consider when bashing others’ points of view.

Van Gogh and “freethinking”

May 30, 2008

One of my favorite quotes on “freethinkers” – a term which I find to be a misnomer at worst and not broadly applicable (i.e. not applicable to all who bear the label) at best – comes from a letter written by Vincent Van Gogh in response to his brother Theo:

Freethinker, that is really a word I detest, although I have to use it occasionally faute de mieux [for want of anything better]. The fact is that I do my best to think things through and try in my actions to take account of reason and common sense. And trying to belittle someone would be quite contrary to that. So it is perfectly true that on occasion I have said to Father, “Do try to think this or that through,” or, “To my mind, this or that does not stand up,” but that is not trying to belittle someone. I am not Father’s enemy if I tell him the truth for a change, not even that time I lost my temper and did so in salty language. Only it did no good, and Father took it amiss.

It should be said here that Van Gogh’s point of view was decidedly different than mine: marked by criticism of religious organization, as in the sentence directly following – “In case Father refers to my saying that, ever since I have acquired so much dessous les cartes, I haven’t given two pins for the morality and the religious system of the clergy and their academic ideas, then I absolutely refuse to take that back, for I truly mean it.” (Van Gogh did have a similar position to mine in one respect, however – his father was also a minister.)

What appeals to me so much about this quote is that it sets out a perfectly reasonable position that cannot be assumed solely by the “freethinker” movement (i.e. atheists and agnostics). A Christian like myself can certainly try to think things through and account for reason. As much as the claim is made, reason and logic are not the sole property of “freethinkers,” nor are they the only group to utilize them, and it is worth stating that fact whenever necessary.