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date: 13 April 2021

Genocide and Intergroup Communicationfree

  • William A. DonohueWilliam A. DonohueCollege of Communication Arts and Sciences, Michigan State University


Understanding intergroup communication in the context of genocide and mass killing begins with an exploration of how this kind of communication can devolve into such heinous human tragedies. How does communication set the stage that enables groups to pursue this path? The literature suggests that genocide is preceded by a period of intense communication that seeks to exacerbate racial divides while also providing social sanctions for killing as a solution to this intergroup strengthening activity. As individuals use language in their intergroup exchanges that seeks to build their own identity through the derogation of an outgroup, they become trapped in a conflict paradox that can then lead to violence or genocide. Strategies for detecting language associated with forming an identity trap and then dealing with it are also discussed.

The Persistence of Genocide

In their review of social science studies of genocide and mass killing Owens, Su, and Snow (2013) point out that episodes of such atrocities are relatively rare but persistent throughout history. Unfortunately, the 21st century shows no major decline in genocide and mass killing. While explanations for the underlying causes of these episodes range widely, Owens et al acknowledge that current attempts to explain them are reaching deeply into the field of social scientific inquiry. Specifically, these authors review research in the areas of perpetrator motivations, participation from local supporters, and the social construction of victim group identity. The purpose of this chapter is to draw upon these and other studies that use an intergroup communication perspective to understand genocide and mass killing.

Intergroup Communication and Bias

Perhaps the most useful place to begin this exploration is to review important principles of intergroup communication that are relevant to the issue of genocide and mass killing. In a recent article examining language and interpersonal communication in an intergroup context, Dragojevic and Giles (2013) argue that the study of intergroup communication focuses more on building and reinforcing group identity than on emphasizing personal identities. Their position is that the choice to invoke group identity expressions through verbal and nonverbal communication exchanges is driven by the myriad ways in which individuals both categorize themselves and then access these categories during these various exchanges. For example, individuals often chose to display their gender or tribal identities through linguistic and nonverbal expressions when those are relevant for a specific communication goal within a particular context. Then, others observing those displays evaluate the extent to which these expressed categories fit or are appropriate to the specific social context. As these identity-specific expressions escalate and are perceived as appropriate, group identity becomes more salient to its members.

Dragojevic and Giles (2013) further contend that individuals mentally represent social categories in terms of “prototypes or fuzzy sets” (p. 35) that enable them to distinguish one group from another. When individuals are only viewed from the perspective of these prototypes they become depersonalized and viewed as the embodiment of the salient group prototype rather than as an individual. In the context of genocide and mass killing, this depersonalization is often cited as a key goal for the perpetrators of these atrocities. For example, this depersonalization was a key strategy used by extremist Hutu media outlets to recruit uncommitted Hutu members to promote the ethnic cleansing of the Tutsi minority in the Rwanda genocide in 1994 (Simon, 2006). The point is that consistent depersonalization by constant references to the social category of “Tutsi” created a social climate that, combined with other factors, legitimized tribal hatred and eliminated any social sanctions that might have prevented mass killing.

Dragojevic and Giles (2013) indicate that this depersonalization is achieved through the intensification of intergroup bias. That is, groups evaluate their own identity as more favorable than others, or outgroup members. If this group identity is threatened in any way, as it was by the rhetoric coming from Hutu media outlets, then the intergroup bias intensifies, which causes these members to attribute undesirable dispositions to the outgroup members. These attributions can sometimes take the form of outgroup derogation and overt aggression to again reify and strengthen the intergroup identity.

Consistent with this perspective, Stanton (2004) indicates that this kind of bias can devolve into mass killing through a series of eight stages. These stages represent a shift in the social change that ultimately legitimizes overt aggression. The first three stages are (a) classification (“us versus them”), (b) symbolization (groups are given names or symbols of their second-class citizenship such as identification cards), and (c) dehumanization (groups are given names of bad things such as cockroaches or cancer). These initial stages provide the linguistic markers of intergroup bias that are intended to make clear that the intergroup identity is being threatened, that the nature of the threat is given a specific linguistic identity, and that the outgroup threat is represented by a highly noxious and threatening symbol. These three stages clearly serve to both depersonalize and then symbolically vilify the outgroup members.

The remaining five stages consist of the actions that the in-group uses to eliminate the threats posed by the depersonalized outgroup members. These stages include (d) organization (hate groups organize into armed forces), (e) polarization (in which in-group moderates are targeted and assassinated), (f) preparation (planning and training for the final genocidal attacks), (g) extermination (beginning the genocidal extermination of “less than human” enemies), and (h) denial (justifying their actions and denying that a crime has been committed). Stanton makes the point that working to change the social climate by altering the language and personalizing individuals so that outgroup members are not viewed as one collective has the potential of shifting away from the hateful killing.

Genocide and Mass Killing

Owens et al. (2013) argue that genocide and mass killing display three common elements. First, the killing must include all actions that result in innocent (non–war-based) human destruction including starvation and violence. Second, these actions must be directly linked to specific perpetrators and are sustained over time. Third, victims are killed primarily because of their real or perceived group membership and how these boundaries are defined by the perpetrators. They note that the term “genocide” is used when certain ethnic, religious, class, or national groups are targeted for killing. The term “mass killing” is used when individuals are not targeted for their perceived ethnic membership, but for other purposes including warfare. The more important distinction, particularly for the international community, is between genocide and warfare. When innocent victims are killed in the context of warfare, the term genocide is not used. The term genocide is used when targeting is intentionally focused on eliminating some group primarily because of its identity. Often, the words “ethnic cleansing” are used to describe genocide.

Studies by Mann (2005) and others reveal that genocide and mass killing are linked with social upheaval that can take many forms such as warfare, clashes resulting from autocratic regimes, social divisions that are culturally inbred into a society, government control by extremist ideology, and state economic marginalization. Mann points out that the most significant risk factor associated with genocide is the presence of competing claims to sovereignty. Groups become radicalized in pursuit of their competing claims, which reinforces and thus accelerates the drive toward depersonalization. When groups perceive, or are led to believe, that the sovereignty claims are not just competing, the opposing group will do anything to defend its rights; fear then intensifies and radicalization increases. Increased fear and radicalization intensifies the denial of individual identities which, in turn, sets the stage for the competing groups to begin the processes of demonizing and dehumanizing members of these competing groups.

As Stanton (2004) points out, this demonization provides the rationale for the remaining steps in the genocidal process in which groups organize to begin the violent elimination of the competing groups. Of course, the escalation to these remaining steps is rare because genocide and mass killing are rare though well publicized. These first three steps can evolve in an actual case, as shown in the study by Donohue (2011), which illustrates how linguistic intergroup communication differences set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The findings of this study are used to show how language is used to reify intergroup identities that set the stage for violence.

An Intergroup Linguistic Analysis of the Rwandan Genocide

The 100 days of the Rwandan Genocide began on April 6, 1994. After it was over, approximately 500,000 members of the Tutsi and moderate Hutu tribes had been killed by the Rwandan armed forces and the Interahamwe militia, which was dominated by Hutu extremists. The Hutu tribe constituted the majority of the population in Rwanda. During its colonial period, the Belgians placed the minority Tutsis in charge of the country, which caused great rivalries among these tribes. A series of assassinations and other failed United Nations peace agreements triggered the extremist Hutus to begin the genocide against the Tutsis as well as moderate and reluctant Hutus. The conflict ended on July 18, 1994, when the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RTF) seized control of the country and announced that the war was over.

This genocide was fueled by an extremist Hutu radio station in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) that was broadcast from mid-1993 to the end of July 1994. The station sought to stir up ethnic hatred for the Tutsi minority (approximately 9% of the population). This station was very popular and influential in inciting the genocide. Kellow and Steeves (1998) provide an excellent summary of the role of radio in the Rwandan genocide. The question is how did the station’s language promote various classification themes aimed at vilifying the Tutsi minority?

To answer this question, it may be useful to turn to a recent paper focusing on Israeli–Palestinian language leading up to the Oslo Accords. Donohue and Druckman (2009) sought to understand how language is used to reify intergroup relations in the context of an extreme conflict, and these authors coded language used in speeches delivered by both sides in the 6 months leading up to the Accords. The study focused on the extent to which the language promoted power and/or affiliation, trust or mistrust, and forward- or backward-looking relational message themes. The study concluded that the Palestinians displayed language that emphasized more power and backward-looking justice themes and less trust. In contrast, the Israeli language themes moved back and forth between high power and high affiliation and were more forward looking while showing some trust at certain intervals. These results are consistent with the forward–backward, peace-versus-justice themes examined by various authors in the research by Zartman and Kremenyuk (2005).

The Donohue (2011) paper describing the Rwandan genocide used this framework to explore the linguistic profile that constituted and sought to promote the “classification” language described by Stanton (2004) aimed at forming polarized intergroup identities. The goal of the group seeking to perpetrate genocide is to create a simple, evil stereotype of the outgroup, a “disbelief system” (Rokeach, 1960) that stems from their past injustices. “Here’s the evil they have perpetrated,” so “They can’t be trusted,” and as a result, “They must be controlled and eliminated.”

The Donohue (2011) paper argued that this constant drumbeat of polarizing intergroup identities created an “Identity Trap” in the sense that it framed the conflict as being about the clash of identities between the competing tribes instead of focusing on substantive issues and the exploration of alternative solutions. The inflammatory, extremist language simultaneously pulls enemies closer together (more communicative, psychological and physical engagement with the enemy) in a struggle to push (defeat, separate from, or in other ways eliminate) the enemy further away. This paradoxical push–pull traps the polarized groups into a sense of confused outrage and becomes the new “normal” for them.

At its worst, this push-pull paradoxical identity entraps entire societies, making individuals feel caged and backed into a corner. In other words, the more extremely the groups build pervasive social and rhetorical institutions focusing on the collective intergroup identity of their rivals, the more emotionally engaged and committed they become to the goal of eliminating their “enemies.” Several specific examples of how the intergroup language was used to create this identity trap follow.

Power/Affiliation Classification Themes

The identity trap framework outlined in the previous section focuses on three kinds of themes promoting intergroup differences. Power themes focus on control, influence, emotional reactions, and the like, whereas affiliation themes emphasize camaraderie, friendliness, and other nurturing acts. As the Donohue (2011) paper indicates, power themes dominated the broadcasts in various ways. Speakers used the broadcasts to continuously harp on the evil intentions of the Tutsis. They used the pejorative nickname for the Tutsis, calling them the Invenzi (translated as cockroach) and accused them of being involved in a conspiracy with the Rwandan government to mass killing of Hutus (Roozen & Schulman, 2014). The speakers claimed that the Invenzi were collaborators with the RTF (Rwandan government) and that both groups were involved in various killings. The power themes also included emotional language, the first component of Whillock’s (1995) hate stratagem. In essence, the broadcasts sought to classify the Tutsis as an enemy of the majority Hutu people. The dominance of power themes and the absence of affiliation themes in the language begin to set the context for later events.

Trust/Mistrust Classification Themes

The broadcasts accused the Invenzi of working with the government to acquire jobs to cast the identity of the Tutsis as an entitled class who saw themselves as superior to “the people.” They were also accused of stopping peace negotiations for their own benefit. The Invenzi were then portrayed as people who must be feared because they were easily angered and should not be trusted. The broadcasts ultimately accused them of working with the government to kill 13 people. They were labeled as daredevils, street children, sorcerers, and “women who suck.” Other broadcasts labeled these Tutsis as cockroaches needing to be exterminated. The goal was to hunt them down and totally eliminate them. No attempts at negotiation or problem solving of any kind were suggested. Victory was the main objective.

Forward- and Backward-Looking Classification Themes

Finally, the hallmark of backward-looking language is the idea of seeking justice for past wrongs and not addressing the underlying sources of the conflict. The goal is to lay blame on someone for past wrongs such that if these individuals were eliminated, justice would be served in some way. Again, the goal of the broadcast was to lay blame for various injustices (e.g., killings, stopping negotiations) at the feet of the RTF and the Tutsis. The language clearly looks backward with no attempt to propose any alternative strategies for either understanding the current problems or negotiating a new set of arrangements. There is also no attempt to provide others’ opinions or to get reaction from any other source. In other words, it is not about debate, but rather stern accusation to incite hate.

Often these social and rhetorical institutions, like these broadcasts, build inevitably toward hate speech, particularly when other institutions are not available to counter such speech. Whillock (1995) uses the terms “hate stratagem” to describe a series of steps for how groups use hate to form an intergroup identity. The first step involves inflaming members’ emotional reactions to the targeted outgroup using verbally aggressive language that vilifies the targeted individuals. The second step asks the group to stick together to eradicate the ever-expanding threat. The third step then proposes specific actions aimed at attacking the outgroup members, its perceived friends, and the things it values. The final step of the hate stratagem is to rhetorically conquer the enemy by glorifying the killing and destruction of the outgroup and its cohorts. This glorification shows that the group can successfully achieve the justice it so rightly deserves.

Moving along these series of steps allows the group to fall through the identity trap door into what can potentially be the dark abyss of genocide. However, as Bhavnani (2006) points out, the language of hate may set the stage for falling through the identity trap door, but it does not explain or account for how this language interacts with other factors that ultimately result in genocide. Bhavnani cites research indicating that the Hutu population in Rwanda was not monolithic in its genocidal actions toward the minority Tutsis. In fact, approximately 40% of the Hutu population killed enthusiastically; 20% killed reluctantly; and 30% were forced to kill Tutsis. Intergroup forces created, what he calls, a “violence-promoting norm” (p. 625) that compelled nearly all Hutu to participate in the violence.

Why did these very extreme norms emerge? Bhavnani (2006) argues that a combination of the collectivist nature of the Hutu population to conform to authorities in combination with severe penalties (including death) for not participating likely explains the larger participation of Hutus in the killing. Bhaynani’s framework for explaining the emergence of this killing norm consists of three dimensions. First, he argues that there was in intense tribal hatred that emerged from, among other factor, colonial empowerment of the rival Tutsis during Belgian rule. This hatred was fostered over many generations and produced various periods of interethnic violence, while also creating the norm of punishing coethnics who did not support this interethnic violence. This tribal rivalry set the stage for the second dimension which focused on building social networks within the tribal structure. As tribal members reinforced one another’s normative structures, and resisted integration with the rival tribes, the force of these normative structures became that much more intense.

The third dimension of the framework is the strength of the punishments imposed on individuals who deviated from the emergent group behavior. Once the norm of genocide took hold on the 40% who killed enthusiastically these individuals then forced the remaining Hutus to kill Tutsis. Failure to comply resulted in immediate death. Once this punishment became known, then compliance was immediate.

Avoiding the Identity Trap by Countering Dehumanizing Language

Clearly, the radio broadcasts leading up to the genocidal acts were aimed at accomplishing two key goals. The first goal was to focus listener attention on identities rather than on specific issues. Creating an extremist identity for the outgroup Tutsis on the one hand and building a rationale for viewing the extremist Hutu group as the salvation of the country on the other hand was a necessary first move. The second goal was to refine these identities by classifying the Tutsis as dangerous criminals and cockroaches causing problems for the country while offering the Hutu group as the voice of salvation. Having pounded away at these goals for months, subsequent broadcasts moved systematically toward genocide by concentrating on language that promoted symbolization and ultimately dehumanization.

Clearly, this kind of intergroup language is oriented toward power, justice, and mistrust. The power language commands listeners to identify the Tutsis and hunt them down. The language is directive and forceful with few qualifications. Consistent with this language are attempts to show how the Tutsis cannot be trusted. The broadcasts called them daredevils and sorcerers who pose a significant threat.

A similar context in which language played a big part in contributing to genocide occurred in Darfur. In a study following the Darfur genocide of 2004 in southern Sudan, Hagan, Rymond-Richmond, and Parker (2005) presented the results of a survey conducted on the African victims of the genocide who were living in a refugee camp. According to those who were surveyed, the genocidal forces of the Sudanese and the Janjaweed relied heavily on racial epithets to justify their mass killings. Again, language played a significant role in creating an identity-driven intergroup affiliations that enabled them to justify the killing.

The key to avoiding identity traps is the analysis of identity-driven intergroup communication references. Extreme responses to problems such as genocide are not sudden, unexpected events. They are telegraphed. Thus, it might be useful to highlight strategies for recognizing when intergroup communication reveals identity traps. First, it is important to note that traps generally emerge when extremist groups gain access to popular media and begin the outbidding process that consists of attempts to classify. Often, these classification attempts can be very subtle. Showing disrespect by dismissing the other’s issues, demonstrating a lack of interest in listening to the other, or labeling the other as unjust or illegitimate are active attempts to build a climate of mistrust, power, and looking backward. Repeated over time with more intense language or sensitive topics can further escalate the move from classification to symbolization and dehumanization. These strategies are common in most international disputes, such as the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, in which both sides seek to paint a black-and-white picture of the other side’s words and actions.

Another side of the identity trap shows a fixation on a linguistic trope. Tropes represent frames for shaping the rhetorical frame. Putnam (2004) examines the concept of tropes (i.e., the use of metaphors, irony, metonymy, and synecdoche) to understand how individuals reference and manage relational tensions. She focuses specifically on the use of metonymy (a figure of speech in which a word stands for its constituent parts, like using the word “culture” to stand for an organization’s values, rituals, and myths) and synecdoche (a figure of speech in which the part stands for, or symbolizes the whole, like substituting the word “crown” to stand for the role of the king or queen). In other words, how are people using words to conceptualize complex relational dialectics that define the nature of the parties’ interdependencies?

In classification language, similar kinds of tropes often emerge that serve to build identity traps. Several tropes were featured in the November 24 broadcast. The most obvious is the use of the pejorative nickname “Invenzi” to refer to the Tutsis. The speakers made several references to this nickname and often formed the broadcast around it to ensure that the classification objectives were reached. The broadcasts also used the word “negotiation” as a way of denigrating what would be a more reasonable and rational way of resolving the conflict, and that the Tutsis were somehow restricting the negotiation process. The repeated references to negotiation sought to give the extremist Hutu supporters the moral high ground in the dispute by advocating for negotiation. Such tropes are commonly used by groups seeking to build a case for their side, or in this case the listeners, to adopt a particular frame for the dispute and ultimately a course of action to resolve the dispute.

These tropes often serve as windows for disclosing paradoxes. The label “Invenzi” is not only used to classify all the individuals who identify with the Tutsi tribe, but it also serves as a linguistic tool to justify actions. For example, the Hutu fixation in calling all of the people who oppose their extremist vision as “Invenzi” represents a classic identity trap. The Hutu extremists use this term in their language to express their fears and press their demands with the listeners and other supporters while also using it to resist demands and assert rights. Thus, whatever trope either side uses represents a bid for the support of a specific identity while also signaling the entrance into the identity trap. The fight between the Hutus and Tutsis was not about the appropriate form of government or specific grievances. Rather, it was about a lack of trust and affiliation and a refusal to work together for a better future. Listeners were led into an identity trap that deepened dramatically as the broadcasts progressed.

The Rwandan situation is typical of many genocidal situations in which a powerless group finds itself in a death spiral at the hands of the more powerful party. Caught in an existential struggle, the powerless group must pursue a unilateral strategy to avoid the identity trap and deescalate the conflict. In the case of the Rwandan situation the Tutsi military (RTF) finally asserted itself and ended the violence. They could have fallen into the identity trap and retaliated against the Hutu majority, but they did not; they pursued peace resulting in a prosperous Rwanda today. History tells us that outside intervention, if it ever materializes, comes only after significant atrocities have already taken place. And, often the interventions, as in the case of Rwanda, are ineffective at stopping the violence.

Lessons Learned about Intergroup Communication and Genocide

The main point of this chapter is that the language of intergroup communication plays a significant role in creating conditions that may lead to genocide and mass killing. When the preconditions of hate and normative pressure to kill the hated enemy are present, language can foment and direct the hatred toward disastrous outcomes. Furthermore, all of these conditions can be captured by the concept of the identity trap. From the perspective of this framework what lessons might be learned that could help prevent the kinds of events that occurred in Rwanda?

One lesson, proposed in the Donohue (2011) article is the need to identify detection systems in high-risk environments that ought to be in place to both detect such language and then to mitigate its effects? One could imagine a system in which a computer program sponsored by a reputable NGO that could analyze the verbally aggressive language coming from various media broadcasts or computer websites and then look for trends over time to determine the appropriateness and timing of an intervention. That system could focus on the three constructs proposed here including power and/or affiliation, trust or mistrust, and forward- or backward-looking language. If that system were fed into a central database that monitors such language, it would be possible for those analyzing the information to create a list of countries or areas on a “watch list.” As the language intensified, the more vulnerable places could be targeted for some kind of intervention.

A second lesson learned from focusing on intergroup communication and the study of genocide is that the power norms created by extremists and then reinforced by repeated references to various tropes cannot be overestimated. The Bhavnani (2006) attempt to model interethnic violence looked comprehensively at six factors that set the context for violence. The first condition focuses on the rules that are created and reinforced by the group for appropriate or conforming behavior. The power of those rules is strengthened when the intergroup networks have restricted access to outside information, animosity toward the outgroup is high, tolerance is low, punishment norms for noncompliance are strictly enforced, and the behavioral rules are championed by violence entrepreneurs. This combination of isolation and intolerance breeds the kind of extremist behavior that allows for violence.

A third lesson learned from this kind of analysis is that societies ought to pay more attention to the language and symbols used by groups to reinforce their identities through the denigration of outgroups. We know from the literature that the path toward violence goes through classification language. Countries dealing with hate crimes and terrorist activities should be paying attention to the online language that some groups might use to move in a destructive direction. Given the proliferation of communication media available to foment identity traps, it might be useful to be more organized with these kinds of efforts.


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