The Civil Side of Genocide: Powell’s Barbaric Civilization

Reviewed in this essay: 
Christopher Powell, Barbaric Civilization: a Critical Sociology of Genocide, McGill-Queens University Press, 2011.

What does calling someone a monster accomplish?  At a recent human rights panel I attended, a scholar described a series of personal interviews he’d conducted with a group of war criminals—men who had brutally tortured and killed numerous people.  He denounced these men as “monsters.” Repugnance seems to be the obvious moral response to details of gruesome violence, a visceral reaction that assures us that “we would never do that.” Yet a knee-jerk tendency to characterize perpetrators as monsters holds a logical trap:  we dehumanize the dehumanizers. And so a cycle continues.

Terms of dehumanization have attended every genocide in history.  Those targeted are called cockroaches or rats or dogs.  The epithet “monster” falls into the same dangerous vein as other terms, where hate for the “monsters” makes it all too easy to desire their destruction.  We might call this “righteous dehumanization” and it has become deeply ingrained in Western culture.  Case in point:  the few of us who have been in the physical presence of perpetrators of mass atrocity are often surprised to find that these men and woman are not the physical embodiments of evil that we thought they were.  Quite the opposite, their banal humanity is confounding.  I had this realization in 2009 when I attended the UN Khmer Rouge genocide tribunal in Cambodia.  On trial was a man named Kang Kek Iew, nicknamed “Duch,” the director of the famous Tuol Sleng detention center in Phnom Penh where 16,000 “dissidents” were “processed,” leaving less than ten survivors to attest to the atrocities.  Entering the court chamber’s viewing area, I was actually surprised to see a frail looking Cambodian man standing in the docket.   Had I been expecting horns and a cape?  As I witnessed Duch plead (with the aid of a translator over headphones) for the maximum penalty for his crimes, it became increasingly difficult for me to discount such a man as simply a monster.  His own psychology and the history of the system in which he had participated, demanded a more complicated analysis than that.

The human rights scholar on the panel similarly experienced the disconcerting realization that he was growing to care for the “monsters” he was interviewing, now elderly men who were pleading for forgiveness.  Accounts of interviewers experiencing empathy for perpetrators are actually more common than one might suspect.  The documentary film, Forgiving Dr. Mengele, tells the story of Holocaust survivor Eva Mozes Kor’s meeting with and subsequent forgiveness of Nazi doctor Hans Münch.  The book, A Human Being Died that Night recounts interviews between author and psychologist Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela and Eugene de Kock, the officer who oversaw state-sanctioned death squads during apartheid. These stories illustrate the uncomfortable fact that not only are perpetrators not monsters, they may be people for whom we might grow to care if we dared to spend time with them.

Our capacity to humanize and dehumanize is the thorny issue of the human condition that Christopher Powell addresses in his book, Barbaric Civilization: A Critical Sociology of Genocide, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2011.  As his title suggests, Powell argues that the sunny side of civilization as we know it has an equally dark and barbaric underbelly.   This inherent barbarism at the core of Western civilization produces genocide.

As a systematic explanation of genocide, Powell’s text can be situated in the burgeoning corpus of genocide studies that has emerged in the past twenty years.  This body of knowledge has come to require two things of its authors:  first, scholars must provide a unique (and exhaustive) definition of the term “genocide” itself, and secondly, they must detail a plan to stop it.  On this first point, Powell’s Barbaric Civilization vastly succeeds, particularly when compared with previous definitions (and there have been many), beginning with Raphael Lemkin’s coining of the term following WWII.  Where other definitions of genocide struggle to achieve comprehensiveness, Powell instead illustrates the power of a minimalist approach.  Using a scant six words, he defines genocide as, “An identity-difference relation of violent obliteration.”  The genius of this description lies in its agile and elegant simplicity.  Since our social identities are defined both by those we consider to be like us and those we consider to be different, Powell’s definition can be aptly applied to any group which is set apart as different, regardless of the self-identification of the individuals marked as belonging to the group.  The last half of the book is dedicated to proving the sheer versatility of his definition by successfully applying it to six historic sites:  Languedoc (France), Guatemala, Tasmania, India, Rwanda, and the Ottoman Empire.  By focusing on three kinds of “Others”—ideological, colonial and national—Powell is able to broadly explain the breakdown of multiple kinds of identity-difference relations, a problem that confounds most other definitions of genocide resulting in the emergence of ever more specialized terms such as politicide, democide, and autogenocide.

In the four chapters of the first section of the book, Powell builds his overall theory of genocide and “barbaric civilization.”  By defining society as a series of relationships, Powell distinguishes “relational sociology” from subjective and objective models that assume that individuals and society exist separately from each other.  Powell then frames genocide as a “relational social phenomenon” to challenge two views about genocide commonly held by Western readers:  that genocide is merely the result of individual or collective dysfunction, and that society is no more than the sum of individuals making choices.  Instead, Powell asserts that when genocide happens in the West, it represents the normal functioning of Western institutions, and not their breakdown.  Genocide is a relation, Powell argues, that is both destructive and productive, because it works to strengthen our communal identity while simultaneously highlighting the difference of those outside our “community of obligation.”  Moreover, genocide is often considered the moral choice for individuals in the community:  “Contrary to common sense and to what we wish were the case, genocide can be institutionalized as moral and can be functional.” In other words, those who perpetrate genocide do so because they believe it to be the moral thing to do to protect or advance the interests of the community.

This brings us to the second charge given to genocide scholars:  detail a plan for genocide prevention.  Most people assume that the advancement of human rights naturally works to mitigate and protect against genocidal tendencies.  This is the particular stance taken by the management of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR) who have strategically attempted to separate the championing of “human rights” from the recognition of “human wrongs.”  It is a “misconception,” states museum president and CEO Stuart Murray that the CMHR is “primarily a centre for the commemoration of genocides…a museum not of human rights, but of human wrongs that looks back at all the terrible things humans have done to each other over the years…That’s not our role.  And yes, it’s vital that we pay close attention to the lessons of history, but memorializing human atrocity isn’t what we’re about.”  Yet, according to Powell, human rights and wrongs are deeply implicated by each other and cannot be separated.

The difficulty lies in the binary nature of what Powell terms the “Eurocentric barbarizing-civilizing process.”  Inherent in the advance of Western civility is the equal advance of barbarism as its “necessary precondition.” Powell comes to this core thesis by reading the influential sociologist Norbert Elias’ conception of the “civilizing process” alongside Jacques Derrida’s theory of “différance.” Powell defines the “barbarizing-civilizing process” as a “movement of différance, in which the performance of relations of force produces an ensemble of social differences and deferences.” As nation-states attempt to consolidate power, the barbarizing-civilizing process works to produce social differences. These social differences can be charted along three axes: “identity-difference,” (the separation of who is alike and unlike the community), “impunity-interdependence,” (the extent to which the presence of outsiders is tolerated as functionally beneficial for the larger group), and “interest-indifference” (the extent to which the community would profit from the removal of outsiders). Because the forces that enable and inhibit genocide are produced simultaneously by this process, a tense duality exists along each axis. For the most part, the tension is held in relative stasis causing violence to be deferred. However, when there is an imbalance of power relations along any of these axes, genocide becomes possible.

It is important to note that Powell does not assume that all genocides, historically or today, fall under this rubric of the “Eurocentric barbarizing-civilizing process.” While some may be the result of an actual breakdown of society, he proposes the term “civilizing genocides” for those genocides that represent “an expansion or intensification of the civilizing process.” Yet the question remains: how do we act ethically if our methods of genocide prevention—those actions meant to increase civility—can ultimately serve genocide perpetration?

The problem with such a sociological deconstruction of civilization is that it causes Powell to inadvertently write himself into a corner.  Although Powell admits that genocide is a “politically and morally urgent issue,” his hope is to explain “without recourse to moralizing homilies about human nature, why genocide is so widespread and why it can coalesce out of a seemingly normal society.” His point is that since morality can be mobilized in the service of genocide, all moral arguments against genocide are relative and suspect.  This leads him to conclude that, “There is no nonmetaphysical sense in which we can say, on a purely descriptive level, that genocide is wrong.” While this statement is logically consistent, it nonetheless conflicts with Powell’s insistence throughout his text that our goal should be to “work effectively toward the prevention of genocide.”  But, given the removal of all the usual moral arguments, why should we?  If Powell assumes that the “deliberate effort to end genocide” is a value he shares with his readers, he seems unable to logically support the reasons for that valuation within the framework he has already established.

In the end, the most positive and logically consistent statement that Powell can produce is that “sociology asserts that the one inevitability of human existence is change.” Powell takes as axiomatic that change is good.  While he suggests the role of sociology is to make the mechanisms of genocide “perceptible and hence susceptible to change,” he goes on to excuse the discipline from further engagement by saying that “The means by which…change will take place (if it takes place) are not something that can be predicted by science.”  To his credit, Powell seems genuinely bothered that such a stance may smack of what he calls “practical inapplicability.”  So it is not surprising that Powell ends by asserting a list of attributes to which society should aspire, moral “fruits” which seemed ripped from the pages of the Book of Galatians: “kindness, compassion, empathy, generosity, charity, and gentleness.”

Despite what I see as some of the book’s contradictions, what I find most hopeful about Powell’s text is actually its insistence that Western readers realize our complicity with (and as) perpetrators.  The suggestion that atrocity starts at home represents a dramatic departure from the ubiquitous humanitarian pleas which strive to promote the Western reader’s empathy for the victim.  Instead, what if we were willing to identify with the so-called “monster” rather than the victim? What commonalities might we find? While surely uncomfortable, such an identification might actually cause us to consider more seriously our current habits of consumption in the West.  From this vantage, for instance, we might consider a downgrade instead of an upgrade given the widely publicized suicide-prevention nets that have been strung around the iPhone factory in Shenzhen, China (a solution approved by Apple to stymie the recent wave of jumpers unsatisfied with work conditions). And, if the central pillar of CMHR is to empower visitors “to help write the next chapter of Canada’s human rights history,” identifying with the perpetrator might make us consider the reasons why the previous chapters of our history have been so easily underwritten by barbarism.  Perhaps if we examine those parts of ourselves that are most willing to trade a pact of complicity for modern comforts, we might just be induced to move beyond mere feelings of guilt to consider the self-sacrifice necessary to produce the behavioral change that Powell so desires.