Word Games and the Lexicon of Denial

In sharp contrast to last spring when we were being literally barraged with anecdotal accounts of alleged atrocities in Kosovo, supposedly committed by Serbian troops against ethnic Albanians, the media are largely silent this summer. The media chose, for the most part, not to report on the most recent wave of KLA atrocities against the non-Albanian (and even non-Muslim Albanian) population in Kosovo. Nor have they reported the mass destruction of Serbian houses, farms, and Orthodox churches.

This muted response is curious for two reasons. First, we ought to remember that the avalanche of spring 1999 stories came despite the fact that all international observers were evacuated from Kosovo in the wake of NATO bombings. By contrast, there is a deafening silence this summer despite the overwhelming international presence: massacres of Serbs by KLA-Albanians are happening under the noses of 50,000 NATO-dominated “peacekeepers.”

The second curiosity has to do with the language found in the few reports on the current situation. In particular, two newly concocted phrases abound: “revenge killings” and “reverse ethnic cleansing.” Look at the built-in bias of these phrases of choice. These words not only seem to justify our military intervention based on initial violence, they also appear to justify our choice to do nothing but sit and watch the latest massacres. Because they are “revenge” and “reverse,” these killings and the ethnic cleansing are OK! As long as our politicians and journalists continue to play these word games, their words will encourage massacres.

For those who might think that these words were well chosen let me say this: The distinction between “ethnic cleansing” and “reversed ethnic cleansing” does not help describe any particular situation. The use of these phrases is simply an indication of what point in time those who use them became interested in the ongoing events. Had they chosen to start paying attention at some earlier point, say in relation to what Kosovo Albanians did to the Serbs in the 70’s and 80’s, the order of these phrases would have been different: we would have had “ethnic cleansing” of Serbs from Kosovo in the 80’s, then “reverse ethnic cleansing” of Albanians at the end of the 90’s, and finally “reversed reverse cleansing” of Serbs now.

The same applies to phrases “killings” and “revenge killings.” To those who play these word games, I would like to say this is not funny – your words help spread massacres.

The author is Professor of Philosophy and Conflict Resolution at Portland State University. He is editor of War Crimes and Collective Wrongdoing (Blackwell 2001).