Today we present another Guest Preventer from Prof. Alex Hinton’s genocide prevention class at Rutgers–Newark:

Jeff Benvenuto, Ph.D. student, Division of Global Affairs

Being that I came to Rutgers for the express purpose of studying genocide, a subject in which I’ve been critically engaged over the past six years, I relished the opportunity to take this pioneering class. Through all of my studies, I’d never approached genocide from the preventive angle. As I expected, our class has sharpened my critical stance.

While I consider myself a participant in the anti-genocide project, I am very critical of the notion of genocide prevention. This is not to say that I think that it’s unpreventable in some cases, or that the whole campaign is not a worthy one. But I am skeptical of our community’s implicit aspirations of eradicating this “odious scourge.” Underpinning this naïveté is a deep faith in social progress, that our positivist advances in knowledge will improve the human condition. This is a fine intention, for sure, but it is also a myopic vision that fails to see how genocide is an inherent byproduct of our civilization.

First of all, the hope that genocide is curable presupposes that our conception of it is objective and deterministic. Concepts, however, are neither fixed nor static representations of reality. They are rather simplified versions of that reality which are filtered through our subjective perceptions. As such, what we call “genocide” is actually an amorphous and indeterminate phenomenon, highly contingent to local circumstances, and variable across space and time. Hence, the never-ending debates over definitions. In short, genocide cannot be prevented in every case because we will never be able to positively predict its occurrence.

Secondly, because our anti-genocide project is ultimately a product of the Western Enlightenment, there is a common misperception that it is something that happens “out there,” not as something that originates close to home. However, there is presently a wave of critical reflection infusing our field that is revealing the deep and complex relationships between genocide and modernity. (My mentor, Alex Hinton, is at the forefront of this critical turn.) According to such a perspective, the positivist faith that underpins much of our anti-genocide project is hardly the antidote—it is more likely part of the problem. Indeed, utopian visions have not only led to advances in social welfare but also to mass destruction. Genocide is the dark side of progress. Until we take a long, hard look in the mirror, and begin to dispel the paradigm of progress that undergirds our civilization, then our anti-genocide project is doomed to failure.