Lemkin 2021 Essay Winner

``Meaning, Logic, and Death: Genocide and its Underlying Causes``

Zackery Gostisha


Raphael Lemkin’s dedication to the punishment and prevention of genocide, primarily through international legal intervention, was founded on a belief in the fundamental rights of all peoples. In this essay, I argue that a precondition of genocide is logic, when logic is understood to totally and accurately describe everything in existence. Logic, then, is not the sole cause of genocide, but it is vital that we unpack how logical structure of thought can be used to enable violence. I suggest that once a logical system that binarizes between ‘legitimate’ groups and ‘illegitimate’ groups has been endorsed by a significant amount of those in power, the prevention of genocide falls to highly erratic, contingent political and social factors, meaning that any hope of preventing genocides in the long term must engage with how these binary logics of violence function. This essay is written for the purpose of continuing that engagement. Further, I argue that Lemkin’s advocacy for international justice hinges upon a view of humanity outside of such violent ideologies. In sum, I argue that accepting the subjective, intimately contingent nature of each person’s understanding of the world is the most useful way to avoid being drawn into the perpetuation of genocide.

Zackery Gostisha
What is Genocide?

Genocide is the death of meaning. In the most basic view, then, the question of genocide’s meaning is an impossible one, because the same way of thinking that enables genocidal action is intrinsically opposed to the careful, discomforting thoughts we hold when we ask how the unanswerable could happen. Formed by a logic which seeks to place life in stasis, genocide defies the possibility of meaning, simply because its perpetrators refuse to acknowledge the meaning implicit in the lives of their targets. Exclusionary logic becomes genocidal action. To me, this is genocide: the leap from emptiness into reality.

Action and Logic

We act because actions have meaning—we give them meaning because we want to do them, or avoid them, or engage with them in any way at all—but to invest in the end of a person, or a people, is to deny them the ability to possess meaning at all. And those who cannot possess meaning are incapable of creating their own. Genocide is an impossibly philosophical process in this sense: to imagine a meaningless life (a life not deserving existence), we require violent logics that strip away the always-nascent world of living. The focal point of this essay is that genocide’s ascendance in the modern world becomes more sensical when we understand how the structures of logic compel violence. My personal use of exclusive logic, joined with my implicit place in the world, has shaped how I engage with everyone and everything. From this foundation, I want to suggest that Raphael Lemkin’s contributions to a less violent world were defined by his willingness to reaffirm the meaning of lives that, to perpetrators and many observers, appeared meaningless.

Logic is meant to coerce. Logical images of the universe preclude any possible critique of their contents, at least when done right. Max Horkheimer, himself a Jewish academic who fled the Nazi Germany, writing soon after the Second World War and the genocide of Jewish Europeans pointed out as much: “the philosophical systems of objective reason [of the modern
world] implied the conviction of an all-embracing or fundamental structure of being that could be discovered and a conception of human destination derived from it.”
1 Genocide is hardly just a way of thinking about the world—its terrible impacts are proof of that—but it is the result of a way of thinking about the world. Without first conceiving of a logic in which another group must be eliminated, it would be impossible to perpetrate such crimes. And this is precisely why logic is so dangerous: it exists to coerce, to force an (often foregone) conclusion upon its users. Mathematics allows no dissent, as one plus one is always two; imposing these tools on the infinitely imperceptible universe enforces a personally conceived rigidity on all the universe’s contents.

Nomi Claire Lazar has pointed out that as soon as any action is understood to be inevitable, necessary, or even highly likely, there are only two possible responses: support or passivity.2 Lazar points out that even in theoretically static constructions of temporality, political actors still have to do things, which means that actors who can construct ideologies of stasis in favor of a particular form of action can justify their preferred policies prior to any argument.3 Because discourse happens within a given form and with presuppositions, aligning form and presuppositions with one’s goals enables justifications without opening oneself to criticism. Speakers can construct a ‘self-sealing’ logic to their goals whereby any possible challenge to their ideology can be explained away by the ideology, which prevents criticism while cloaking their beliefs in a mask of inherency: ‘do what I want because it is the only possible thing to do.’

1 Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (New York: Oxford University Press, 1947), 12.
2 Nomi Claire Lazar, Out of Joint: Power, Crisis, and the Rhetoric of Time (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019), esp. 166-208.
3 Lazar, Out of Joint, esp. 16-59.

Alfred Rosenberg

Alfred Rosenberg, the repulsive “philosopher of the Third Reich,” used this very technique. By labelling his violent, racist, horrific goals as inherent, he justified an enormous shift in the material conditions of millions of people. Rosenberg believed that his “greatest task” was to logically and methodically assemble a racist system of thought for the entire planet. In his view, all of humanity was divided in clear-cut races; each race on Earth possessed a unique soul, and the choice to define all peoples by a hierarchy of their that racial souls was the essence of Nazi ideology—“the religion of the blood.”
4 Rosenberg argued that each aspect of human existence fit perfectly into this racist system, so that “Race and self, blood and soul, stand in the closest connection.”5 This made his philosophy self-sealing: any attack upon its contents would simply mean that the attacker lacked the “racial soul” necessary to properly understand Rosenberg’s argument. And anyone lacking the proper racial soul to understand his argument was ignorant, inferior, and inherently deserving of death. This is how logic functions: after assigning variables to the world with apparently coherent, recognizable values, the logistician shows that, if we accept the fundamental values used by a system, we must accept their conclusions. If one accepts any part of Rosenberg’s racist, sexist, genocidal system of logic, one must then agree to all of his conclusions.6 The allure of total answers to every question can lead us to these ways of approaching the world.

4 Fritz Nova, Alfred Rosenberg: Philosopher of the Third Reich (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986); Alfred Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, (Black Kite Publishing, 1982), 201.
5 Rosenberg, The Myth of the Twentieth Century, 201.
6 This is also how, in an especially common example, myths of Jewish media control function: anyone who points out that ‘the media’ is in fact not controlled by a secret cabal of Jewish manipulators is ridiculed because, according to these Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, it is that very cabal that falsifies reports to cloak their existence.

The Foundational Principle of Punitive Law and ``Social Death``.

Lisa Marie Cacho tells us that the foundational principle of all punitive law is that the world is divided into inherent social statuses, which means that there must also be groups to whom these inherent statuses apply. She suggests that most groups of people must be, for the law to function, non-persons. They are “ineligible for personhood,” which ends in what she calls “social death.”
7 Social death, because it is the foundational premise of modern law, is conceived as such as a “permanent” position “necessarily beyond legal recourse; that is, the concept relies on a notion of logical permanence, a parallel that functions identically to that of genocide.”8 Social death is the state of a living, breathing person who nonetheless cannot be alive, living, breathing to the law. Whatever a socially dead person carries (though Cacho suggests that a socially dead person is no person at all) exists because it is allowed to exist by someone else. Meaning, then, is determined by the rhetor with power, who will always be the beneficiary of whatever violent logic upon which their world is built. The insidious nature of this particularly totalizing form of domination is that it defines its own terms: it is true because it claims to be true, and it claims to be true because it is true. This is no circular logic; it is the basic premise of all logics that seek to fit the entirety of the exterior world into their bounds. Because “value is made intelligible relationally” and only relationally, success must be accompanied by failure, empowerment must be accompanied by disempowerment, and life must be accompanied by death.9 And where no social death exists, a person who desires power must impose it.
Genocide is the logical conclusion of “social death.” When a group is labelled, that label is assumed to be inherent, and it carries with it an ineligibility for legitimate personhood. The only rational—or the only logical—conclusion is murder. Meaning, then, only exists to the extent that we allow it to exist. It is perfectly natural, after all, to believe that some things matter more than others. What is insidious is refusing to acknowledge that forms of meaning besides one’s own—especially when one’s own is the product of a logical taxonomy—are capable of truly existing.

7 Lisa Marie Cacho, Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected (New York: New York University Press, 2012), 6.
8 Cacho, Social Death, 6; 7.
9 Cacho, Social Death, 13.

The Collapse of Logic

Genocide is not only the collapse of meaning: it requires politics, law, action, and reaction. Logic is useless unless we choose to follow it. Jacques Semelin points out as much: from “the core impulse” of logic which entices genocidal action, we must note that “the process of destruction…is never fully determined.”10 The problem is not logic as logic—genocide is the result of totalizing logics, logics that are assumed to be inherent, and perhaps most important, logics that, for wherever reason, a significant group of empowered people choose to enforce. Hannah Arendt wrote, largely in response to the crimes of Nazi Germany, that the most radical, most terrible crimes imaginable are perpetrated by organizations which “none of our traditional legal, moral, or common sense utilitarian categories could any longer help us come to terms with, or judge, or predict their course of action.”11 That is, the Holocaust became possible when one logic—the horrific, falsified logic of Rosenberg and his fellow fascists—became the sole basis by which the German state operated. The language of political belonging, of singular logic, means that a person’s ability to take part in the nation rests on political recognition of their identity being fundamentally similar to the rest of its citizens. But, as Arendt pointed out in lucid terms, in any nation, “only people of the same national origin can enjoy the full protection of legal institutions.”12 Indeed, any person who is not a full citizen is liable to have all their rights stripped away at a moment’s glance, making the universalization and politicization of previously non-political identities—that is, the institutionalization of logic—a particularly dangerous element of the modern period.

10 Jacques Semelin, Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide trans. Cynthia Schoch (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 165; 167.
11 Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism 3rd ed. (New York: Harcourt, 1976), 460.
12 Arendt, Origins, 275.

Raphael Lemkin

Raphael Lemkin dedicated his life to the search for meaning in law. His remarkable activism in late 1940s onward was characterized by his drive to understand that there is meaning in plurality.
13 In 1946 he argued that the plan of the Nazi regime was “to win the peace though the war be lost,” combining mass murder of European Jews while “the population not destroyed was to be integrated in the German cultural, political, and economic pattern.”14 Lemkin’s point was that “German cultural, political, and economic patterns,” as defined by Nazi leadership, were supposed to be mutually exclusive with the lives of anyone Jewish: meaning could only exist within German (or rather, Nazi) ideology. Even those whom Nazis did not mean to murder needed to conform to Nazism—the question was merely whether Nazi officials consigned a person, through that person’s group identity, to social death, or whether Nazi ideology could accommodate their ‘rehabilitation.’ Lemkin then pointed out that because nation-states enforce their own conceptions of belonging, genocide must be an international crime. He observed that genocide takes place in multiple ways—in this article, it includes “conspiracy to exterminate national, religious or racial groups” by “attacks against life, liberty or property of members of such groups merely because of their affiliation with such groups.”15 This blurs the lines between forms of violence, but it allows us to understand how violence works. There is no ‘easy solution’ because violence isn’t always clear-cut—genocide can range from rapid mass murder to forced sterilization to mass kidnapping. Genocide’s varying forms are part of why it is vital that we examine mentalities: they can help us identity forms of violence that may be part of genocide, leading up to genocide, or at least products of similar processes as genocide. In 1947, Lemkin reiterated this argument, noting that genocide includes “the prevention of life…and also devices considerably endangering life and health.”
16 Genocide had to be inclusive, because Lemkin recognized that violent logics could be constituted and implemented differently depending on their contexts. After all, the persistent nature of potentially violent visions of the world is what makes genocide a terribly perennial problem.

13 Or, on the other hand, that something does not have to possess meaning in one’s own conception of the world in order to possess meaning in a different conception. However, my argument is that recognizing such a scenario is impossible if we formally follow the rules of logic, which incur particular meanings at the expense of all other interpretations.
14 Raphael Lemkin, “Genocide” The American Scholar 15, no. 2 (1946), 227.
15 Lemkin, “Genocide,” 230.

16 Raphael Lemkin, “Genocide as a Crime under International Law” The American Journal of International Law 41, no. 1 (1947), 147.

Where is my place?

But where is my place in this? For years I was taught that the best, brightest, and most valuable people engaged with the world through logic, and logic only. The construction of masculinity, at least in the modern world, is an additional layer through which the violence of a subjective logic imposed on everyone else plays out daily.17 To win an argument, whether in debate or academics, one should construct a line of logic that forces all listeners to agree with one’s conclusions. The proper mode of dissent, even, is to construct another totalizing line of argumentation, and somehow between two mutually exclusive, totalizing lines of argumentation, we are supposed to find ‘the Truth.’ The resulting binaries are the bedrock of violence. Yet I live in a world of binaries: I use them even here, by juxtaposing ad hoc logic and logics of inherency. Possessing the label of masculinity allows the world to see me as a person; contrasting my experiences with those for whom the labels are different or fuzzier gives me ample examples of that fact. I still engage with texts using binary logic on a fairly frequent basis, searching for exceptions to an author’s argument which I can critique. In a world made up of violent logical systems, whether white supremacy or patriarchy, engaging with one another outside of totalizing binaries can be difficult. What matters is not that I refuse to ever use logic (doing so would prevent me from submitting this essay), but rather that I recognize the impossibility of any hope I could have of fully understanding the world, or further, of understanding the world through rigid, totalizing taxonomic hierarchies. Different types of harmful logics give rise to different harms, and genocide is simply the most extreme version. But it is precisely because genocide is the most extreme possible result of our common, normalized logical systems that any hope for genocide prevention must include a call to consistently, thoughtfully reevaluate how each of us conceives of those around us.

17 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (Abingdon: Routledge, 2006).


The issue at hand is not all ways of constructing logic. It is not even all math, though I hope no one tells my last math professor this. The issue is assigning value based on a total view of logic. Logic becomes violent when we assume that there is only one possible logic, that it properly assigns value to all things in its hierarchy, and that we must act to enforce it. Because different beings and objects exist in different circumstances, value judgments are all about action, not necessarily logic. What ultimately matters is what is tangible. To be clear, harmful logics are just that—harmful—but the real danger of genocide is that we will fail to recognize the subjectivity of any person’s way of ordering the world. We enable genocide when we assume that our logic is the logic. But this leaves me in a bind: despite the fact that what ultimately matters is tangible violence, genocides are brought about when intangible logics are made tangible; when the perpetrator makes the leap from emptiness into reality.
At first glance this all seems remarkably simplistic. Of course we should recognize that there is more than one way of thinking; of course it is harmful to force each other to do what we want; and of course genocide requires some sort of dangerous label to be placed on victims. But many of the underlying structures of the modern world function by drawing lines, enforcing labels, building binaries, and constructing logics that are meant to describe all things perfectly. To be sure, it can be useful to label, draw lines, articulate binaries, and form logic—a world that discarded each mental process completely would be incomprehensible. Genocide is not solely
the product of logic, its labels, and the subsequent hierarchy of meaning to which they give rise: it is the result of a totalized, enforced version of these processes. Indeed, to convince themselves that their logic is total, perpetrators often rely on ritual humiliation of their targets, which proves on its own that logic is not enough to incite mass violence.
18 Genocide is the death of meaning; or at least, the death of all meaning besides one’s own. Remaining conscious of how we think as well as how we act on what we think is the only way to recognize the currents of genocide before the violence begins.

18 Thomas Kühne, Belonging and Genocide: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).


Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism 3rd edition. New York: Harcourt, 1976.
Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Abingdon: Routledge, 2006.
Cacho, Lisa Marie. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press, 2012.
Horkheimer, Max. Eclipse of Reason. New York: Oxford University Press, 1947.
Kühne, Thomas. Belonging and Genocide: Hitler’s Community, 1918-1945. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010.
Lazar, Nomi Claire. Out of Joint: Power, Crisis, and the Rhetoric of Time. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2019.
Lemkin, Raphael. “Genocide as a Crime under International Law” The American Journal of International Law 41, no. 1 (1947): 145-151.
Lemkin, Raphael. “Genocide” The American Scholar 15, no. 2 (1946): 227-230.
Nova, Fritz. Alfred Rosenberg: Philosopher of the Third Reich. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1986.
Rosenberg, Alfred. The Myth of the Twentieth Century. Black Kite Publishing, 1982.
Semelin, Jacques. Purify and Destroy: The Political Uses of Massacre and Genocide. Translated by Cynthia Schoch. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.