Does the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ matter?

By — November 29, 2012

You, as a reader, may not care about the behind-the-scenes debates over word choice, grammar, and punctuation that get journalists like me riled up. But readers and reporters alike are caught in an unusually public semantics discussion this week now that The Associated Press Stylebook's editors have announced that they’re dropping certain words.  

While “homophobia” and “Islamophobia” will, AP says, no longer be used or recommended by the news organization’s lauded style tome, the phrase “ethnic cleansing” will be used from now on in quotes to ensure that its euphemistic nature is clear. A sentence such as, “Rape can be used as part of a campaign of ethnic cleansing” would no longer be tolerated unless the term received its own quotation marks and explanation, Politico reports.

We at WMC’s Women Under Siege are sticklers for nuance as well. Given that we try to report, with neither exaggeration nor censorship, on conflict, sexualized violence, and all their effects, we don’t want to use a term like “ethnic cleansing” loosely. That’s why when we talk about ethnic cleansing—which we’ve done while covering Rwanda, Bosnia, North Korea, the Holocaust, and Sudan—we qualify our description with the following, which we worked out with our founder, Gloria Steinem:

The UN defines ethnic cleansing as “a purposeful policy designed by one ethnic or religious group to remove by violent and terror-inspiring means the civilian population of another ethnic or religious group from certain geographic areas.” We are using the term here because ethnic cleansing makes women subject not only to outright murder, but also controls the threat of their bodies as the means of reproduction. For instance, women have been raped in order to occupy “inferior” wombs with “superior” sperm, or forced to have abortions or sterilizations (as have men of ‘inferior’ groups) in order to end future reproduction. In some conflicts, women are also subject to the sex-specific political torture of forcing them to bear the child of their torturer in order to break their will.

First, let me say: We know. That’s a whole lot for readers to wade through just to get our thinking behind two little words. But those two words, once paired, are some of the heaviest in the language. And because the term is one defined by the United Nations—an organization we’re not afraid to take issue with but that nonetheless sets the tone in international humanitarian crises—we’ve stuck with it.

Still, AP’s argument that “ethnic cleansing” is really a “cover for terrible violent activities” has us rethinking our terminology. Out of all the terms we employ in our work, “cleansing” certainly ranks high on the euphemism scale. When we talk about how brutal sexualized violence has torn the vagina of a 4-year-old girl, or about soldiers who repeatedly raped a woman and then made her kill her 1-year-old daughter by smashing the baby’s head into a tree, we aren’t sparing the hard-to-stomach details. We want our readers to understand what is really happening all over the world, and that taking down the taboo and shame surrounding such violence is part of fighting it. We’ve also written about how using the term “sexual harassment” instead of “rape” is not okay.

Following the new AP rule would have us writing lines like, “the group appears to be murdering and raping women in a pattern of ‘ethnic cleansing’ ”—with scare quotes around the phrase. Does that convey what we mean? One writer, Jezebel’s Laura Beck, ended her post about alternative words with this quip: “And for ethnic cleansing... hmm, what about GENOCIDE. Catchy enough?”

But in fact most definitions of “genocide” don’t actually include birth forced by rape and only sometimes include birth prevention, something we are taking up with the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board.

We reached out to The Associated Press to hear what other terms they might support, but as of the publication of this piece have not heard back. As Beck’s snark implies, what matters, really, is that readers understand the gravity, breadth, and alarming nature of the crime: the large scale on which murder, rape, and other forms of torture and displacement take place. If “ethnic cleansing” is too quiet a term, or if it seems like what a parent might whisper above her toddler’s head to avoid upsetting him with “adult” talk of the news, by all means, let’s come up with a new one. But if at this point enough readers associate the admittedly euphemistic phrase with the bloody, systematic, Hitlerian weapon that it is, perhaps its two little words are doing their big job quite well.