Never Again? The Semantics of “Holocaust”

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(re-visiting my re-visiting of this issue)

The global animal by-products industry—by definition—involves packed transports, warehousing, experimentation, gassing, and the targeted mass extermination of sentient beings.

It’s been estimated that in all the wars and genocides in recorded history, a total of 619 million humans have been killed. That same number—619 million non-human animals—are killed every 5 days for “food” by an industry that’s also a top source of human-created greenhouse gases (translation: ecocide).

In a clinical sense, it’s undoubtedly accurate to deem this a holocaust, as in “destruction or slaughter on a mass scale.”

But, does it lessen or make light of the nightmarish experiences of humans—does it alienate much-needed, potential allies—if we use this word to describe the ongoing treatment of non-humans?

I ask this question because the term “holocaust” has, of course, become uniquely associated with humans of Jewish ethnicity or heritage. While the scores of communists, Roma, homosexuals, and dissidents murdered in Nazi concentration camps would obviously not concur with such limited word usage, the reality remains: Within our current culture, the word “holocaust” has a very specific, highly charged, and proprietary connotation.

Correct or Effect?

“Auschwitz,” wrote sociologist Theodor Adorno, “begins wherever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals.”

To disagree with Adorno is to betray one’s speciesist bias. It is also to betray the original meaning of the word: “A holocaust is a religious animal sacrifice that is completely consumed by fire. The word derives from the Ancient Greek holocaustos.”

However, as confident as we may be about our proper usage of the word holocaust, we cannot and must not ignore its impact within such a heavily-conditioned culture.

Animal rights activists are already relegated to the fringes by mainstream society and demonized by the State. Unless we grow and diversify the movement, we’ll never reach a broad enough audience to fundamentally challenge speciesism. Are we speaking the right language and sending the right message to make that happen?

In a cultural vacuum, words like holocaust, concentration camps, slavery, rape, incarceration, and murder accurately describe the widespread human treatment of non-humans…but we don’t live in a cultural vacuum.

Have we chosen a counterproductive battle by defying linguistic norms and clinging to such terms when we know full well how much emotional and political weight they carry?

More and more, I have witnessed anger, outrage, disbelief, and mockery from non-vegans in response to such words being used in reference to non-humans, so I must ask:

As activists—as advocates for the voiceless trillions—is it more important to be semantically correct or to be effective?

What do you say?

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4 thoughts on “Never Again? The Semantics of “Holocaust””

  1. The entire point of using the word ‘holocaust’ is to appeal to its highly specific and emotionally charged cultural context. It is speciesist to go to great lengths to spare the feelings of the species of privilege on this planet, while those very people engage in all out war against other species. Non-vegans tirelessly work to deconstruct the language and activities of animal rights activists in an effort to absolve their own guilty conscience about their own behavior. I’m sorry some people are hurt and have suffered. It would be speciesist of me to treat their hurt or suffering with more sensitivity than the animal life around me- especially when the humans who are sulking in their cultural privilege are still responsible for harming animals.

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    1. “It is speciesist to go to great lengths to spare the feelings of the species of privilege on this planet”

      I concur. That’s why I’m not doing that. What I am doing, since the vast majority of AR tactics aren’t working, is seeking EFFECTIVE ways to connect with more humans so we can challenge all forms of privilege. To stubbornly ignore the cultural impact of language is to guarantee AR will never be taken seriously and renders all the #fortheanimals social media hype virtually meaningless.

      Choose #intersectionality

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  2. And for the record, accusing humans of “sulking in their cultural privilege” when they face daily – hourly – oppression is not only highly insensitive, oblivious, and entitled…it also does nothing to halt the daily – hourly – assault on non-humans. It merely reinforces the (mostly accurate) perception of AR activists as out of touch, hyper-privileged, and clueless on the obligations of radical solidarity. Irony: the behavior of single-issue AR activists helps speciesism thrive.

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  3. I’d be honestly interested in a formal definition of the term ‘single-issue AR activist’ as well as real life documentation that their behavior is somehow making speciesism thrive. This train of thought seems counter-intuitive (of course many new ideas seem counter-intuitive to me.)

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