People are loose with language these days. Some-times it's mere malapropisms, using a word that sounds like the proper word but whose meaning is comically off base.
The current occupant of the White House has been notorious for this activity. Critics suspect this reflects lazy thinking or poor language skills, in spite of a Yale education. Others, more sympathetic, just let it pass, saying a few syntactical errors or misused adjectives are too superficial to take seriously.
Language, however, is how we set the context for grappling with issues. Poison gas as a "weapon of mass destruction" conjures up a horrific image, yet one military person debunked it, explaining that gas attacks are devastating only when victims have no avenue of escape, such as civilians caught in crossfire between warring military forces, or prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, our most notorious example of genocide.
Recently there was use of the term "economic genocide" in a discussion of EPA restrictions on pesticide use near waterways that support salmon. Genocide is a powerful word, meaning the "deliberate and systematic destruction of a racial, political, or cultural group."
When I hear the word "genocide," I first think of the Holocaust, then the war between the Hutu and Tutsi in Africa, which was deliberate and systematic in a chaotic way that verged on mass hysteria. I think of Pol Pot wiping out millions of his countrymen. Close to home, I think of the devastating experiences of Native Americans during the last two centuries. I don't think of people losing their jobs or having to change the way they do business. If I did, I'd have to call the decline of blacksmithing as a viable career with the advent of the horseless carriage, "economic genocide." I'd have to call the end of plantation slavery in the American South, "economic genocide" because large landowners now had to pay people to work their farms.
However, if you're the one who might lose his job or have to make a major alteration in how you do your work, it is a frightening situation. For most of us when frightened, striking out in anger is our first response. Words like "axis of evil" and "economic genocide" fly to our lips. But in the latter case, isn't it really a question of whose ox is getting gored?
In our culture, economic change happens in a relatively uncontrolled way. Although government exercises some restraints on some activities and subsidizes others so that we do not have a truly "free market" economy, most of our economic development is the result of random, discrete events and not based on a proactive plan.
A hundred years ago, highly efficient methods, like fish traps and fish wheels, began the decline of salmon runs. In the 1940's, commercial fishing interests knew that salmon runs would be struck another devastating blow with each new dam on the Columbia River. Their concern for their way of life and livelihood was drowned out by other voices arguing for a different kind of economic model that could emerge with cheap hydropower.
Since then, habitat degradation from intensive logging silting in and warming streams, plus pollution from urban development, pasture run-off, paper mills, and agriculture all have added to the mix of threats to salmon. Each one of these activities benefits someone, somewhere, while undermining fishing industry jobs. The paper mill employee knows he has a job and probably doesn't think much about what the mill's effluent is doing to the nearby waterway.
The logger who used to be able to cut down to the stream just knew he got a few more big trees and didn't think about sun baking shallow gravel beds where salmon might have spawned.
The farmer just knows he's got a bit more acreage if he allows his cows down to the stream to drink and doesn't think about the riparian zone that cools the water and absorbs manure run-off as something valuable to protect ... because it doesn't benefit him economically.
As long as people think only of their own self-interest, it's easy to shriek "foul" when other social values impinge on their habits. It's only when you don't want to change your own behavior or adopt new methods that it's easy to bandy about terms like "economic genocide."
But, when you think holistically and progressively, looking not for business as usual but better ways of doing business, you can see change coming and can respond with less fear, less hostility, less polarization and probably more effectiveness.
Victoria Stoppiello is a freelance writer from Ilwaco, where three generations of her father's family used to be commercial fishermen.