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Stop cheapening the word ‘Holocaust’

August 12, 2010

In an L.A. Times opinion piece in late June called a A Huge Word Made Small, Rabbi Marvin Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center wrote about the misuse and overuse of the word “holocaust.” It is being used willy-nilly for any terrible event or injustice or even a sporting even, which then devalues the word and the Shoah.

The continued misuse and trivialization of the word prompted Elie Wiesel, Nobel laureate and chronicler of the Holocaust, to discontinue using it. “Whatever mishap occurs now, they call it ‘holocaust,'” Wiesel said. “I have seen it myself in television in the country in which I live. A commentator describing the defeat of a sports team, somewhere, called it a ‘holocaust.'”

Wiesel is right. There are many injustices and manifestations of evil in our world, even in our own country, the greatest of democracies. Standing up to them is not only our right but our obligation. But that obligation does not include distorting and demeaning the word that has come to stand for the great evil that was the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was a total eclipse of humanity. It was not about going to the back of the line or eating in a different part of the restaurant or being escorted to the border without recourse. The Holocaust had one purpose: the total annihilation and extinction of a race.

I would expand on Wiesel and Hier’s proposition: We should avoid the casual use of powerful words that have a specific meaning in our history or society.

There is a meme in our culture nowadays that  says that an oppressed group can reduce the power of a pejorative word — and thus the power of its adherents in society — by using the words themselves. For example, the n-word for African Americans and “Nazi” by Jews. Think “soup Nazi.”

This meme is wrong. These words have power and meaning, and that meaning should be clear and unmistakable to anyone who hears them or uses them. They are unredeemable, certainly in our generation.

That was the Holocaust. It is not the BP oil disaster, it is not healthcare, it is not Arizona law, it is not the attack ads of Meg Whitman, it is not abortion, and it is not even horrific violations of civil rights.

The enormity of the crimes of the Holocaust was such that if you were to try to call out 2,000 of the names every day of the 6 million who perished, it would take more than eight years to complete the task. That’s what a holocaust is.

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