OK, the first thing that should have tipped us all off is that the term was invented by the people who were committing it in the former Yugoslavia. A criminal is never going to refer to his crimes by an accurate name but instead uses euphemisms to hide the severity. For example, the United States calls the human beings it kills even though it wasn’t targeting them “collateral damage,” which was a term originally reserved for damaged civilian property.
The same is true of the term “ethnic cleansing.” It sounds like such an innocuous term. What do you normally cleanse? You cleanse your body, your soul, the air, the water. It’s a positive act, and the fact that only in this one instance is it used to refer to a negative — a war crime in fact — masks the severity of its horror and terror.
But further, what does it mean to “cleanse”? Cleanse literally means to get rid of impurities and filth. So when you refer to “ethnic cleansing,” are you not also accepting the assumption that the ethnicity being “cleansed” is somehow impure and filthy? That’s literally what the Serb nationalists meant when they invented it.
And this is why I’m astounded. We adopted the term as if it’s a useful and accurate descriptor for this form of genocide, when actually it obscure the fact that it is a form of genocide. The result is then that people have arguments over what Palestinians suffered exactly (this is what led me to question the term in the first place). They’ll say, “No, it wasn’t genocide, it was ethnic cleansing!” As if one is a kinder, gentler, less immoral, easier to accept crime than the other. The more I think about it, the more I hate the term ethnic cleansing.