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Words Can Hurt

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 - Sticks and stones will break my bones. But words will never hurt me. This familiar singsong may be useful for a child caught in a playground face-off, but that doesn't make it true. The truth is words hurt. Words can cause real harm, and pave the way for real violence in a society. How does that happen?

Mahathir Mohamad, the prime minister of Malaysia, made a speech that illustrates the path of promulgating violence. A great deal is known about how violence is fostered by a society; the 20th century provided researchers with a lot of data to learn from. The Malaysian leader now has the distinction of being the first 21st century poster boy for this research. His speech to the Organization of Islamic Conference, and the response to it, are classic.

The speech's very first few paragraphs expressed a sense of shame and humiliation, and the antagonism it arouses: Today we, the whole Muslim ummah (community), are treated with contempt and dishonor. Our religion is denigrated, our holy places desecrated..."

He did not add, though he might have, that even within the Muslim community, he and his people, as non-Arabs, have second-class status. From a psychological viewpoint, that would only add to his anger, and to his motivation to lead the charge against an enemy.

According to research, a precondition for war or other group violence is an ideology of antagonism -- which may result from a group's self-concept of superiority or of self-doubt. Superiority and self-doubt are two sides of the same psychological coin, especially for a group whose self-image is defined by a history of injury, deprivation or humiliation.

Mahathir's speech was steeped in defining the Muslims in contrast to Jews: "... Is it true that 1.3 billion people can exert no power to save themselves from the humiliation...? We are actually very strong; 1.3 billion people cannot be simply wiped out. The Europeans killed 6 million Jews out of 12 million, but today the Jews rule the world by proxy... "

Here we see the second step in the march toward violence. The weak sense of self makes the group susceptible to defining itself in contrast to other groups: in other words, what it is not, rather than affirming what it is. This is a self-definition on the basis on its own history, values, culture and traditions.

An insecure, weak self-concept needs protection. Too weak to acknowledge its own flaws and failures, the group preserves its idea of itself by ignoring or denying its own dark side. Someone else is always to blame; someone else who is temporarily more powerful stands in the way. Negatives are projected on another group who becomes the enemy.

Then comes hate literature -- speech, ideas, cartoons, beliefs, and mythology -- which is tolerated. And then comes the call to action.

Mahathir's speech to the Islamic conference was filled with such ideas. Not only were they tolerated, they were applauded!

According to research on the history of violence, this is a pivotal moment in the journey. At this point, bystanders play a powerful role. Our actions are critical.

Bystanders are individuals and groups within the society, or members of the community of nations, whose role either permits or prevents movement toward war and other forms of violence.

A seminal work on the subject, "The Roots of Evil: The Origins of Genocide and other Group Violence," by
Ervin Staub points out: "It is even more difficult for nations than for individuals to see and accept imperfections in themselves, to discover their denied and unacknowledged parts, as well as to see others without distortion and become aware of their own impact on others. Members of the community of nations have an obligation to be active bystanders who act as mirrors in which other nations can see themselves. The words and acts of friendly nations are more likely to be accepted, but showing critical loyalty to friends requires both courage and tact."

The "denied and unacknowledged parts" of the Islamic world include the terrible violence that rages from Algeria to Afghanistan, from Mauritania to Indonesia. The list of countries in which Muslims have been, and are being murdered by other Muslims as well as by non-Muslims is long but that seems not to have been on the agenda at the Islamic Conference. It should have been. Getting to the reality of their own community would have been both more accurate and more useful to the Islamic world, although certainly a lot less comfortable than focusing on an external "enemy."

Western bystanders need to fulfill our obligation to hold up a mirror to Islamic nations. We need to challenge, in a meaningful way, the faulty reasoning, false beliefs, and the focus on the presumed treachery of others if we don't want to be part of the process of violence. We need to respond vigorously to actions as well: Iran is busily developing nuclear weapons capability, Pakistan and North Korea appear to be helping Libya become a nuclear power, too.

Western journalists and diplomats, as well as world leaders, bear particular responsibility to rise to the challenge, and stop the progress of violence.

(Dr. Renee Garfinkel is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Washington, DC, a syndicated columnist, and a member of the faculty of the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management, the George Washington University.)

Source: United Press International

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