The Most Dangerous Four-Letter Word: Dick Simon at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)


I come from a Jewish tradition, the same one as Bernie Madoff, the worst financial criminal in history. So perhaps all Jewish transactions, including mine, need to undergo some extra scrutiny.

My Catholic wife seems OK, but we all know about the horrors of priests and pedophilia. So maybe all Catholics, including Patty, need to undergo some psychological testing. Now my Italian relatives, we know that they must be tied into the mafia. We’ve all seen The Godfather and The Sopranos, so we really need to be keeping an eye on them. THEM. the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language.

This word is used to isolate, to marginalize, to insult. This word has been responsible for the suffering and death of millions, millions of people. THEM is an obscene word. I’m an entrepreneur, passionate photographer, and have spent much of the last 12 years traveling in conflict regions, places like North Korea, Syria, Iran, getting people to communicate, who otherwise would do anything to avoid each other. Working in confidential small groups with hundreds of top business and government leaders, trying to break down stereotypes, attack this four-letter word, I’ve learned that THEMification, a new word now, THEMification, is often the root of the problems we deal with, both personally and geopolitically.

We all know examples of the horrors that arise from THEMification. Just a few of them: the Nazi Holocaust, Rwanda, Darfur, Cambodia and the Killing Fields, the Balkans, Syria today. And it’s not just what ‘they’ do to ‘them’, distant and far away. In America, ‘we’ annihilated Native Americans as our Manifest Destiny, interned Japanese-Americans, and today, randomly stop and frisk blacks, and profile Arabs and Muslims. We all agree security is absolutely essential, no question about that.

But unfortunately, it’s also sometimes used to rationalize some of these behaviors. And while we’re getting better, we still look at someone who seems different and instantly label as ‘them.’ So why do we do this? Why do we see others through this lens of ‘them’? Historically, ‘them’ helped to differentiate families, tribes, for protection, bonding, to secure scarce resources. Today though, we continue to use ‘them’ to identify with our group, excluding others. But why? An important reason is that the world is overwhelming, full of confusing, complicated information.

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To simplify this complexity and to reduce and protect us from ambiguity, which is a very uncomfortable feeling, we label, categorize, and stereotype. It’s also efficient to label as ‘them’, but when we do that, we lose much of our ability to reason, to feel, and to empathize. We also, at that point, begin to only seek, see, and hear what we want and expect to find, and that’s what psychologists call confirmation bias. And it doesn’t help that the media, which we love to blame, but really just as a magnifying glass and mirror for our own biases, reinforces THEMification. How often do we hear the words Islamist, Muslim, terrorist, Arab, suicide bomber, Al Qaeda, used as synonyms? This creates fear and a powerful filter through which we are taught to see the world.

Fear is created by ‘them.’ Fear is often false expectations appearing real. We’re hard-wired, when the amygdala in our brain senses danger, it’s designed to protect us. It immediately hijacks our prefrontal cortex or our intellect, our limbic thinking, our emotional brain. We go into fight-or-flight survival mode. This comes at a huge cost.

We sacrifice our openness, our willingness to hear, see others, our liberties. We sacrifice our humanities every time we allow this automatic THEMification filter to operate. It’s time to eliminate the use and mindset of ‘them.’ But it takes sustained, conscious effort to get past ‘them, ‘ and it takes courage.

We all want to believe we’re good, and admitting, even to ourselves, that we stereotype and exclude others is painful. But it is possible. One of the most powerful ways which I’ve seen work hundreds of times is through individual stories. When we really learn someone’s story, ‘they’ become more than a stereotype, a living being, real, nuanced human being. An exercise I’ve led many times over the past decade. In The Other’s Shoes has each side retelling in the first person the story they’ve just heard from the other; a real-life role play stepping into their shoes.

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Try to imagine, a Palestinian becomes an Israeli and says: “I come out of a cafe in Tel Aviv and hear a loud explosion. I see my brother-in-law’s blood and body parts all over the street; another Palestinian attack.” And then the Israeli mirrors back what he’s heard from the Palestinian: “In the middle of the night, the soldiers storm in to occupy our home. They’re screaming at us, humiliating me in front of my family, we’re terrified, locked in a small room, and we’ve done nothing wrong.”

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