Yesterday, November 7th, my friends and I saw the U.S. release of Louie Palu and co-director Devin Gallagher's documentary at the National Gallery of Art.
At least 200 people, spent over an hour of their rainy Saturday afternoon traveling through Kandahar with Louie as he framed his experience of five years covering the war in Afghanistan.
The audience went on "road sweeps" with Louie looking for landmines, survived contact (attacks), hung out with villagers and had an uncomfortably good view of the medical teams who struggled to encase stumps where legs had once been.
Of course, we could not feel the heat of the Afghan sun or smell the burning flesh that Louie says was seared in his mind. We could not feel the boredom of war or fear for our own lives. We could only look with awe at what he and others experience.
He danced the difficult line of documenting his experience without portraying the U.S., Canadian and Afghan forces as solely saviors or victims. He showed the complexities of their role and stronghold of the Taliban.
Looking at soldiers collapsed on the ground with heat and fear exhaustion, I thought, "We ask so much of our young men."
We not only ask for their time when they serve in the military.
We ask for their whole bodies.
Beyond their bodies we also ask for their souls.
We ask them to suffer enormous emotional traumas, witness horrific acts, and then be the best versions of ourselves.
One soldier put so poignantly that he never knew how to prepare for the day because either he could be engaged in combat or sitting with 12 hours talking to villagers. I cannot imaging preparing for those extremes.
We ask so much.
War asks so much.
Identity of the Taliban
The interviewed soldier also highlighted another aspect of the Taliban that I had never considered. He said that all kinds of people claim they are part of the "Taliban" in order to incite the fear and benefit from compliance that that word often demands.
He said many of these folks may be individual gun runners or be carrying out other tasks not necessarily related to the overall mission of the Taliban. With no jobs, said the soldier, he could almost understand why people go to extreme measures to feed their families.
From an identity standpoint, his commentary on the Taliban is powerful and salient. The U.S. media, politicians, and public contribute to the construction of "The Taliban." We help make them the terrifying enemy they want to be. Then other groups can appropriate the name and simply borrow the attributes.
Group affiliation is not always very solid and group identity isn't always clear or acquired for the same reasons.
We know this from religion. People have varying degrees of commitment to their religious group.
Words have power.
Louie's work is to show us the war. In Conflict Resolution, our job is to say what the images mean. By making meaning, we frame, orient and respond.
Saying one is part of the "Taliban" does social work -- work that an individual does not have to do oneself. The same with gang membership.
A takeaway here is that just because someone says they are a part of something does not mean their commitment to the group or its ethos has the same gravitas as the most extreme member.
Some who affiliate with these extremist groups may affiliate themselves for financial reasons rather than ideological ones. It's not necessary to assume that the identity is fixed. They might shift their story in a day or week were conditions to change.
When I hear that folks ascribe the Taliban identity for various purposes, I am reminded that we can work with the many folks on the edges. There are many, I suspect, not deeply committed to destruction. We can provide people with alternatives but only if we stop storying all of them all as enemies with a fixed identity.
Identity is mutable.
Microsoft & Apple Customer Service Personality Types
Before talking about their use of language, a brief note about personality type. Without a doubt, Apple folks come across as the cool, affable young men whom I imagined all wearing a solid color t-shirt and jeans. All five people with whom I spoke, I could visualize sitting in Seattle or Portland popping from work to go see a funk band at a local café.
They are young, friendly and seem like the kind of guy you’d want your friend to date. But don’t always get New York humor.
For example, the Mac senior manager with whom I spoke last night explained,
“What you seem to have is an emerging problem. This means a problem that we have only just started to notice and work on.”
I replied, “Well, that’s no surprise to me as I have always been on the cutting edge.”
He didn’t laugh.
I didn’t try being funny with Microsoft folks. I worked with a man and woman, both from India. Perfect English and perfect manners. They just seemed as far away as they actually were. I could not imagine their lives. I figured my humor would be lost.
More fascinating than the personality differences between the two companies was the use of language to manage customer upset.
When Apple service folks begin talking to you they always say something like, “First, before I begin, I want to say that I can understand why this is frustrating. I mean, you buy this product, and it isn’t working…”
This sentence will be said slightly differently each time. Yesterday I heard these iterations:
If you have ever read any books on conflict in love or work relationships you’ll see most recommend this kind of “mirroring” of your problem.
The premise is that people will chill out if they feel understood and heard.
Over time, however, I found the mirroring kind of silly and preferred their more spontaneous speech.
I decided to trying the “I understand” technique right back to the Apple guy.
Without a note of sarcasm I said something like, “Gosh, I imagine it’s really frustrating to spend hours on this problem only to realize there is no answer to this issue. You have to leave a client with a broken machine.”
He didn’t respond. So, I guess it doesn’t work both ways.
Microsoft Reassures, "I am here!"
Because my computer had been erased, I apparently needed a very easy to remember 25 digit product key from Microsoft sent to me in 2012.
After thirty minutes of explaining to Microsoft, no I didn’t keep a box for three years…I assumed technology was beyond this, etc. etc.
He kept saying, “Sarah, do not worry I am here. I will do everything I can to solve your problem.”
He didn’t solve the problem, but I have got to admit the, “I am here” kind of worked.
The woman he passed me to also kept reminding me, “I am here. It is ok. We will solve this problem.”
While she almost sold me another $150 of the same software, she did eventually solve my problem and I felt most reassured by her constant reminder that I would not be abandoned.
Apple or Microsoft: Whose Customer Service Language is Better?
I would have thought being understood and mirrored by Apple would have been soothing. But it felt too programmed, like they were trying to appease me.
Ironically, though Microsoft also used a script to calm me down, it WORKED!
Something about hearing, “I’m here. Don’t worry.” Calmed me down.
These phrases might impact people differently. Folks who spent their lives feeling misunderstood might love Apple's approach. I'm more sensitive to abandonment so Microsoft's style reached me.
Which works on you?
My stepfather read this and added an additional category" "Comcast friendliness" which he described this way...
"At several points doing my conversations with Comcast we had to wait 5 minutes or more for Digital HD Cable Box to reboot--during these time-outs the agents attempted to engage me in conversation about the weather, the "game" last night, or something about the city they were working out of. It certainly took any tension out of the situation and made the time fly by! Thanks for sending you blog along."
Using "Customer Service Speak" In Your Life
If you are in customer service or manage a customer service team, think about how these companies use language differently. Then try both approaches and see what works better with your clients.
When folks are in distress, I think you ultimately need to do both. First, reassure the person that you are not going to abandon them and then clearly state that you understand the problem.
The next step (which both companies miss) is stating the goal for the end of the session. Something like, “By the end of this call, we both want you to be able to use all the features of iMovie.”
When you move about this week, notice what phrases calm you and try using the Microsoft Reassurance Vs. the Apple Understand approaches with children, colleagues and spouses to see how each style impacts the discussion and you.
Since it's almost apple season, I thought today's "Language of Conflict" blog could work with the metaphor, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree....
If you're an American who has traveled abroad, ventured beyond the confines of your resort and built enough rapport with locals to talk politics you likely have heard some less than flattering things about the United States.
If you listened non-defensively you probably heard about how America has its fingers all over the planet and involves itself in everything.
If you talked to anyone in Pakistan, you may have heard about the on-going drone strikes that terrify people going to visit their grandmothers.
We don't want to hate Americans...
"We don't know when something is going to fall out of the sky," they explain.
"We don't want to hate America, it's just that we live in fear because of these attacks. It's hard not to be angry."
Yikes, I can only imagine walking outside afraid some robot is going to fall out of the sky and kill me or my grandmother.
I don't know all the details of our foreign policy -- no citizen does. Most of us have no idea what our country does abroad and often have to learn about it from the people at the end of the policies.
It rarely feels very good. I once got an earful from an Iraqi man. I was flying on Gulf Air from Bahrain to the UAE. The plane was practically empty, but somehow they sat be by the window with a very angry man in the aisle seat.
Not a pleasant flight, but an educational one.
Now, I'm not purporting an isolationist stance. I wish the United States had intervened in the Holocaust, in Rwanda, and Indonesia among others. I do believe there are mega thugs and mega bullies that America stops everyday. That said, perhaps we could be handling this a bit better.
If the Secretary of State is unsure....
While in office, both Secretary of State Kissinger and Secretary Albright said they believed that it was America's job to fight these bullies. Once out of office, however, both expressed the opposite or at least far more uncertainty.
Isn't that interesting?
I realized the disconnect with Albright after my father asked her this question at a talk she gave once out of office and then subsequently reading her autobiography. They said the opposite.
I did some research on Kissinger and found the same pattern.
Perhaps when you're in State Department, you see the world through the lens of "it's our job." Once on the outside with some time to reflect, things become blurry.
And as Newton told us, there's just something about that darn momentum, once it starts it likes to stay in motion. Intervention breeds intervention. And that momentum might be having an impact on our children.
Skimming the news, I feel like I've been flipping between articles about foreign policy and then ones about violent police and school bullying.
Eventually my mind just considered that maybe these topics are more connected than our news sources might suggest. Is the bullying in the police force and in our children trickling down from the government?
Examining our country is nationalism
Before I continue with this critique, I want to frame it a touch. In America, and in many other far more repressive countries, critiquing the government can be considered anti-nationalist.
This is ridiculous; you can love something and constantly check if you're doing a good job. Successful companies do this everyday; they don't say, "if you criticize the company, you're not one of us." Well, at least smart CEOs don't...they look deeper into the commentary. One of the most successful CEOs of all time would consistently ask himself, "What I am not seeing?"
Well, I think there's something we may not be seeing.
When I turn this lens on America, I do it with the intention of a great CEO -- to make this country better. That requires looking in the mirror and saying, "Is there something going on here?"
Who decides if war is just?
I am asking that we consider if our kids and police showing up as bullies reflects an aggressiveness and an unspoken violence that pervades our culture. Are we justifying violence at the top and then saying to those below "Do what I say not what I do?"
The problem of distinguishing legitimized violence from illegitimate violence is a very old debate. Even old than Italian Friar Thomas Aquinas born in 1225.
Aquinas wrote about "just war" at a time when people were trying to figure out whether one could have legitimized violence. I like Aquinas but his instructions are just far too open to interpretation. He announces three requirements for just war
1. prompted by a state (not an individual or business)
2. those attacked deserve it
3. those attacking should have a rightful intention.
The theory begs the question...the problem remains; regarding two and three, who decides?
Who decides that victim state deserves it?
Who decides that one has the rightful intention?
These police constantly justify their brutality; I bet school bullies can do the same. Finding a reason to hate takes only a moment.
Aquinas put us back where we started.
Opposing forces often believe they have God on their side or or at least on the side of the good. If the leader's don't they at least convince their people of this. The Indonesians were convinced communists caused all problems; Europe blamed the Jews; Hutu blamed the Tutsi.
If everyone believes he is on the side of the good, who becomes the ultimate arbitrator. America?
Does the United States decide who is a bully and who is Luke Skywalker?
In the end, history often decides, and re-decides, not those engaging in war. In the meantime, we can get a sense of how we are doing by looking around at our own culture.
Apples Still Fall Close to Trees
Technology has transformed much of our daily lives, but some things remain the same. Apples still fall rather closely to trees.
If we have aggressive kids bullying one another in school and police brutally attacking folks, we may want to look up the trunk.
This tree, that now resides at Washington D.C. National Arboretum, survived the bombing of Hiroshima. I wonder, if this is the kind of witness that D.C. prefers, a beautiful one that cannot speak.
This month we saw the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As we sign the deal with Iran, we talk little about how the United States detonated the only atomic bomb thus far -- oh, wait, it detonated TWO!
"Oh, it had to be done to end the war" is the national narrative. "It was terrible but it had to happen," people say.
Really? We unpack and analyze everything everyone else does, but we're not going any deeper on this issue?
Years ago, my mother brought Japanese college students to the Air and Space museum where they stood and cried at the sight of the Enola Gay..the famous plane that "ended the war."
It astonishes me how little we talk about the decision to use this bomb and its impact on the Japanese people...many, many civilians.
I asked my Japanese colleague how the Japanese people talk about the bombing he explained that Japan believed it was more important to align with America after the world and rebuild economically than to talk about the bomb.
I suspect the leaders made that deal, not the people burned to a crisp and the deformed babies born for years to come.
I'm not omniscient, all knowing or all seeing, I do not know whether the bomb was a "must." The Japanese bombed a military base and the United States bombed civilians.
For years, I have just felt unresolved about the dropping of that bomb and have found few places in which to think it through with others. Any conversation I have had on the subject are as short, trimmed, and controlled as this lovely 400 year old bonsai tree...
John Hopkins' school of international affairs has this piece of the Berlin Wall sitting outside its D.C. main entrance.
This stone marks the end of the iron curtain and the epic failure of communism. Stalin's 25 million victims, the 30 million who starved under Mao showed us exactly what Hayek feared-- communism is simply too dangerous because the worst get on top.
He says to organize society requires that someone organize it; the only people that would be drawn to that kind of power are the last people you want running your life.
I am no fan of communism; that said, I am also not a fan of killing communists, something that the United States and Indonesian government did with abandon in the 1960s.
Why bring this up, now? The past few weeks I have been talking with some Indonesia students about their 1965 genocide and witnessing our own national narratives about communists.
As a conflict resolution scholar with a focus on narrative, I wanted to share with you some of these powerful conversations and how our stories about communists led to more slaughter.
I had the delicious opportunity to work with these fabulous students and their classmates around how their nation talked about communists (and how that narrative was similar to how the Nazis talked about Jews).
Indonesian students today are taught that their country's government heroically saved the country from communists (by slaughtering over 1 million people). Communists, they are taught, are godless people who want to destroy society.
Josh Oppenheimer's films (The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence) as well as the work of many Indonesian activists and others have revealed the opposite. In fact, the military and the government were the ones slaughtering innocent people. The students struggled with much cognitive dissonance. "But we were taught communists were bad!" Firstly, many of the people killed were not communists and the majority of those communists killed may have wanted a different society, but should not have been killed for their views.
I tell them, though, that the United States also lives in all kinds of shadowy stories too. In fact, the United States supported the Indonesian slaughter of the communists by providing a list of 5,000 communists leaders. The United States was as freaked out about communism as the Indonesians. There was global hysteria and panic that led to the murder of so many innocent people; the reverberations are felt in Indonesia today.
The story has not really changed; teachers in school still justify the genocide. Oppenheimer's film The Look of Silence shows one of these classrooms. It's not just Indonesia that tells the old story.
U.S. Military History
U.S. Military history also tells a funky story. This last week I attended the spirited, beautiful and musically phenomenal "Twilight Tatoo." This free event that happens on Fort Myer in D.C. Wednesdays in the summer delights crowds with historic military bands, crowd pleasing songs, horses, canons and a rendition of military history.
Soldiers come out in war uniforms from the various battles. You can see the photo below of the different uniforms over time. The historic renditions were charming and heart wrenching. 600,000 dead in the Civil War. As the years advanced the story turned to the battles against communism in Korea and Vietnam.
The U.S. military version -- to honor the lives lost -- positions Vietnam and Korea as important battles that the soldiers were proud to fight. Many young men died; thousands of parents grieved.
Our military, they tell us, protected us from the dangerous communists. Many still live with the trauma from those wars.
As I told the students, my goal is not to figure out the "true story." I do not believe there is one "true" version. I agree communism fails; I do not agree with slaughtering an entire political group.
Genocide means the annihilation of another group -- including a political group.If an ideology justifies the murder of an entire group it is genocide -- even if the United States sanctions it.
Yes, the world has plenty of thugs who want power and will kill anyone to get it. The world has even more average people, however, who will kill if someone gives them a good story that justifies their killing.
Stories have power.
A colleague who just returned from the Ukraine where he met with senior officials said the country has banned people from even saying the word "communist" publicly. Again, I am not for communism as a system; I am, however, for the freedom of speech. Creating an environment where one cannot even say the word is clearly a tyrannical and repressive regime. Terrifying.
Indonesia still actively encourages people to distrust communists. Visit Jakarta's Communist Museum of Treachery to see how it teaches people to hate "communists" (they do not explain why communism is dangerous-- they just teach people to hate). If Jakarta is too far, visit the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and see how the Nazis used propaganda to make people (young and hold) believe Jews were evil and had horns.
Still many people are taught to hate these groups...I showed the Indonesian kids, some of whom said their religion teaches them to hate Jews, "Look, No Horns"... they giggled nervously and we got along just fine.
I can forget my love libraries because I so often find myself working in them. I can momentarily lose the sense of wonder.
Monday, however, I found myself enraptured again with the idea of the library. Meandering around Bryant Park, one of my favorite spaces in Manhattan, I stumbled upon their outdoor Reading Room. I pursued the magazines (Self, People, Lucky) and newspapers, hanging on their beautiful wooden rods with little interest until finding a bookshelf of classics.
I settled on Seneca, Roman tutor to the young Nero, and author of a variety of dialogues on practical philosophy. Having just returned from a visit to the Forum in Rome earlier this June, I was curious about the variety of of thoughts that space inspired. Here’s the line that finally sold me on the book,
“Here the Stoic philosopher outlines his thoughts on how to live in a troubled world.”
Yes, that’s what we need, something practical that acknowledges the challenging landscape in which we find ourselves.
I found a chair that allowed me to both watch folks settle on the lawn in preparation for the film showing at sunset and view the top 10 floors of the Empire State Building..I settled into his fascinating chapter on Anger that I will share with you now.
Surprisingly, Seneca sounded far more like a modern day psychiatrist than an ancient roman musing on daily life.
Oh, he knew anger so well. He remarks how anger is one of those few passions that ignites in a moment versus over time, unlike greed or sloth that can embed slowly in our experience.
Anger erupts and often works to destroy the beholder.
I think sex can be the same way, but he steered clear of that one. It’s an important omission because sex seems to have within it a destructive force that somehow creates life. Anger does not seem to create the same life- it seems to destroy.
He disagrees with Aristotle that anger ought to be cut out of our experience. I would agree with Seneca here. Anger fueled so many liberations and revolutions- it helps us set new standards and not put up with poor treatment in our personal as well as political lives.
Seneca thinks, however, that we would benefit from managing our anger better. I would agree with this one too.
We can feel so powerful when we are angry. So inebriated with our own righteousness and self-importance that thoughts of patience, kindness, and consequences seem remote and even inaccessible. In anger, we can take down our own house.
Orwell demonstrates this in his “Two Minutes of Hate” scene in 1984. He talked about how people could, within 30 seconds, experience “a hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces with a sledgehammer…”
Then he noted how quickly the target of that rage could be turned,
“And yet that rage that one felt was abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp.”
This I believe is one of our most valuable lessons for conflict. People's rage can be directed by leaders...think of Troy. 50,000 Greeks leaving their families to cross the Aegean Sea just satisfy their king's greedy desire to take Troy. The kings and military leaders ignite the rage and direct it.
People were pawns and in many ways still are.
Next time you are angry, consider what or who might benefit from your rage? rarely, will it be you.
For personal anger, Seneca offers a solution. His solution does not eliminating the cause of anger, rather addresses what to do when anger appears….It’s a sensible solution, one that can save us weeks of trying to “fix” things after we’ve let our rage have center stage.
Just wait it out.
“No one keeps himself waiting when the greatest cure for anger is to wait, so that the initial passions anger engenders may die down, and the fog that shrouds the mind subsides, or becomes less thick. Some of the affronts that were sweeping you off your feet will lose their edge in an hour, not just in a day or disappear all together.”
Anger and the Body
Here's a take on Anger by modern day psychiatrist, Dr. Brian Weiss, supporting Seneca's claim from a physiological perspective. Anger does not serve us.
Weiss says anger creates "damaging chemicals in our body that adversely affect our stomach lining, our blood pressure, the blood vessels of the heart and head, our endocrine glands, our immune system and so on."
He also points out that our TV programs and movies glorify anger...serving up angry people as role models. Captain Kirk in Star Trek never had a happy day. The anger is often positioned as "righteous" and therefore permissible and even admirable. Regardless of how anger is portrayed around us, it rarely serves our physiology, our relationships or our larger goals. It can be manipulated by those more in control of themselves. I really don't like the idea of being a tornado that someone or something else directs.
One caveat here on anger. I have found, through my coach trainings on how to help people have breakthroughs that anger can be used as a force to change behavior. For example, you get so angry about your weight you say angrily, "that's it, no more. I am taking my power back and deciding to be in charge." This turning point often arrived at with anger can get someone who has been smoking for 20 years to go cold turkey. This would be guiding the tornado into some useful activity. Getting fed up with a bad relationship, unhappy work environment, or a health condition can be used as the momentum for true change.
But we have to know the difference between self-righteous anger and anger that has the power to change our lives for the better.
Orwell, George. 1984 (Signet Classics). Signet Book, n.d.
Seneca, Lucius Annaeus. Dialogues and Letters. London; New York: Penguin Books, 1997.
Weiss, Brian L. Messages from the Masters: Tapping into the Power of Love. New York: Warner Books, 2001.
Today will be teaching a class in Yogykarta with Haverford and Indonesian students looking at the language of conflict. We're going to use an exercise from Paul Lederach's article "Preparing for Peace." To raise students awareness of language, we will first have each student free write for 5 minutes answering the questions "What I feel about conflict..." Then we will have them get into groups by institution (e.g. language) and for 15 minutes write up all their associations around conflict. This will include metaphors like "if you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen" or Roosevelt's "Speak softly and carry a big stick". They can be metaphors and associations both with how conflict is resolved and what causes conflict. At the end of that time, we will return as a group and create a single list. Indonesian students will share their words and expressions as well. We will unpack our metaphors see if we see any cultural differences and also consider how our understanding or associations with conflict might affect how we address conflict. For example, if we associate conflict with "uncomfortable feelings" then we may be less likely to engage than if we think of conflict as an opportunity to express our highest values.