Dad, husband, life-long learner, Christian contemplative, avid Restorative Justice advocate, contributing writer for The Trauma Informed Law Project. Certified HeartMath 1:1 Provider. Formerly: medical scientist, ambulance first responder, pastor, professional school counsellor.

Words as Weapons | World Policy Institute

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From the Spring 2012 Speaking in Tongues issue 

By Susan Benesch

Among friends and fans at his boozy 29th birthday party in March 2010, the South African youth leader Julius Malema cocked his right thumb, pointed his finger like a pistol and chanted “Dubulu iBhunu” (shoot the Boer). The crowd sang along merrily.     

Malema sang Dubulu iBhunu again a few days later at a rally at the University of Johannesburg, but this time it was aired on television and translated into Afrikaans, in which ‘Boer’ originally meant ‘farmer’ and is now a derogatory term for Afrikaner. Hundreds of agitated whites filed formal protests and a judge ordered Malema to stop singing Dubulu iBhunu until the matter could be decided in court. He went on anyway, saying he was only preserving an old anthem from the anti-apartheid struggle—a piece of cultural heritage not to be taken literally. He was singing about the Afrikaner-designed apartheid system, he said, not encouraging his listeners to shoot people.

A hailstorm of debate followed in South Africa, especially on the Internet. Whites especially feared that the song was inspiring black South Africans to kill Afrikaner farmers. In recent years, hundreds of white farm owners and managers had been murdered, mostly in connection with robberies, but often with gruesome violence, and sometimes with their wives or children. But the ruling African National Congress defended Malema, then head of its Youth League, and the song. Party spokesman Jackson Mthembu took responsibility for it on behalf of the ANC, saying it “was sung for many years even before Malema was born,” and must be understood in the context of the anti-apartheid struggle. South Africa’s minister of arts and culture, Lulu Xingwana, and other politicians joined in defying the judge by chanting the song on the 31st anniversary of an anti-apartheid fighter’s hanging.

The controversy was still raging months later, in February 2011, when U2’s Bono went on tour in South Africa. Asked about Dubulu iBhunu, he compared it to Irish Republican Army songs he had sung with his uncles as a child. “It’s about where and when you sing those songs,” Bono said. Indeed, speech and song can be powerful catalysts for human action of all kinds, but their meaning and impact depend tremendously on context and on who’s speaking and listening.

Afriforum, an Afrikaner civil rights group, took Malema to court over his song, and in September 2011, Judge Collin Lamont banned it under South African law prohibiting speech that demonstrates a clear intention to be hurtful, to incite harm, or to promote hatred. Minutes after the judge finished reading his thoughtful, hour-long verdict, a knot of Malema’s young supporters belted out Dubulu iBhunu a few feet away from the courthouse door, just as he had warned they would. The singers had a live audience—a row of police standing rigid in their riot helmets. Neither judge nor police could stop a song.

In his courtroom defense, Malema said the fault lay not with him but with journalists who had made Afrikaners aware of the song by translating its words. He failed to convince the judge, but unwittingly put his finger on a deep change taking place in communications worldwide, which demands new policy, especially since law is inadequate to deal with it alone.


People are increasingly privy to communication that they would not have heard (or read or seen) in the past, namely the internal language of other, disparate cultural communities—the songs that members of a group sing together, the jokes they tell to one another, and the words their leaders use to rally supporters, to teach fear and hatred of others outside the group, or to inspire violence.

Muslims from Afghanistan to Saudi Arabia learn that the prophet Mohammed has been lampooned (and to them, defiled) by cartoonists at a provincial Danish newspaper, feminists discover Facebook pages where men gather to trade rape jokes among themselves, and rural Afrikaners hear of a Zulu song that they fear may be catalyzing violence against them in the racially charged atmosphere of present-day South Africa.

Several factors have converged to influence diverse audiences and raise the stakes in many linguistic battlegrounds. In South Africa, a prime factor was the fall of apartheid, as Judge Lamont noted in his Dubulu iBhunu ruling. Since Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, blacks and whites in South Africa have been forced to hear one another, literally and figuratively, as never before. People who “were not accustomed to each other in any way commenced associating and interacting with each other” sometimes producing “extreme social conflict,” the judge observed. In a number of other countries, struggles against authoritarian regimes and sometimes, their fall, have broken walls between culturally or religiously disparate groups. This can cause greater understanding, as in the case of some Han Chinese netizens who have learned to listen to the grievances of Tibetans for the first time. Or it can lead to terror, as it did for Coptic Christians in Egypt.

Moreover, mass migration and shifting boundaries have moved culturally far-flung communities within earshot of one another, since they now share the same nationality—transforming once largely homogeneous societies into stewpots of diversity.The Danish Muslim community that reacted with outrage to the cartoons published in 2005, for example, hardly existed a few decades earlier. And worldwide, the Internet, text messaging, and social media are perhaps the greatest engines of audience diversification, since they allow communities to listen in to one another as never before. Not only do words and images travel faster and further, they hop lightly and quickly over historic boundaries between human communities.

Even language barriers are surmounted by means of technology. Though at times dangerously imprecise, translation can now be automatic and rapid.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this shift. Since our primitive ancestors learned to speak, it has been a universal and common human practice to gather in a group and listen to a speaker—family elder, religious leader, military commander, or politician. Speaker and audience share a unique body of cultural knowledge and beliefs that shape their understanding of the language that passes between them, whether it is a song, cartoon, or a shouted phrase. When communicating within a group, speakers choose language familiar to their own people, not the “others”—feminists, blacks or whites, the other tribe, another party, or adherents of another religion. The speaker knows the audience’s particular fears, grievances, historical references—and uses that knowledge to make the speech powerful.

Since language travels so easily between communities, it is increasingly unusual for leaders to speak to their own people and not be heard by others. Some, like the Danish cartoonists, are surprised by the outraged and sometimes violent responses they provoke. Others seem indifferent or cravenly satisfied, like Malema or Terry Jones, the pastor who burned the Quran in Gainesville, Florida, in March 2011, ostensibly to “punish” the holy book. Jones persisted even after General David Petraeus, then the American commander in Afghanistan,  as well as the U.S. State Department, and the White House asked him to refrain. The news immediately reached Afghanistan and all too predictably, 22 people including seven foreign UN workers were killed by an enraged mob in Mazar-i-Sharif.


With each well-publicized case, producers of speech—whether preachers, cartoonists, or singers—are increasingly on notice that their words or images are likely to reach audiences of different cultural backgrounds and will be judged by varied standards. As Judge Lamont wrote, after Dubulu iBhunu was the subject of such a widespread furor in South Africa, it “would never be innocuous again.”

Some speakers can be induced to be more careful with their words when they know they will be heard by a wider group, which presents opportunities for new policy and advocacy. Where the audience is not already broadened, it can be useful to diversify it intentionally. This is an alternative to prohibiting certain kinds of speech, which is a bad option since it can impinge on freedom of expression and often fails in practice.

Kenya saw months of mounting inflammatory speech in 2007 when political leaders incited their own tribes against other tribes—too often using vernacular or tribal languages. In a country with 43 distinct ethnic groups, almost everyone speaks a “mother tongue,” usually in addition to Swahili or English, but no one can understand them all. At the end of 2007, after a disputed presidential election, parts of the country exploded into violence. More than 1,000 people were killed, some 500,000 displaced. Now, as Kenya is preparing for its next presidential election, its KTN television network has been experimenting with an audience-diversification technique.

When Kenyan politicians give inflammatory speeches to their own flocks in their own languages, speaking in terms that they would hesitate to use before a wider audience, KTN sometimes broadcasts such clips on national television, subtitled in Swahili or English. The network has chosen to diversify the audience as a way of discouraging or embarrassing those who would use inflammatory speech in their own narrow circles. KTN news director Linus Kaikai says of politicians who use more incendiary language when they speak to their own ethnic groups in their own mother tongues, “It makes them mind what they say. It tends to sanitize their language.”

This technique is related to the standard human rights advocacy technique of naming and shaming. True rogues may not be deterred by attempts to shame them, but some speakers can be influenced, even brought into line by members of their own community. The ANC, for example, expelled Malema from the party at the end of February. He had given the ANC many other reasons to discipline him, including personal corruption and his public criticisms of President Jacob Zuma. But the song, too, had embarrassed the ANC leadership.


Law, although blunt and unwieldy for this task, is the main tool to rein in dangerous speech without trampling on freedom of expression. In the past 15 years, international courts have convicted more than a dozen defendants, most of them Rwandan, for incitement to genocide, and accepted several guilty pleas. The International Criminal Court investigated Kenya’s 2007-2008 violence and is now prosecuting just four Kenyans for crimes against humanity, including a radio broadcaster whose role was limited to speech—a clear indication that the ICC is convinced of the importance of speech in catalyzing mass violence.

Joshua arap Sang, the broadcaster, is accused of inciting violence during his morning call-in show on KASS FM, a Kalenjin-language radio station that remains influential among members of Kenya’s Kalenjin ethnic group. If Sang is convicted, and perhaps even if he is acquitted, his case will become a landmark in international law on criminal speech. 

The ICC alone could not possibly deal with the large universe of speech that inflames tension and may spark violence. In addition, most such speech does not rise to the level of the grave international crimes to which the ICC’s jurisdiction is limited. A policymaking tool is needed to draw the line between speech that should be sanctioned and speech that must be tolerated in the name of freedom of expression, no matter how ugly it may be.

Diverse communities will never agree on which speech is inherently offensive. Is a drawing depicting Mohammed merely provocative, even amusing, or unbearably offensive? International law and policy should focus on a narrow but notable subset—inflammatory speech that precedes violence, especially outbreaks of mass violence like genocide. Before such outbreaks, leaders address their own group with language calculated to dehumanize another target group. Nazi propagandists referred to Jews as vermin and pests, Hutu propagandists spoke of cockroaches, meaning Tutsi people, Slobodan Milosevic described Muslims as black crows. In case after case, such speech is a precursor to mass violence, especially violence against defenseless civilian populations.

The Dangerous Speech Project has gathered typical hallmarks of speech that seems to catalyze just such mass violence and has developed guidelines for analyzing the level of danger posed by a particular turn of phrase: how likely it is to lead to violence in a specific context. This analysis can be applied to any form of expression—a drawing, photograph, or film—not just words.


One can estimate the likelihood that speech will spark violence in any given situation using just these five criteria: the speaker, the audience, the speech itself, the social and historical context, and the means of dissemination.

In each case, one or more of these criteria may be especially important. A speaker can have great influence over a particular audience, while certain audiences may be especially vulnerable, because of economic hardship, fear, or existing grievances. Certain language-related events—defined broadly to include such acts of expression as burning a book—can be particularly powerful. In some cases, it is the last criterion, the mode of dissemination, that is of paramount importance, especially when it is a form of new media. Text messaging is used increasingly to organize riots and massacres in many countries. For youths in developing nations, whose cell phones link them to the wider world and give them a sense of agency and power, a message may pop up on their screens like this one from the 2007, when ethnic violence broke out  in Kenya:

“No more innocent Kikuyu blood will be shed. We will slaughter them right here in the capital city. For justice, compile a list of Luo’s you know … we will give you numbers to text this information.”

In such a case, the mode of dissemination may be as influential as the content.

In the case of Dubulu iBhunu, Malema was an influential leader chanting his song to young followers who are suffering widespread economic hardship and are still disadvantaged compared to white South Africans. Some of the words of the song compare Boers to dogs, dehumanizing them. So it is hard not to construe the refrain, especially with the hand gestures Malema uses, as a call to attack.

A few months after Judge Lamont banned the song, in April 2011, Tokelo Nhlapo, a youth league member and student leader at the University of the Witwatersrand, told a gathering, “I am tempted to sing this song,” and then began chanting the banned song with a new refrain: “Dubulu Lekgoa” or “shoot the whites,” accompanied by his enthusiastic student audience, all on their feet.



Susan Benesch directs the World Policy Institute’s Dangerous Speech project, which is funded by the MacArthur Foundation, the U.S. Institute of Peace, and the Fetzer Institute. She also teaches at American University’s School of International Service.

[Photo: Jon Fife]

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5 Things You Should Say to Your Colleagues

5 Things You Should Say to Your Colleagues Today

They’re small things–but they can completely change someone’s day.

conversation circle

Getty Image

I left the company years ago for another but I still run into former colleagues. Usually the ensuing conversation involves something along the lines of, “Hey, did you hear about the (latest management decision I think is really stupid) at the plant?”

This question was different.

“You worked there for almost 20 years,” my ex-coworker said. “Is there anything you wish you could go back and do over?”

I thought about it later. I don’t really regret strategic errors or poor tactical decisions or career missteps (I made plenty of those.) I certainly regretted those things then, but now, not really.

Instead I most regret the things I didn’t say: To employees who reported to me, to some of my peers, and to at least one person I worked for. Those are moments I’d like to have back.

It’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you. Here are five things you should say—today—to people you work with:

“That was great how you…” No one receives enough praise. No one. Pick someone who did something well and tell them.

Feel free to go back in time. Saying, “I was just thinking about how you handled that project last year…” can make just as positive an impact today as it would have then. (Maybe a little more impact, because you still remember what happened a year later.) Surprise praise is a gift that costs the giver nothing but is priceless to the recipient.

“Can you help me…?” One of my biggest regrets is not asking a fellow supervisor for help. I was given the lead on a project he really wanted. To his credit, he swallowed his pride—he was senior to me in tenure and perceived status—and told me he would be happy to help in any way he could.

Even though I could tell he really wanted to participate, I never let him. I decided to show I could handle the project alone. I let my ego be more important than his feelings.

Asking someone for help implicitly recognizes their skills and value. Saying, “Can you help me?” is the same as saying, “You’re great at that.”

And there’s a bonus: You get help.

“I’m sorry I didn’t…” We’ve all screwed up. There are things we need to apologize for: Words. Actions. Omissions. Failing to step up, or step in, or simply be supportive.

Say you’re sorry. And don’t follow up your apology with a disclaimer like, “But I was really upset…” or, “I thought you were…” or any statement that in any way places even the tiniest amount of blame back on the other person.

Say you’re sorry, say why you’re sorry, and take all the blame. No less. No more.

“Can I help you…?” Then flip it around. In some organizations, asking for help is seen as a sign of weakness. Many people naturally hesitate to ask. But everyone needs help.

Don’t just say, “Is there anything I can help you with?” Most people will automatically say, “No, I’m all right.” Be specific. Say, “I’ve got a few minutes… can I help you finish that?”

Offer in a way that feels collaborative, not patronizing or gratuitous.

And then actually help.

“I’m sorry I let you down.” I was assigned a project in a different department. It was a project I definitely didn’t want. So, to my discredit, I let it slide. I let other people take up my slack and focused on projects I was more interested in.

To his credit, my manager had stuck his neck out to get me the project so I could get broader exposure but I, well, didn’t care. Eventually my manager said, “Everyone knows you’re really busy, so they have decided to handle it themselves.”

I felt bad but I never said, “I know you were trying to help me. I’m sorry I let you down. I promise it will never happen again.” That one statement would have chased a very large elephant from the room.

The biggest elephants are emotional elephants. It’s up to you to chase them away.

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business. @jeff_haden

Transforming Troubled Schools | Common Wonders

Transforming Troubled Schools

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

What happened?

Can the world shift on such a simple question? Imagine yourself sitting eye-to-eye with a kid in trouble and that’s the first thing you ask. No lecture, no sarcasm, no judgment, no explosion of lost patience and a cry of “Why did you do that?” Just: What happened?

And then you wait for an answer. When it comes, however haltingly, you press gently and firmly on, still without judgment, just the need to know:

What were you thinking at the time?

What have you thought about since?

What do you think you need to do to make things right?

These are the four basic questions of restorative practices, a movement slowly transforming troubled schools and troubled communities around the globe — a movement replacing zero tolerance and other punishment-based and wildly ineffective practices that increase people’s feelings of separation and alienation from one another.

“I found myself running down the hall all the time because of fights,” Rhonda Richetta told me, speaking of her early days as principal of Baltimore’s City Springs School, a K-8 school in a tough inner-city neighborhood. “I would look at kids’ faces. Everyone looked angry, like they didn’t want to be here — adults and children both.”

In poverty-wracked neighborhoods, this is the American school system. “Education” takes place in a context of anger, violence, intimidation and arrest. The kids are struggling not to learn but “just to survive,” as Ted Wachtel, founder and director of the Bethlehem, Pa.-based International Institute for Restorative Practices, put it.

“How as a society can we live with that?”

At City Springs, one of four charter schools run by the Baltimore Curriculum Project, Richetta had no intention of living with the situation she had just walked into. This was in 2007. In her quest to change the environment of her school, she learned about IIRP and took training in restorative practices, an extensive philosophy of community-building based on respect, listening and truth-telling rather than punishment. Unlike traditional methods of keeping order in troubled schools, restorative practices require everyone’s full participation, not merely their obedience. It’s a philosophy of “high limit-setting and high encouragement,” Wachtel said.

And Richetta was positive it would work at City Springs. Five years later, with her vision firmly in place, the effectiveness of restorative practices is obvious. I spent half a day at City Springs recently, as part of my own determination to see how people are creating peace on our planet. I sat in “proactive circles” with first-graders and eighth-graders, listening and participating as the kids checked in and talked about how they were doing that day. One teacher said the proactive circle, held not in response to a problem but simply to get the day started, was like taking a daily vitamin. Kids and adults connect with each other and a context of respect and mutual cooperation is established anew.

What I was part of that morning was the result of five years of painstaking effort, on the part of Richetta and others at the school, to apply restorative practices in every situation: five years of patience, listening and asking “what happened?” This question “jolts the kid,” Richetta noted. Suddenly the boy or girl who has gotten into trouble realizes, “Oh, she wants to hear my side” — and begins talking, and becomes part of the solution, not the problem.

When such a program is in place, it seems like common sense itself. But five years ago, Richetta explained, she faced enormous resistance — not from the kids, who hungered to tell their truth, but from the teachers. Many of them couldn’t believe talking and circle work would be supplanting suspensions. Lots of them left. But she held her ground.

One story she told me illustrates the depth of the change at City Springs. At Perkins Homes, the nearby public housing development where most of the students live, two groups of boys from different courtyards developed an intense, violent rivalry, and daily fighting was the norm. The assistant principal at the time was adamant that the animosity among the boys would overwhelm any circle process and the two groups had to be kept separated. The school put a lot of energy into doing so, but things eventually erupted anyway.

“Finally I said, I don’t care what anybody says, we’re putting them all in a circle,” Richetta said. The idea of a conflict circle is to get enemies to listen to one another, no easy task, and “at first it didn’t go well. We had to keep pulling disruptive kids out.”

But eventually the two sides began talking and “what started to come out of the whole conversation was how ridiculous it was. They were fighting over nothing — it was amazing to me to sit there and hear them. This is so ridiculous. These boys were fighting and wanting to kill each other over nothing!”

And gradually this awareness dawned on all the participants. Finally one of the principle ringleaders stood up and shook a rival’s hand, and others followed suit. “These kids became friends at school,” Richetta said, “but when they went into the neighborhood they had to pretend they were enemies.”

And this is why the peace-building process has no boundaries. “The word about restorative practices should be spread around the world,” Richetta said. “I’m grateful for what it has done to transform this school. What if we could transform this community, this city, the whole nation?”

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at