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He was huge. We all remember when he came on the scene, as his size made an impact on grade-schoolers. His name was Wilbert, and his parents had “divorced or died or something,” and he came to live with his grandparents. His huge ham hocks for hands, bulging biceps and tree-trunk thighs automatically generated respect. Though he never bullied anyone, we all walked softly around him, just in case.
Then one day it happened. No one remembered exactly what brought it on and truth is, it didn’t really matter. A much smaller boy got bumped in a football game, lost it and hit Wilbert in the face. Wilbert reached up and touched his face and said in a slightly higher pitched voice, “You hit me!” There was a collective gasp and a kind of weird anticipation took hold of us. What would huge powerful Wilbert do? Would he bash the boy’s face into a bloody pulp, then pull his arms off, or would he break his arms and legs, then smash his face?! We all held our collective breaths; then something happened, something no one expected, something so strange it stunned us all.
Wilbert said again, “You hit me!” and then he began to cry, a whimpering, sniffling, tearful cry, almost like a girl. No one could believe it! This giant who was bigger, taller and heavier than all of us standing there sniffling like a baby, a big ham-like hand wiping his nose. We just looked at each other.
Well, needless to say, Wilbert’s reign, his influence, came to an end that day and, henceforth, any complaints he made were ignored or laughed off.
The thing is, it was not that Wilbert had changed; our perceptions of him had changed. Though in reality he had never committed any acts that would have labeled him a “bully,” our assumptions and his size, not his actions, had made him dangerous in our eyes. Now, absent any forceful definitive actions on his part, his status was dramatically reduced in our estimation. Even little kids bullied him. All it would have taken was one swat of his huge paw, and that would have forever cemented his status with all concerned, but because he did not act, he was a drastically diminished presence on campus.
As has been often said, “Perception is more powerful than truth.” This is the essence of the current situation in the Middle East, and it will doubtless get worse. There is a very simple reason why these attacks on U.S. embassies have spread to more than a dozen countries, and unless something dramatic occurs, more diplomats and security personnel could be killed. We witness the current chaos throughout that region, numerous countries staging anti-American protests and wonder, “Why?”
Here is the core of the problem: We think everyone thinks the way we think. We understand what we are doing and saying, so we think those who are hearing and seeing us understand. We speak and what we say in English is translated into their native tongue, so we are subsequently confused when they don’t respond appropriately. Our meaning is clear, concise and definitive to us. We reiterate our statements or repeat our actions to demonstrate our sincerity in anticipation that our ally, or adversary, as the case may be, will respond in like manner.
Here is what we (and our diplomats) often forget: We know what we mean, but too often we don’t know what they mean. If you were to ask the average diplomat or Joe Citizen if the behavior of these “dissidents” or “protesters” is “normal,” the answer, nine times out of 10 would be “No!” The reason being, normal means the way we do it (e.g. Western civilization). We think as we have been conditioned to think according to our cultural norms, as have they. The difference is, what they do is not normal to us, and vice versa. They do not understand “compromises” in the give and take of negotiation. They see the give in negotiation as weakness, and so demand more.
Finally, and most seriously, consider Iran and Israel. Since we could wipe any nation off the map with our nuclear capability, but would not, we think these Middle East mobs and dictators (many educated in the West) have the same sense of restraint. We hear Iran (which is feverishly seeking to obtain nuclear weapons) making threats to “annihilate Israel,” or “wipe Israel off the map,” but we think they think like us. Though we can, we would not, so we don’t take the threats seriously. Israel does because it remembers: No one believed Hitler, either.
We have a choice facing us right now. Remember, restraint to them is seen as weakness. There is a reason why there is only one democracy in the Middle East. The predominant mindset therein is not the “turn the other cheek” basic mindset of Western civilization, but the “eye for an eye” concept of the past.
You want to know what is really going on and where we are headed today? Substitute Uncle Sam for Wilbert, and you have the situation in a nutshell.