It’s What They’re Not Saying That is Most Dangerous

It’s What They’re Not Saying That is Most Dangerous

Last night Genocide Watch at the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution hosted a screening of the film of the 2001 film, Conspiracy. This film provided an attempted reenactment of the 1942 Wannsee Conference during which senior Nazi officials, lawyers, and SS discussed killing centers as a way to rid Europe of Jews.

Haunting film puts words to what all Nazi documents obfuscated.
At the conference, the film claims, people talked about the actual murder of the Jews. Even though the meetings minutes never said the word death, murder, or execution.

What’s so haunting about the Holocaust (and some other atrocities) is the strange vocabulary developed that allows people to pretend they do not know what their eyes tell them.

The father of Holocaust research, Raul Hilberg, noted that in his review of hundreds of thousands of Nazi documents, not one document actually said “we are going to kill the Jews.”

They talk about the “Final Solution” and use words more like evacuation. The film highlights this aspect of the Nazi approach when some meeting attendees kept asking questions like “What do you mean exactly when you say ‘purge Europe of Jews’ or ‘evacuate Jews.’ What they meant was gas and then burn them.

Even now, writing those words gas and burn Jews at a rate of 20,000 a day (their original goal- according to the film) makes me feel sick.

Word are so powerful! Even writing “purging” feels different than writing “burn.”

Language can bring us closer to life or give us a feeling of being stoned — removed, floating and far away.

The next conflict you read about, observe or participate in, consider the language being used. Is it bringing the perpetrators or the problem into focus or is it pulling your eyes sideways? It happens subtly; by being vague, the Nazis could lure those less violent, but followers nonetheless, to support its efforts. They are not the only ones who have done this.

I think what left me feeling so horrible after the film was having to watch these movie stars say these horrible things. I know they were acting, but even so, watching Colin Firth, Kenneth Branagh, Stanley Tucci, Brendan Coyle and others spew hateful language about an entire people and in support of racial superiority hurt. Words hurt, but perhaps confusing and vague language can actually kill.

It’s What They’re Not Saying That is Most Dangerous

Who put the “tank” in “Think Tank”? Violence in American English

There seems to be quite a bit of violence in American English…

A few blogs back, I wrote about the U.S. obsession with making everything a “Boot Camp.” Boot camp is something new military recruits would endure to prepare them for life as a soldier and in worst cases, battle.

Have we reserved such terms to war? Now, now we have Yoga Boot Camps and Writing Boot Camps. Surely you have seen other kinds as well. There probably are even Flower Pressing Boot Camps.

Scholar Vivian Jabri would say such terms are not just funny and trite little expressions, they represent the deeply embedded violence within our discourse.

It isn’t surprising some of our kids and police are so violent…and that we often think of battle first. We are living in violence everyday though much of it is verbal.

This Blog is entitled The Language of Conflict because part of my work is raising awareness to the language we use and how that impacts the way we live and what kinds of policies we produce.

Rethinking “Think Tanks”

I always find new examples. This past week, I was spending time with some Francophones. The conversation was trotting along nicely in French until someone wanted to say “Think Tank” and we could not find the French term for it.

“Group de réflexion”! Someone exclaimed. The French call Think Tanks, “Reflection Groups.” I laughed when hearing the expression imagining a group of French folks sitting like Rodin’s thinker…reflecting…and reflecting and reflecting.

After I got done laughing at the French, I started to think about our expression, THINK TANK.

Really, even our reflection has to be in preparation for battle? Our think tanks are largely trying to help us get around violent conflict (I hope) not prepare us for battle.

If any of you use a Nutribullet to make your smoothies or hummus take a look at it. Not only have we inserted the word “bullet” into our smoothie makers, it looks like some sort of missile. The words on the box and in the recipe book promise us the machine will pulverize our broccoli to pieces.

Something to think about….If Think Tanks inform strategy and policy and their name positions them to head for battle, then might not their findings advocate for violent, bulldozing solutions?

I may be teaching a course on NARRATIVE & CONFLICT RESOLUTION at George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution
…Stay Tuned…

It’s What They’re Not Saying That is Most Dangerous

Guns Aren’t Just In Schools, They’re In Your Bananas

Many of us have been worried about the amount of guns moving about the United States. There are more guns than people at this point. It’s amazing we don’t stumble on them on the way to work.

Even though I study corporate accountability for mass atrocity, I did not know until today, however, that our delicious bananas are part of a gun problem.

In 2001, court documents showed that Chiquita banana (whose bananas I enjoy daily) bought 3,000 AK 47s and 5 millions rounds of ammunition from Nicaragua.

Yes, that’s correct.

……………5 million rounds of ammunition…………………

I guess it has been, “Bananas for Bullets.”

And the company does not just have its hold on bananas. It’s one of the largest food distributors in the world with annual revenues around $4.5 billion. So, a few million bullets would hardly seem prohibitively expensive.

Who are the bullets for?

The company has been in operation in Colombia since 1899 and has had been deemed complicit in the murder and torture of townspeople as early as 1927 and as recently as 2001. The company has paid off FARC and other warring factions and still seems up to all kinds of shenanigans.

Holding Our Bananas Accountable

The U.S. State Department took the company to task in 2001, but the results disappoint.

While Cincinnati-based Chiquita Brands International, Inc. paid $25 million in fines for some naughty behavior, most of that money went right to the U.S. Justice Department and NOT to the Colombians. You see, Colombians cannot be represented in U.S. Courts. Complicated.

What seems far more disappointing is that Eric Holder who represented Chiquita was appointed by President Barak Obama eight years later as U.S Attorney General.

I think you might agree that the whole thing sounds bananas.


It’s What They’re Not Saying That is Most Dangerous

Violent Places: Everyday Politics & Public Lives in Post-Dayton Bosnia & Herzegovina by Tobias Greiff

I first met Tobias while he had a research position at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He moved around the halls carrying a white mug that said, “war crimes.”

When you held this mug with your right hand you saw nothing else, no explanation, just the black letters “war crimes.” And these crimes were clearly always on Tobias’ mind.

Sipping from his cup, he talked to me about his research, deep exploration of positioning theory and his non-profit organization in Bosnia which has long-helped orphans. When he invited me to give this talk, I was eager to see what became of all his ideas and experience.

What struck me first as a non-expert in the Balkans, was hearing about the growing insecurity. I like many, thought of Bosnia as a place safely classified a “post-conflict” region. In the past 20 years, however, the exclusion, repulsion and open aggression towards Bosnians has continued largely invisible to the international community.

Post-war Bosnia is not okay.

Some places face up to 50% unemployment. Many lack money for basic needs, with the older folks facing tremendous vulnerability.

Tobias raises the critical question; how did all that investment in post-war Bosnia not build the resilience needed to resist and prevent some of the exclusionary tendencies and new moves towards radicalism?

He holds us, by “us’ I mean the post-conflict and development community as partly at fault. He says perhaps we have misunderstood what being Bosniack, Croate, Serbian means to people today in daily life.

We must seek to understand this. We must also restory the Balkans as the “powder keg” of Europe while simultaneously restorying post-war Bosnia as a success story.

Only by taking off our rose-colored glasses can we see the on-going tensions. Only through clear vision, can we help increase trust. Trust creates stable relations which in turn attract investment. Investment can help local populations resist pressures to radicalize.

Pressures continue from Turkey and Saudi Arabia which seem to be engaging in a kind of proxy war through this shattered society. Improvised people are increasingly vulnerable.

Such precarity prompts us to ask, is the war over? Is this a negative peace? The society seems to have all the indicators of heading towards future outbreaks or at least oppression.

To help us see the present-day situation with clear vision, Tobias pushes us to let go of the hope of e pluribus unam by considering the many within the “one.” And this many means more than ethnic groups. He makes a convincing case that ethnic divisions have camouflaged other differences perhaps equally as important.

Through research collected on 6 visits over 5 years, the book takes us on a tour of four cities, Gorazade, Mostar, Banja Luka and Sarajevo. We travel along rivers, dirt roads, and nicely paved toll roads for the “rich” which transition us from one community to another. Pastoral landscapes constantly being disrupted by the ravages of war.

As someone who writes about how we label and conceptualize perpetrators, I appreciated Tobias’ acknowledgement of some Serbian perspectives. In seeking the marginalized victim, we can too often and easily silence the “perpetrators.” When our own work marginalizes those deemed “perpetrators”, we contribute to dynamics of exclusion and perpetuate cycles of violence.

Instead this book keeps multiple parties visible highlighting both who and what is present and what & who is absent in public spaces. Perpetrators and victims , he says, first linked through violence are now linked by remembrance.

We see the remnants of war and unresolved trauma in street names, flags, burial grounds, bazars, graffiti, memorials, university catalogues as well as the presence/absence of religious buildings.

Tobias Greiff is clearly an expert on the region and convinced me that we need to look at Bosnia again, with new eyes. In the face of so many violent conflicts already in full eruption we can miss those starting to bubble at the surface.

Book introduction given by Sarah Federman at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, Tuesday October 23, 2018.

It’s What They’re Not Saying That is Most Dangerous

Best Negotiation Preparation? Know what you have & what you “really” want…

Published in, The Negotiation Society, Issue Three, November 2018. 

My first semester at the University of Baltimore, I taught masters students the negotiation strategies I had learned from the Harvard Business School and from my decade-long career as a senior global advertising executive. Students enjoyed the lectures, discussions, and simulations.

During individuals meetings and after reading their reflection papers, however, I started to rethink the course. The financial precarity of many of their lives concerned me, causing me to ask myself, what good is it to help people save $5,000 on a car, if they don’t have a retirement account or any savings? That money will disappear in a month.

A deaf student who worked in construction, for example, had no health insurance. Without health insurance in the United States, one broken leg will eat up anything saved in a car negotiation. His vulnerability put him as well as his loved ones at great financial risk. Students also did not understand the nature of school loans. In the United States, even personal bankruptcy cannot free one from these loans. People can be haunted by them their entire lives.

Knowing many students had taken on these loans to be in my classes, I felt a responsibility to help them find a way out of debt.

Taking Stock as Preparation

Over the winter break, I quickly redesigned the course. Now early in the semester, we talk about building a strong financial ship. Students figure out their net worth, which requires calculating their credit card debt, home loans, etc. They also look at their retirement plan and think about their health coverage. Then, a financial advisor speaks to the class about financial basics and explains the difference between a fiduciary and a stockbroker, the former being required by law to make decisions which serve the client before themselves.

This ought to be the first step in any negotiation class. You have to first know what you have.

Adding this personal financial component to the class had immediate results. One student turned down a job offer promising her an easier commute and greater vacation time. She said no because the salary would not be enough to pay off her school loans while also covering her monthly expenses. She said learning about the loans helped her make this decision.

The idea of preparation is a standard in any negotiation book or seminar. By “preparation” the negotiation experts mean taking time to figure out what you are willing to pay, your alternatives and your counterpart’s interests and alternatives. What many negotiation resources neglect to discuss is how you know. You need to know where you are and where you are going.
This is as true for companies as it is for individuals. When salespeople understand, for example, their company’s operating costs, they can feel more confident when negotiating with potential customers.

Negotiating helps you cover your costs while securing money to invest in your future. So, how do you know your future?

Knowing what you really want

The course now adds a second component to “preparation” rarely addressed deeply in negotiation classes. Course participants spend time clarifying not only what they want, but why they want it. When they think about the why they consider how the acquired object or resource will contribute to their lives. Unless grounded in what matters most to us, we can too easily find ourselves in caught up in ego-based negotiations in which we try to capture more of whatever happens to be on the table, whether or not we really want it.

Getting to Yes with Yourself, negotiation guru William Ury’s latest book, talks about the importance of taking time for this introspection.[1] After decades of helping people acquire what they thought they wanted, only to find they still were not happy, inspired him to write this book. He now urges political leaders, business owners and individuals to really stop and think about what fulfills them.

Students like Ury’s book, but often tell me they need more help figuring out exactly what they want. A decade working in advertising, helped me understand how marketers work to tell people what they should want. Few can be totally immune to how culture and marketing shapes us, but we can stop and consider the kinds of messages we receive.

People receive far more marketing messages, for example, to acquire something new than to say, pay off their debt. In January 2018, Experian estimated the average American carries at least $6,375 in credit card debt. This is a 3% increase from 2017.[2] With a U.S. national average of 17% interest on these loans, many folks can barely pay off the interest each month. But people continue to buy. Advertising encourages consumers to that whatever they are selling will be worth the expense. At the very least the new acquisition can be distraction from the uncomfortable feeling of the debt at their heels.

One of our students described well the trap of consumption,

“I used to spend my money buying all these fancy things to impress my friends. Then I became annoyed they did not come over very often and when they did they did not seem sufficiently impressed with what I acquired. I worked all week earning money to acquire possessions I spent my weekends taking care of. Eventually, I cleaned it all out and started taking care of myself.”

It might be a shock to accept that our ‘wants’ may actually not even be our own. How do we know if what want came from ourselves or was planted in our minds by advertisers, parents, colleagues, our religious community or even by a business competitor? In class we do some of the difficult work of disentangling that. I remind students of psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s profound observation,“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”

Yes, we go deep. But by thinking critically about what influences us, we have a better chance of being fulfilled when we succeed.

So now, in addition to thinking about their financial situation, students also write an essay about what they want and why they want it. They continue to think about and refine their goals throughout the semester. Their efforts culminate in the last class which is held in my home. Their final assignment is to prepare for and attend a “Come As You Will Be” party. Students come as they will be in five years, dressing up and bringing props like business cards, book covers, and wedding rings. They try to stay in character for four hours and ask each other questions about their personal and professional lives. Students have created fascinating consulting companies, talked about their improved health and shared funny stories about their children, partner and homes. The goals is to be as convincing as possible.

This celebratory event can be challenging because it puts everyone back into the driver seat of their own lives and disrupts the unconscious chasing of something “out there” that will presumably increase their happiness.

While this discussion has largely been about individuals, the same strategies are useful in business or in politics. Businesses also need to know who they are and what matters most to them. “Money” as a single answer is a lazy and will not be enough to inspire the best out of employees. This is why some companies invest so much time in quality mission statements.

A salad shop, sweetgreen, has the mission to “inspire healthier communities by connecting people to real food.” Patagonia, an outdoor equipment and clothing company, goes even further with mission to “build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

These are goals big enough to inspire employees of all levels to move through the occasional drudgery of the day-to-day of production and delivery of their products. Notice that being wealthy and number one were not the mission; they may be the outcome of fulfilling their mission, but it is not the primary goal. Without being grounded in a deep knowing of who they are and what they want it, businesses may find themselves mindlessly pursuing the competitor which can lead them in the wrong direction. Business leaders can miss untapped markets when too focused on capturing their competitor’s clients. Additionally, focusing solely on beating the competitor can distract from creating innovative solutions, leading companies to be effectively knock-offs of one another.

A simply sailing metaphor can help negotiators get on the right track. Know the status of your vessel and be clear about the destination. Then, use negotiation tactics to move you swiftly along your way.


[1] Ury, William. Getting to Yes with Yourself: (And Other Worthy Opponents). HarperCollins, 2015.
[2] Dickler, Jessica. “Credit card debt hits a record high. It’s time to make a payoff plan.” Published January 23, 2018. Accessed August 28, 2018.

Irene VII