Violent Protests in the Muslim World: An Interpretive Lens

Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger’s work on shame and rage offers us an insightful interpretive lens for the violence of the last few days (including the murder of the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, and 3 others). This violence came in reaction to the anti-Muhammad video that had been posted on YouTube since July, but which had only recently been dubbed into Arabic.

Scheff and Retzinger’s basic theory is that, in all social relations, an interaction that awakens shame in a person or group, can lead to a response of rage. This rage response can be expressed in a variety of behaviors, ranging from disrespectful communication to violence. Such a response awakens shame in the originator of the interaction, leading to a vicious cycle of shame-rage-aggression-shame-rage-aggression, that escalates between the two parties.

This interpretive lens helps us understand chronic conflict in families; it also helps us understand chronic conflict in international relations.

Understanding the shame-rage cycle gives us the power to break it. One helpful response– and thankfully, it is a response being modeled by many leaders in the past few days– is to separate the abhorrent behavior of a few people, from the whole class of people they are representative of– in just the same way that it is helpful to separate a child’s episode of bad behavior from his/her essence as a person. A good parent rejects the bad behavior of the child, without rejecting the child.

So the more helpful response by those who are offended (shamed-raged) by the anti-Muhammad video is to condemn the makers of it, but not to condemn (shame) America, and America’s value of freedom of speech. Concurrently, the more helpful response by those who are offended (shamed-raged) by the violence against American persons and property is to condemn the perpetrators of it, but not to condemn (shame) Islam or Muslims.

Americans have a lot to be proud of, in their values and practices. Muslims have a lot to be proud of, in their values and practices. Scheff and Retzinger’s analysis of shame, rage, and violence suggests that the vicious cycle gets interrupted when people can affirm the justifiable genuine pride of the other.

Below, I include some of the reader commentary from Al-Jazeera English. There is nothing edifying in it; I include it as an example of the shaming, disrespectful language that can lead to aggression.

Yeah and your lack of freedom should also not be shoved down other peoples throats..

radioflyer 11 hours ago in reply to view tech

And you should keep your exceptionalism and arrogance to yourself. The West is in no position to lecture ME about your brand of democracy.

Trevor Day 11 hours ago in reply to radioflyer

Yes, we are. Seriously, we are. You have no democracy because its very nature is contrary to Islam. Island is the source of your problems, not the West.

Lucian 7 hours ago in reply to radioflyer

Nobody is lecturing you. It was a bunch of muslims that invaded the embassy, it was them who started the fire and killed people. What lecture on democracy are you talking about? It’s precisely because you people behave like you’re in the middle ages that the world looks down on you.

via Is the reaction to anti-Islam film justified? – Inside Story – Al Jazeera English.


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