I learned a few days ago that Emile Bruneau had passed away. I did not know Dr. Bruneau personally, but I knew of his work in conflict resolution. I previously referred to some of his research in a post on dangerous speech and dehumanization. It is also clear from the tributes to him on social media that in addition to his valuable research, the world has lost a really wonderful human being.
Having lost my own brother as a young adult, premature deaths like Dr. Bruneau’s (or Chadwick Boseman’s) resonate with me. They remind me of how fragile our lives are. His wife shared something that Dr. Bruneau wrote that made me a little emotional, both for its bravery and optimism in the face of something as potentially terrifying as one’s impending mortality, and because it reminded me of something that occurred to me too when I contemplated my brother’s death: that a part of us really does live on in the minds of others. He wrote:
“I just had a thought: I learned in physics that our physical mass never actually touches another – the outer electrons of each repel, giving us the illusion of touch. As a neuroscientist, I learned that our brains don’t really see the world, they just interpret it. So losing my body is not really a loss after all! What I am to you is really a reflection of your own mind. I am, and always was, there, in you.”
I’d like to share a few more of his words, to help keep his image reflecting in my mind, and perhaps yours as well. Not just for the sake of sharing, but because he really did have some important things to say.
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The land of a thousand hills (source)
“Incitement is a hallmark of genocide, and it may be a prerequisite for it.” – Susan Benesch
A few years ago, David Yanagizawa-Drott of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government examined the effects of radio propaganda on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which led to the deaths of 0.5 to 1.0 million people (Yanagizawa-Drott, 2014). Rwanda is sometimes called “The Land of a Thousand Hills,” and given the effects of uneven topography on radio transmission, he reasoned that villages with better reception would have been exposed more to incitement to violence against the Tutsi minority. In particular, the Hutu-controlled radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) was infamous for dehumanizing the Tutsi by calling them “cockroaches” and calling for their extermination.
Yanagizawa-Drott noted that others had pointed to the role of RTLM and other mass media in fomenting hatred in Rwanda, but no one had attempted to quantify the effect. He calculated the area with radio reception within each village and then correlated it with number of persons prosecuted for violent crimes committed during the genocide in each village, including as a member of a militia (n = 77,000) or as an individual (n = 432,000).
He found that “a one standard deviation increase in radio coverage is associated with a 12–13 percent increase in participation in total violence. The effect is similar for militia violence (13–14 percent) and individual violence (10–11 percent).” Furthermore, there was a “spillover effect,” where the number of people engaged in militia violence increased significantly when neighboring villages had radio coverage. Overall, he estimated that nearly one-third of the violence perpetrated by militias could be attributed to the broadcasts.
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