The Most Dangerous Four-Letter Word

Driving in the Desert

On seeing this image at a photo exhibition of my work from Syria, several attendees chastised me for ‘spending time with terrorists’.

The man in the picture, Abdulsalam, is a Bedouin entrepreneur who welcomed my family into his home. His name actually means ‘servant of peace’, and yet he was labeled a criminal and a terrorist simply because he’s wearing a traditional Arab headdress.

That experience helped me realize the power of the most dangerous four-letter word in the English language, one that is responsible for the suffering and death of millions. This word is used to isolate, to insult, to marginalize. It has a devastating impact on geopolitical and societal levels, as well as within personal relationships, yet we continue to use it every day. This four-letter word is T-H-E-M.

I am an entrepreneur, passionate photographer, and for the past 12 years have spent much of my time traveling in conflict areas including North Korea, Iran, and Syria. Working in confidential, small groups with hundreds of top business and government leaders, breaking down stereotypes, combating this four-letter word, I’ve learned that THEMification is often the root of the problems we deal with on a global and personal level.

We label others as THEM rather than doing the hard work of trying to garner a more nuanced understanding of complex situations. We categorize others as THEM to protect us from ambiguity. We stereotype others as THEM to rationalize our own behavior.

On a geopolitical scale THEMification helps explain the frequent failure of peace talks. After all, how could we ever negotiate with them, who are always out to destroy us? On a personal scale THEMification allows us to escape responsibility and accountability in our relationships with our spouse / partner / coworker / boss / child / friend.

After over a decade witnessing the destruction and devastation that comes from this THEM mindset, I’ve come to realize that there are steps to take to address this issue. The key is to become conscious of our stereotypes and biases, be curious about the other’s narrative, be compassionate as we seek to break a lifetime pattern, and challenge ourselves, media, and others when THEMification occurs. It is possible to overcome THEM and dramatically enhance our lives on a personal and global scale.
The kNOwTHEM Initiative raises individual and collective awareness about the power and dangers of THEM and THEMification. The Initiative includes speaking tours to community organizations and schools, online talks through TED and other venues, photographic exhibitions, websites, books and various social, electronic and print media. In addition, the Initiative is developing and distributing educational material to institutions and convening conferences and other meetings.

To learn more, listen to the TEDx Talk, “The Most Dangerous Four-Letter Word” (, explore the website (, and contribute your thoughts, opinions, images, videos and stories.