Something snapped in Mohamed Bouazizi after being slapped.
The young Tunisian man, arrested Dec. 17 for selling vegetables without a permit and then hit by a policewoman – among other indignities – decided to set himself on fire in a public square.
His now-famous self-immolation, an act of desperate martyrdom, inspired other Tunisians into self-determination. They decided to break the common narrative of Arab exceptionalism – widely accepted by many scholars, diplomats, and Arabs themselves – that the culture is not compatible with modern, free-speaking democracy.
With their mental chains broken after Mr. Bouazizi's suicidal cry of "enough," Tunisians then felled an entrenched dictator within a matter of weeks. They simply behaved as if they were free, and thus made it so. A new collective consciousness had begun in the region.
History is littered with such great moments of rapid shifts in mass psychology – the aha moments that shatter paradigms, pierce groupthink, and, most of all, leave people scratching their heads over why they once believed what had seemed so real.
Few in the 18th century thought slavery or the slave trade could be ended in the West – but it was in the 19th century. Old ideas about the role of women – in voting, the workplace, the military, even in religion – are now historic oddities in many countries.
Darwin upended views of creation. Swiss banker Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, convinced world powers of the need for rules of war. Rachel Carson wrote a book, "Silent Spring," that dispelled the notion of humans having little impact on nature. Rosa Parks took a white person's seat on a bus and thus launched a new view of civil rights.
Communism under the Soviet empire collapsed quickly from 1989 to 1991. In Asia, Taiwan upended the idea that there could never be a "Chinese democracy," blending Confucian values with individual rights. And in the past three years, Americans have experienced strong reversals in old thinking. A black man was elected US president. Many now ask why they ever thought housing prices would always rise. Former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan admits he had to rid himself of a long-held idea that markets are always self-correcting.
Human progress comes in moral stages, usually each higher than the last one.
Events in the Middle East since December are the start of an Arab awakening, even more than the kind of "tipping point" famously described in Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 book by that name. Rather, like someone waking from a bad dream, Arabs quickly shed old fears, and in short order found each other, by the millions. They flocked to the streets, like butterflies from cocoons. The Arab psyche is freer and, best of all, home-grown. The terms of governance in the region are permanently altered.
This mental liberation seen in Cairo's Tahrir Square – accelerated by Al Jazeera satellite TV – then ignited the hopes of the Arab world's 360 million people, spread over 22 countries from Morocco to Yemen. Their story, as well as those of the region, are still unfolding, with difficult – even dangerous – changes to negotiate.
In Cairo, one protester's sign read, "Forgive me God, for I was scared and kept quiet."
Street scenes of these newly born citizens have been enough to persuade many Army soldiers in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya not to fire their weapons.
This transnational "Arab spring" now has many in the Middle East asking why they remained mentally stuck for so long in a pernicious perception of themselves as a passive people, cowed by ruthless rulers, even as democracy triumphed in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and parts of Asia over the past decades.
"We were like dead people for 30 years," one Egyptian told the Toronto Star. In fact, the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was premised on a prevalent theory in the West that Arabs need to be forced into freeing themselves of their dictators and monarchs.
Such a mental turnaround was foretold in 1970 by famed Arab poet Nizar Qabbani:
Arab children, Corn ears of the future, You will break our chains, Kill the opium in our heads, Kill the illusions.... You are the generation that will overcome defeat.
History is still in motion among Arabs, acted out in street battles and diplomatic maneuvers. But in the hearts of many, the past is now just history.