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.