Peace is Possible

In PeaceAble on October 1, 2012 at 4:05 pm

There is an attitude, fairly broadly held, that war is inevitable; that human beings are war-like creatures, and that pacifist ideals lead ultimately to tyranny – either because they make us weak in the eyes of our enemies, who then will defeat and enslave us, or because the idealists who eventually take power are corrupted by it.  If we want to bring about a more PeaceAble world, we must assert, through our words and actions, the principle that war and peace are choices; and human beings are, first and foremost, capable of choosing.  In the face of all that happens in the world, we can choose to live peaceably among ourselves and with others.

The idea that humans are genetically programmed for war confuses, I think, biological evolution and cultural evolution.  Certainly it can be argued that the biological human creatures of the 21st century have not evolved significantly during at least the period of recorded history.  We are still the same creatures that spread throughout Europe and the Mediterranean under Alexander or Caesar, seeking control over vast empires.  We are still the same creatures who swept from the east in hordes to bring down the Romans.  We are certainly the same creatures who colonized Africa or the Orient at the point of a gun.  And we Americans have clearly not evolved biologically since we drove the Native Americans from the land, and fought for independence from Britain, or to preserve the Union during the Civil War.  We are only a few generations away from the doughboys of WWI, and those in power now are the sons and daughters of the people who fought in WWII or Vietnam.  The veterans of Vietnam are getting gray while their children or grandchildren fight in Afghanistan.  It would seem self evident that war is in the very nature of the human species.

But we also have the example of people like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, the Dalai Lama, and more recently the protesters who forced political change in the Middle East.  In lots of ways, human culture is evolving more quickly than human beings are.  At the same time that some of our leaders are continuing to advocate for war as a solution to our problems, humans are learning more about how to coexist, how to understand and appreciate the diversity of human experience, and how to solve our problems in peaceable ways.

Conflict, of course, cannot be eliminated and should not be eliminated.  Conflict serves an essential role in the lives of individuals and nations alike.  Conflict happens.  Peace isn’t about eliminating conflict, it’s about learning how to manage conflict in ways that are peaceful rather than violent, or abusive, or destructive.  Conflict occurs when there is more than one possibility and a choice has to be made.  Choosing forces us to put our values and beliefs to the test.

Becoming PeaceAble will require something of us that war does not.  Pacifists don’t need to have a definitive answer for questions about conflict or whether the species is inherently war-like, but we do have a responsibility to help frame the debate, so that peaceful resolutions to our problems can be found.  And we have to be confident that they can be found.  We need to rethink our relationships socially, economically, and politically. And war is just that: a solution to some perceived problem.  Wars happen when a nation – or those charged with representing the nation’s interests – perceives a need, a problem, to which war seems to be an appropriate response.  War is almost always about problems of access to, or control over, resources and power, not about ideology.

We need a paradigm that does not depend on winners and losers for its measure of success.  We need a paradigm that allows us to envision competition in mutually beneficial ways; that allows us to view profit and success as something shared, rather than something hoarded.  And we must start to live that paradigm ourselves.  If, in working for peace, we see ourselves as revolutionaries, we have already lost the battle, because revolution is itself a war metaphor.  If we see ourselves as having to win the peace, we have already lost the battle, because in our common language our winning means that somebody else has to lose.  It is necessary in the broadest philosophical sense of things for us to find another way.  The reality is that our situation is built into our culture in ways we cannot do much about.  We cannot have an election without somebody winning and somebody else losing.  But you can have an election in which the winning and losing are seen not as a competition between individuals, but as a discussion of ideas, wherein the individuals simply represent ideas or directions, policies, perspectives and so forth that from time to time will shift.  Ultimately, the important thing is that all are heard.

The nice thing about peace is that it isn’t something anyone has to own, it doesn’t require us to acquire more of it than our neighbor.   We don’t have to compete for it, in fact, if we did compete for it, no one could actually acquire it.  You don’t have to hoard it or accumulate it.  It is a way of being that can exist even in the presence of conflict.

And we need to deal with the related problems of disconnection and dehumanization.  What is it we’re disconnected from?  A lot of things.  We’re disconnected from our
lives, because we don’t think about them enough.  It’s hard to define what we’re disconnected from.  Partly from each other.  Except in the smallest kinds of groupings, we are disconnected from one another.  Membership in larger groups doesn’t really connect us.  It connects us to the idea of group, often, rather than to each other.

People will, of course, say that’s not true.  They will look at the aftermath of a great tragedy at the people gathering, but that’s more of an attempt to connect, rather than an actual connectedness.  It’s evidence that we are in general disconnected from one another.  If we were connected to the rest of humanity and connected to the idea of that, would we need to involve ourselves in other people’s grief, the grief of strangers, in this kind of voyeuristic, heavy-handed way?  If we were, in fact connected to the rest of humanity, would we not, instead, respect the privacy of their grief, respect their need to grieve without our interference?  Would we not, in fact, let them grieve; feel something for them — empathy, compassion, love — and leave them alone.  Leave them to their family, to those who can comfort them the most?  Would we need to thrust microphones in their faces to find out how they’re feeling?  Would we need to make a show of their mourning? Or would we already have sufficient empathy to understand how they might be feeling; would we already know how to mourn for their loss without imposing our vicarious grief on them.

We are disconnected from our own and others’ human-ness and so it becomes easier to dehumanize the other.  War requires the de-humanization of the enemy.  If I am to kill the other, then I cannot see him as anything like me.  The soldier of the enemy is just the enemy, not a human being who is someone’s son or daughter or mother or father or husband or wife; and certainly not someone with honorable or patriotic or noble purposes in trying to kill me.  And this dehumanization outlasts the war.

Dehumanizing the other also dehumanizes us.  It invades other aspects of our lives.  The metaphor of war is a metaphor of dehumanization – in our relationships, in our sports and other entertainments, in our politics, in our lives.  The metaphor of war is a metaphor of us against the dehumanized other.  As soon as we begin to humanize each other war begins to become less desirable as a solution to our problems.  As soon as we connect to the consequences of our actions on for ourselves and others as human beings, then it becomes more difficult to justify killing each other.

And therein lies the possibility of peace; because we can do these things, each of us, one person at a time.  We can make a commitment to remind ourselves each day of our own humanity; we can commit to try each day to see the others we encounter as human; we can use these commitments to help us reconnect to the world in PeaceAble ways.  Then we can begin to seek leaders (or become leaders) who are ready to see the world the same way, ready to reconnect; and we can work for change in the larger community of humans.  Each of us can find her or his own specific way to reconnect: with the environment, with children, with the hungry or the dispossessed; starting with people like ourselves and reaching out to (or at least not building walls against) those who are different.  I am only a war-like being if I choose to be.  I can be a PeaceAble being when I choose to be.

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