Yesterday was Memorial Day in the U.S. On Memorial Day each year, countless numbers of folks display their “American” flags, and they gather together at parades, picnics and other get-togethers in order to remember and honor the nation’s veterans who have passed on as the result of their service to our country and its mission of freedom and security. Generally speaking, our society instructs us that those veterans gave their lives in order to secure and spread the ideals of a peaceful democracy that we may live life free. Therefore, for the most part, many of us tend to think of ourselves as citizens of a rather benevolent nation, where values of living in peace and harmony prevail.
Yet, living in peace and harmony are virtues to which many of us aspire but few of us achieve. Instead, we engage much of our lives in competition and conflict. For example, when we are young, we often engage in sibling rivalry, and we begin to learn our exclusionary social tactics by grouping ourselves together in cliques at school. Additionally, we learn to compete with each other in our academics, in sports activities, and in our consumption patters – forever seeking to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ even when we are too young to know that this is what we are doing. We learn this competitive attitude and behavior when we are young, and we work to perfect it in order to “compete in the marketplace of America”, as political commentator Bill O’Reilly has so eloquently named our purpose and way of life (O’Reilly, n.d.). Our way of life, for the most part, then, consists of maintaining social exclusions, competition between individuals and between groups of people, and because of this, a great deal of social injustice results, and this leads to conflicts between people, not peace and harmony.
Personally, I have become tired and emotionally and spiritually drained from an ever increasingly competitive environment that is rife with social conflicts. Certainly, I tell myself again and again, there must be a better way. It was two years ago, when I decided to learn about ‘another way’ and decided to go to college in order to do so. It had occurred to me, at that time, that most of mainstream U.S. culture is built upon stories of competition, conflict and domination, as evidenced in our very profitable and rather violent entertainment and sports industries, for example. I wanted to learn about what I thought of at that time as the ‘hidden peace stories’ – those stories that did not have the exciting appeal of a conflict or combat (and therefore they gain little media attention) but are essential, to my way of thinking, of passing on cultural knowledge of how people can act in order to get along with one another in a peaceful and harmonious way.
At that time, it was my intention to engage in what I thought of as ‘Peace Studies’. When I told folks that it was my intention to learn ‘peace studies’ almost no one knew what I was talking about. I explained that what I had in mind was learning about interpersonal skills of conflict resolution, conflict transformation, conflict management, peace building, and peacekeeping. I did not know much about the field of Peace Studies, either. I discovered that only a few colleges and universities offer studies in peace. No wonder our ideas about peace and how to achieve it are sometimes rather ambiguous. This reinforced my idea that there was a great need for this sort of education, for both myself and for others.
Through my own research, I discovered that Peace Studies, as an academic discipline, began in the 1950’s in the aftermath of World War II. The focus at that time was on international wars and their prevention, but the field has been expanding in scope ever since it began. Currently, the approach to peace studies may take different paths depending on the lens with which the topic of peace is examined. Two common approaches include that of dealing with the politics of war and the effective means for its prevention, while another related method is concerned with the causes of social conflict and its effective management and/or resolution or transformation (What is Peace Studies, n.d.). There is a wide breadth concerning approaches to the academic field of peace studies and one’s approach may take place at the interpersonal, societal, or the international level, depending upon the focus one wishes to explore. I prefer approaching the topic of peace studies at the interpersonal level.
For certain, the concept of peace means different things to different folks. Perhaps the most common idea concerning peace is that it is a state of social harmony that is characterized by the absence of conflict, violence, or war. I used to think this way. This notion of peace is sometimes referred to as negative peace, as described by sociologist Johan Galtung, the founder of peace and conflict studies. Yet the components of negative peace are only a fraction of what peace is, because in order to achieve a sustainable state of social harmony, it is also necessary to address the reasons for social unrest that lead to conflict, violence and war.
It is important to understand that power and wealth disparity are major causes of societal unrest in the world, whether it is at the level of interpersonal relationships, larger group and community interactions, or increasingly (because of globalization) at the national and global level. Much of the power and wealth disparity that exists in the world is a result of social and economic systems that have been in place since the time of Western European wars and colonial expansion into other nations. These social and economic systems have resulted in systemic power and privilege imbalances, and are often described as racism, sexism, classism, ageism, nationalism, and many more ‘isms’, which are now deeply embedded into our society.
These unequal systems of power and privilege easily develop into systems of domination, resulting in indirect structural violence, where some groups of people are able to profit greatly while others are left in conditions of suffering and despair. Many times, these situations of unequal power and privilege erupt into physical violence, such as what took place during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s in the U.S. and more recently in the Occupy Wall Street Movement. I now know that if the human race is to achieve living together in peace and harmony, we must not only eliminate physical violence, but we must promote what Galtung named positive peace, by working toward a greater degree of equality and social justice for all.
Social justice recognizes a shared humanity. It also values diversity. Social justice promotes a positive and sustainable peace, by ensuring that all people have access to food and clean drinking water, security from physical harm and psychological harm, education for all, including for women and children, and other inviolable human rights. Social justice demands the consideration of human rights for all, and it works to balance competing demands for “needs, desert, and equality within and between societies”while balancing between joint responsibilities of both societies and of individuals (What is Social Justice, n.d.). Social justice addresses concepts of fairness at the macro social level by making the systems and structures of society more equitable. Therefore, in order to achieve a sustainable and lasting peace in society, it is necessary to move from unjust social systems to more just social systems, and this requires social change.
Collective action and social movements describe two methods that can be used to intentionally encourage social change. Collective action takes place in groups and describes behaviors such as a protest marches, political rallies, and the signing of petitions, for example. Mahatma Gandhi used this type of direct confrontation to or noncooperation with oppression as he worked to gain independence from the control of Great Britain for the nation of India and he called this method satyagraha or obstructive program (n.d.). When this type of group activity is purposeful, organized, and institutionalized, collective action then becomes what is known as a social movement.
The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960s was also led by a nonviolent obstructive program strategy. Nonviolence embraces a core belief that it is fundamentally irrational to use violence to achieve a peaceful society, and additionally it asserts that just means must be used in order to achieve a just end. Furthermore, nonviolence is a method of achieving social change by encouraging respectful dialogue and negotiation as a means for problem solving. Finally, nonviolence is a method of intentionally bringing about social justice by working to create an awareness of people’s unmet needs, and also by creating new systems and structures designed to meet those needs.
Nonviolent systems and structures are types of constructive programs ( n.d.)that are designed to replace the current unjust arrangement. They might include those that meet basic needs such as food, clean water, clothing and shelter for all. They could possibly be concerned with environmental sustainability. They might provide education and healthcare for all. They could also encompass more just economic systems that provide needed jobs and fair wages. Programs that include cultural awareness can reduce intercultural conflict while promoting the value of and the sharing of cultural knowledge. They might embrace nonviolent communication, or alternative dispute resolution programs such as mediation and conflict resolution programs. Or they may be ‘new’ ways of thinking about and addressing ‘criminal justice’ and involve strategies of restorative justice and restorative practices as an alternative to retributive justice and incarceration. Programs that encompass teaching about trauma healing (including the transformation of historical harms) and forgiveness can increase psychological wellbeing. There are many ways in which one can approach working toward a more peaceful future. Non-violent methods of constructive program, because of their intention to meet human needs and promote a more just society, are methods that are perfectly suited to promote not only social change, but also more specifically, social justice and consequently, a lasting social peace.
Over time, my ideas concerning what the notion of peace is, have been evolving to compare with the ideologies of many indigenous cultures, and that of nonviolence, constructive program, and especially in developing language skills (because the way we conceptualize our world is closely connected to our use of language) in non-violent communication. To my way of thinking, we may be best able to achieve a greater degree of social justice, and therefore peace and harmony by gaining theoretical knowledge and practical skills in the field of non-violent social change. What is most important to me is the notion of positive peace – a peace that focuses on a greater degree of social equality and justice for all. Ultimately to me, peace involves ‘right relationships’ with the Earth and with one’s neighbors including even one’s ‘enemies’.
Constructive Program. (n.d.). Metta center for nonviolence. Retrieved from http://mettacenter.org/definitions/obstructive-program/
Obstructive Program. (n.d.). Metta center for nonviolence. Retrieved from http://mettacenter.org/nonviolence/satyagraha/
O’Reilly on America’s Race Problem. (n.d.). CNS News. Retrieved from http://m.cnsnews.com/video/national/oreilly-americas-race-problem#.U4QILgIpOdI.facebook
What is Peace Studies? (n.d.). University of Louisville. Retrieved from http://louisville.edu/peace/academic-programs/peace-studies
What is Social Justice? (n.d.) Appalachian State University department of government and justice studies. Retrieved from http://gjs.appstate.edu/social-justice-and-human-rights/what-social-justice
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