We need [people] who can dream of things that never were."
John F. Kennedy, speech in Dublin, Ireland, 1963
Our planet has been around for billions of years. But it was only about 50 years ago that we saw Earth as a whole, photographed for the first time from space. It was a tiny globe surrounded by darkness. The photographs emphasized just how small this planet is. Today, there are six billion human beings walking its surface. As our world becomes increasingly interdependent, it is becoming even smaller. More and more people bump into each other more and more often. In centuries past, if you didn't like what was happening in one corner of the globe, you could pack up, move to a large uninhabited area, and start a new country. No more. There are few large, uninhabited areas left. And we are all interconnected in ways we have never been ever before in history.
More of us in closer proximity results in more opportunities for conflict. We all have a responsibility -- to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren -- to do more than we are doing in this world to resolve conflicts in a way that is constructive rather than destructive. Whether we're talking about conflict in our local schools and communities or conflict on the world stage, no more critical legacy challenge faces us than how we can learn to live together and deal constructively with what can far too easily become violence that leads to more violence too horrible to even dare to imagine.
Violence Isn't "Natural"
Did you know that the atomic bomb was being manufactured before the first automatic washing machine? It's interesting where humans put their priorities.
In addition to the "war on terrorism," there are at least two dozen major wars in progress in the world at this moment. All are being fought over truth claims of one kind or another. Despite unprecedented advances in science and culture, acts of horrific violence persist. Ideals of tolerance and forgiveness are quickly pushed aside in the face of divisive "lists" of membership, beliefs, boundaries, and rules. This is true at the level of the local gang and at the level of an ethnic group.
Given our regular media diet of street violence, strikes, lawsuits, political battles, and wars, the conscious "story" we've constructed of human beings as "naturally" prone to violence is understandable. But it overlooks a fundamental fact: most of the time, most people do get along. Although we may not give it much thought or attention, it's true. Despite differing temperaments, habits, values, and beliefs, most families, neighborhoods, and nations work together most of the time. This is not to say that violence and the way in which war has evolved are not extremely serious problems. It's just to point out that peace is also a reality, and a prevalent one at that. And there have been major steps of progress in world conflicts: the Berlin Wall coming down, the end of the Cold War, reductions in violence in Northern Ireland, the end of apartheid in South Africa.
In his landmark book Getting to Peace, William Ury of the internationally-recognized Harvard Negotiation Project points out that:
Archaeologists have found little evidence of organized violence during the first ninety-nine percent of human history. We have been maligning our ancestors. They weren't cavemen looking to bash every stranger over the head. Rather, they worked hard at coexisting. They sought to get along with each other and their neighbors... Our image of the first ninety-nine percent of human history should be neither of killer apes, nor of naturally peaceful folk, but of human beings prone to conflict and struggling to coexist amid their differences... If all four million years of human evolution were to be telescoped into a single twenty-four-hour day, the period of coexistence would last through the night, the morning, the afternoon, the evening, all the way, in fact, until just before midnight. The period we call history, filled with violence and domination, wars and empires, would last barely one minute.
The argument that people are biologically or genetically programmed for violence was soundly rejected by a group of prominent biologists and social scientists participating in a meeting of the International Society for Research on Aggression in 1986. The meeting adopted a widely circulated document known as the Seville Statement on Violence. It has been endorsed by many organizations, including Psychologists for Social Responsibility, the American Psychological Association, and the American Anthropological Association. Among its conclusions:
It is scientifically incorrect to say that we have inherited a tendency to make war from our animal ancestors... Warfare is a peculiarly human phenomenon and does not occur in other animals. The fact that warfare has changed so radically over time indicates that it is a product of culture... Violence is biologically possible, but it is not inevitable... There are cultures which have not engaged in war for centuries, and there are cultures which have engaged in war frequently at some times and not at others. It is scientifically incorrect to say that war or any other violent behavior is genetically programmed into our human nature... It is scientifically incorrect to say that in the course of human evolution there has been a selection for aggressive behavior more than for other kinds of behavior... Violence is neither in our evolutionary legacy nor in our genes... Just as "wars begin in the minds of men," peace also begins in our minds. The same species who invented war is capable of inventing peace. The responsibility lies with each of us.
So violence is not automatic or natural. It can be inflamed or tamed by the power of social forces. It begins with the group or society, as well as the individual. This is a challenge for each of us to think about the nature of conflict, the limits of human freedom, and the power of social forces to shape individual behavior.
Conflict As Positive
Pioneers in the field of conflict resolution say that the biggest obstacle to dealing constructively with conflict is that we have no imagination. We must be able to "dream of things that never were."
A major first step is the way we view conflict. Conflict is a frontier. It can be the point at which we weaken and divide. It can also be a point at which we are strengthened, brought together, and transformed. One of the extraordinary things about tragedy is the way it can bring out the best in people. Victims of bad fortune or horrible events often rise to the occasion with amazing strength and courage. Can we mobilize that positive energy? It is our choice. Will we choose to allow conflicts to provoke cruelty, competition, and revenge OR compassion, collaboration, and reconciliation?
Conflicts are an opportunity to learn. Most people think of conflicts simply as disagreements based on differences. But there can be other, richer ways to look at conflict. Conflict can represent a lack of awareness of the imminence of death or sudden catastrophe. As you become more aware of a bigger life picture, conflicts can become less important. Conflict can be a way of getting attention, acknowledgement, or support. Conflict can represent a lack of skills or experience. Conflict may be the result of pursuing unfounded or unrealistic expectations. Conflict may be the result of secrets, confusion, and opposing messages. Conflict may be a symbol of the problems in a system. Conflict may be the result of fear or feelings of powerlessness. Conflict may be the result of our inability to learn from mistakes. We learn from conflict when we uncover what's underneath it.
Arun Gandhi is the grandson of political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi. He walks in his grandfather's footsteps when he says, "The greatest challenge in promoting nonviolence is the English language and its limitations. The next is our perception, rooted for centuries, that violence is the only way we can resolve our problems."
The development of a peace culture is not easy when violent conflict has developed a long history and become part of the culture. The true test of the maturity of individuals or nations is the ability to rise above their history.
Creating a world of security, justice, and peace is hard work. Contrary to popular thought, peace is not a passive process, but an active process of creating new systems and ways of thinking and communicating, as well as being strategic by preventing, resolving, and containing conflict. Peace is a positive concept that implies much more than just an absence of war. It implies human beings working together to resolve conflicts, respect standards of justice, satisfy basic needs, and honor human rights.
The words we use largely determine what we pay attention to and how we pay attention to it. The available vocabulary is a challenge when it comes to talking about peace. We seem to have a good vocabulary for talking about war, but not about peace. Talk about peace is at best obscure. We think of war as an activity in which people can purposefully engage. It's something soldiers can learn how to do. Peace is not thought of as something we can do. We tend to think of it as a kind of condition or state that's achieved or simply occurs. We also seem unclear about what peace is or how to promote it. This results in the word "peace" being used in a wide variety of ways connected with diverse assumptions and practices. It may have a moral meaning, a religious one, a scientific meaning. The most common definition is that peace is the absence of war or conflict. This "negative" definition leaves us with an empty feeling. We could define peace more actively as, perhaps, an ongoing activity of cultivating agreements. People participating in this reality of peace would act as cooperative participants seeking solutions rather than as combative opponents seeking victory.
Mary Parker Follett, a pioneer in the field of mediation, describes peace in this way:
We have thought of peace as passive and war as the active way of living. The opposite is true. War is not the most strenuous life. It is a kind of rest cure compared to the task of reconciling our differences. From War to Peace is not from the strenuous to the easy existence. It is from the futile to the effective, from the stagnant to the active, from the destructive to the creative way of life... The world will be regenerated by the people who rise above these passive ways and heroically seek by whatever hardship, by whatever toil the methods by which people can agree.
So peace is a way of living, of doing things. We need to develop systems and keep working at them. "Peace" will never be achieved once and for all. Life and history are very much a tension between light and dark, and this fundamental tension may never be eradicated. Instead, we will have ways to deal with it that lead us in constructive rather than destructive directions.