Peace Researchers Find Positive Signs

By Ray Cunnington | 2010-01-01 13:08:28

Like gardeners clearing away last season’s dead leaves, many peace researchers are finding healthy new growth under the debris of media distortions and reports from intractable wars.

By turning their attention to violence, rather than war, a number of peace researchers are recognizing that the hugely destructive events of war can be looked at as a long succession of violent episodes. Apart from the matter of scale, some see little difference between the violence of war and the atrocities committed by terrorists or street gangs. As with all violence, there are those who take part; those who are hurt; and a multitude of others, some of whom are complicit. Looking at war this way shifts the focus away from the few who commit the violence to the enormous numbers who are involved in propping up the warfare system, whether they want to do so or not.

One of the clearest expositions of this view comes from Richard McCutcheon, who teaches conflict resolution studies at Menno Simons College, University of Winnipeg. Writing about the US/UK – Iraq war, he divides violence into three realms. In his Physical Realm he places the actual bombing and fighting that takes place in war. His Network Realm, includes the efforts of international politicians, lawyers, economists, scientists, armament-makers, media moguls, and all the working people that make war-fighting a possible choice. Finally he introduces a Symbolic Realm that contains the toxic words and symbols needed to dehumanize people, changing their image from friend to foe. For example, he shows how the name of Saddam Hussein had to be blackened by the US and Britain before the war could begin. McCutcheon contends “it is only when this process of symbol creation is in place that violence in other realms is made possible.”

Another insight about violence comes from a group of German scholars who, some years before Hitler became chancellor, tried to unearth the deeper reasons for the ever-growing conflict that was breaking out in Europe during the rise of fascism. In Studies on Authority and the Family one of the researchers, Erich Fromm, recognized that the family was the agent which spread the inflexible rules and punitive acts of the state. (Fromm showed that while the politicians and the military were responsible for choosing authoritarian ideas, the exponential growth of violence in their nation was the result of millions of parents who copied their leaders’ belief in force by inflicting similar harsh punishments on their children.) According to Fromm, the degree of fear and intimidation which small children experienced at the hands of their parents did not come from deliberate cruelty, but from the “social helplessness of the adult.” This line of thinking has profound implications for many societies, since the enforced conformity of the German family helped to produce the Hitler youth and the Second World War.

Felicity de Zulueta, the lead psychotherapist in the Traumatic Stress Service at the Maudsley Hospital in London, UK, makes similar findings. “It is clear that childhood experiences of violence in the family produce future patterns of violent behavior, domestically and in the wider social setting.” She says, “men learn early in their lives that bullying and violence get results. She argues that this male psychopathology dominates our institutions and is self-perpetuating.” Although many people consider punishment a form of violence essential to maintaining law and order, she deplores the fact that politicians often get elected by being tough on children and on crime, in spite of the fact there is no evidence such policies reduce violence at all.

To understand why this is so, it is necessary to look at the dominance of military ideas in exerting fear. Acting like an authoritarian parent, the American government has developed a rigorous prison system. J. L. Miller estimates that on any given day two million people are in prison in the US and another three and a half million are under penal control. According to James Gilligan, many inmates leave prison every year in a worse state than they entered it, some having been raped by fellow inmates.

Moral Disengagement

One of the many reasons for these horrors to continue, is the moral disengagement of vast numbers of people who refuse to see or listen to the plight of others. Some “turn off” simply because they see no alternatives. Others invoke legal “rights” and “necessities” to provide excuses for the infliction of suffering upon the disadvantaged. According to a 2001 study by Alfred L. McAlister, Americans are twice as ready as Europeans to believe that war is necessary, and five times as likely to agree that “a person has a right to kill to defend property.”

To quote de Zulueta again, “Dehumanization of the ‘other’ is the final trigger for violence to become manifest. It allows people with repressed rage and destructiveness to finally express their feelings on those deemed to be less human than themselves, be they women, children, Jews, Muslims, Blacks, the elderly, or the poor.”

In her book about genocide, Barbara Coloroso also shows how the ugly words of a bully can incite widespread violence. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, she documents how former neighbors were emboldened to perpetrate extraordinary evils on each other without shame or compassion.

Clearly the origin of violence does not start with guns and marching men, but with hurtful words, some of them learned inside the family. The terrible names used by the Nazis to demonize the Jewish people were the first signposts on the road to the holocaust.

If war is to be prevented in the future, it is by recognizing the early signals that spell trouble. The first duty of the United Nations’ doctrine: the “Responsibility to Protect,” is the responsibility to prevent the outbreak of violence. This requires a better early warning system for the United Nations and the world.

As the underlying secrets of war become better understood, anthropologists continue to find that non-warring societies still exist. This helps confirm the view that warfare is not an inevitable feature of human social life. At the University of Hawai’i the eminent political science professor, Glenn D. Paige, has many followers who support the idea that a non-killing global political science is perfectly possible.

Elsewhere in the world the efforts of non-government organizations are proving successful in bringing a number of violent incidents to an end. Indeed civil society is well-placed to do important work for peace at the local level. One day, millions more families around the world will hoist danger flags when they hear hate-filled words, and will refuse to follow those who advocate more and harsher punishment.

Though it appears to contradict the slant of many media stories in North America, the Human Security Report update of 2008 continues to show an overall reduction in the total number of armed conflicts around the world, and reveals a sharp decline in terrorist activity.

Away from the drums of war, there are positive signs of health. Many people are recognizing that negotiations are far cheaper and less destructive than fighting wars. But, as Gandhi found in India, it takes a long time to open peoples’ minds to the idea that nonviolence is a force more powerful than outward weapons.

Calling for new ways to deal with our disputes, Felicity de Zulueta remains hopeful the new ideas will catch on. She believes that violence is a preventable disease.

Ray Cunnington served for five years in the R.A.F. during the second world war. He is now a Quaker, and a member of the Department of Peace Initiative, Hamilton, Ontario.

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2010

Peace Magazine Jan-Mar 2010, page 19. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Ray Cunnington here

Peace Magazine homepage