Paths to peace

The people in my family are all idealists with strong beliefs.  As you might imagine, many of our beliefs clash.  The conflict was messy and continuous until we learned a simple skill.

“Put it on the shelf.”  By this we mean that, if we disagree, and both sides have stated their positions, and listened, and elaborated, and still are no closer to agreement, we will put the disagreement away for a while.  No chewing it over yet again, no cleverly sneaking it into offhand remarks, etc.  For how long?  It depends on how big the issue is, and how much our disagreeing about it is affecting our day-to-day lives.  Sometimes we put it on the shelf for a week, sometimes for a year or two.

The thing is, if I believe something strongly, and someone dear to me persists in trying to change my mind about it, it can hurt or anger me.  I feel disrespected, ignored.  The harder they try, the more I dig in my heels.  How many times has your blood boiled when someone has said — either overtly or without even realizing it — “You have to agree with me.  In fact, you really do agree with me, and you’ll realize it once I’m done educating you.”

However, I do change my beliefs from time to time.  Sometimes I’ll learn something new and change my belief completely.  Sometimes I’ll just think about it in a slightly different way.  Sometimes it will just become less important to me as life goes in a different direction than I expected.   It can be a bit of surprise when I and a loved one take our disagreement “off the shelf” and talk about it again.  We may not disagree in the same way anymore.  My loved one may have changed his or her belief in a way I couldn’t have imagined (or finagled with all of my reasoning and persuasive skills).

Or not.  We might still disagree quite a bit, or even more.  So back up on the shelf it goes.

Is this easy?  Not always.  Sometimes, watching someone I love live out a belief that goes against my every understanding can be excruciating.  The past U.S. election, for example, was gut-wrenching in my house.  But my family members and I got many chances to respect one another, to be compassionate and gentle.  And we still don’t agree.


Whoever we are, there are people around us who are behaving badly.   Treating each other unfairly, defending positions that are indefensible.   People of bad character, who, even if they are on the right side of some issue, just have the wrong attitude, and consequently tend to screw things up.   You know the type.   There are probably dozens of them in your life.   There certainly are in mine.   And the world really can’t be a better place until they stop.   So we have to get them to stop, or else things can’t possibly get better.

So how can we make people stop doing bad things?   There are a lot of ways.   One of my favorite is arguing.    When I explain my position carefully, they can’t help but get it.   Because my logic is unassailable, and their own positions are weak, with only the feeblest of justifications.   It works every time.

Threats work pretty well too.   They’re especially effective with politicians – if enough people tell them that they are being idiots, they change their minds and start doing the right thing.   This is why, for instance, the Republicans are starting to change their tune recently – why you hear about their efforts to form a bipartisan team and try to do the right thing for the country in our time of need.

Another really effective way of getting people to stop being wrong is to chastise them.   Just the other day I got some email from a friend of mine asking for help with something I didn’t agree with, and so I gave her a piece of my mind – I really let her have it.   Problem solved – her organization is back on the straight and narrow, doing what I thought they should be doing all along.

As if.

It’s a bit frustrating to post here because I feel like a lot of the time I’m just asserting things.   And that’s really what I’m arguing against here.   You can’t convert people by asserting things.   I can’t either.   So I guess I’m speaking to the people who are reading this and who already agree that the problem I’m talking about is a real problem, and that solving it will make a difference.

There will always be people we can’t convince.  They aren’t necessarily bad people.   They just see things differently enough that we can’t figure out how to communicate with them.   We have to live with them anyway.   We can’t make them stop.   If making the world a better place requires us to make them stop, or convince them to stop, we are out of luck.   I guess that’s another assertion.   But if you think it’s not true, how are you going to make them stop?   Is making them stop even consistent with peace?   And if you aren’t going to force them, how are they going to stop?   Are you really going to convince them?   Has it ever worked before?   Are your arguments so much better than those others have tried in the past?

This is why I have such trouble with the idea of peace being something imposed, something that comes from stopping other people from doing things we think are bad.   I think if peace comes from that, there is no hope, because the very act of stopping them is not a peaceful act.  And am I really so all-knowing that every wrong thing ever done is obvious to me, and every opportunity to do right unmistakeable?   And yet I think peace is possible.

And so I think that peace comes from two things.   It comes from stopping myself from doing things that aren’t consistent with peace, and it comes from acts of creation that build a peaceful world.   It comes from those people I was trying to make stop come into that peaceful world of their own accord, because they choose to, because it is a better world than the one they are creating with their control and their hatred and their anger and their violence.

And this is why practices like the one Andrea described on Friday are so important.   Because I am really more like the people whose actions I wish would stop than I am different from them.   And those differences are in my mind.   So if I really want to change the world, I need to change my mind.

I asked this question in a comment the other day, and didn’t get any clear answer, probably because it’s a difficult question. Naturally I have my own ideas, which I will share here, but I’m not claiming I’m right – just throwing out ideas.

First of all, I’d like to point out that one kind of “peace” that we’ve seen in the past is the total extermination of one side of the conflict. There is historical evidence of quite a few aboriginal cultures in Europe that have perished this way. Many Native American tribes were wiped out in this way. It’s what made Stalin and Pol Pot famous.

I mention extermination because I think that many of the wars that we see nowadays are silently predicated on the idea of total extermination of the enemy. I don’t mean that this is a deliberate goal – I just mean that these wars don’t make sense when viewed any other way.

What I mean is that there is no exit strategy for the conflict – no set of end conditions that would mean that it was time to stop fighting – other than that everyone is dead. I’m aware of at least one conflict that looks this way to me that’s going on right now, and I’d be surprised if there weren’t more. Interestingly, it needn’t be the case that both sides be fighting on this basis – it’s only necessary for one side to have no exit strategy, and I think you have an extermination-oriented conflict.

So suppose that such a conflict comes to a conclusion. Do we now have peace? History would suggest otherwise. What actually happens is that you wind up with an empire, and then that empire eventually crashes. And then you have conflict again.

So what about getting rid of the people who are in control, who are instigating the conflict? Does that work? I ask this question because I think this is the model most people who want peace actually believe in. Get rid of the aggressors, and the conflict will stop.

Let’s consider two examples – mid-seventies Iran, and the U.S. this year, 2009. Iran is a questionable example because they were not really at war in a technical sense, but I think only in a technical sense. Really, Iran was an occupied country. The leaders of the occupation were Iranian, but they were in power because of an occupation begun by the British, and continued by the Americans.

When Iran’s occupation ended, intellectuals in Iran who supported its end were hopeful. They wanted to build a new government that was just and peaceful. This was not an unreasonable hope – nowadays we tend to think of the Middle East as a place where everyone wants war, but this isn’t really true now, and in fact historically the Middle East has been a cradle of civilization.

Unfortunately, Iran was not ripe for a peaceful government when the old government fell. Consequently, what rose up in its place was something even worse. No longer occupied by a foreign power, Iran fell into chaos and repression. War with Iraq killed more Iranians than the Shah ever did.

In the U.S., in 2009, we are tired of war. I think the old government here fell because of this. Lucky us. Unfortunately, although I think we are ripe for improvement, we are not yet ripe for peace. We want an end to the war in Iraq, but not today. So the war is currently projected to continue until 2011, and the war in Afghanistan is ramping up.

There’s an argument, and I think a legitimate one, to be made for staying in Iraq. We allowed the war to start there, and if we just leave, the chaos that follows will be our chaos. But nevertheless, if we were ready for peace, I have trouble believing that the word would be that we would stay until 2011.

So this leads to what I think peace is. I think peace is what happens when most people not only are not interested in war, but are actively interested in peace. I say most because there will always be sociopaths, and there will always be people who feel unfairly done-by, and there will always be criminals. But for peace to exist, it must be the case that those people are not in control, and that their bad behavior is completely and successfully moderated by the intentions and actions of the people who do actively want peace.

I think that people who want peace sometimes imagine that in the absence of aggression, peace would happen naturally, and would remain indefinitely. I think this is unrealistic. We don’t expect the leaves in our roof gutters to clean themselves out. We don’t expect that, once painted, our houses will remain just as bright, forever. Why would we expect peace to emerge on its own out of the ashes of oppression?

Peace, when it comes, will be the result of a very careful and deliberate effort to create the habits that perpetuate peace. We have never seen what this looks like. Perhaps it’s naive to think it’s even possible.

The reason I think it is possible is because this is actually how societies work. Societies have police forces, but it is not the police force that keeps the peace. The police force is just there for the people who can’t restrain themselves. The reason the peace is kept is that the overwhelming majority wants it kept.

And so I think it is possible for there to be peace on earth. But it will not happen because we get rid of someone, or stop someone, or something like that. It will be because we figure out what our world culture needs to be in order for peace to be possible, and because we work, over probably a very long time, to foster the birth of that culture, and to nurture it once it’s been born.

An acquaintance of mine, Steve Shick, was the first director of the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network, a faith-based organization that was formed late in the Cold War to promote nuclear disarmament. The Peace Network grew out of a coalition of national and international organizations in the early 1980s. In spite of a small budget, the Network proved to be quite successful, running a wide range of programs including direct legislative actions, peace education curricula for children, cross-cultural programs to increase Soviet-U.S. understanding, protest actions, etc. The Peace Network’s programs were specific to the Cold War, and thus it ended its institutional existence in 1991.

In a recent article, Steve Shick points out some of the strengths of this Peace Network. Of primary importance, says Steve, the Network was a broad-based coalition: “With the Network were pacifists, nuclear pacifists, and those who supported only limited arms control but not disarmament.” A number of denominational leaders declared that the Unitarian Universalist Peace Network “was the most effective cooperative… effort they had experienced.” Equally important, the Network provided many opportunities for individuals to get directly involved, at whatever level they felt comfortable.

Steve concludes by saying that the old Unitarian Universalist Peace Network offers some lessons for anyone doing faith-based peace work today:

1. You don’t need an ideological consensus to develop effective national programs that mobilize members of a denomination into action.

2. You don’t have to declare yourselves a traditional peace church to be strong advocates for peace.

3. Large numbers of individuals within your denomination are eager for their religious organization to provide action programs in peacemaking.

I especially like the first lesson — you don’t need an ideological consensus to do effective peacemaking.

Suppose we want peace. Real peace. We believe that peace is possible in theory, although we haven’t lived a day of our lives in a world at peace. What do we do?

Here are some options:

  • We can get upset
  • We can protest
  • We can vote
  • We can boycott
  • We can resist more actively
  • We can think

If it sounds like I’m leading you to a conclusion, please don’t think that.   I’m just trying to be complete.   I think all of these options are things worth discussing.

Let’s take getting upset.   This is a good one, because it’s so easy.   All we need do is read the news.   There is a war going on somewhere.   An atrocity was committed somewhere, today.   A child died in a hospital, in the arms of her sobbing mother, because of some tragic act of horror that was done yesterday, or last week.   I don’t mean to make light of this.   We need to stay in touch with why we want peace.   If we cannot put ourselves in the place of that sobbing mother, we cannot have compassion for her, and if we cannot have compassion for her, how serious can we claim to be?

At the same time, though, getting upset is time consuming.   I can waste an entire day getting upset about war, researching its causes, trying to figure out who’s right, who’s wrong, what was done badly here, how much guilt I share in the horror I have just vicariously witnessed.   So personally, I try to be careful about this.   I think moderation is important here.

We can protest.   I think protest is necessary.   At the same time, we have to be realistic.   For example, when Bush was in office, no amount of public protest that was realistically possible was going to sway him from the course he’d determined to follow.   I’m not saying that no amount of protest could have swayed him – just that the will for the amount of protest that could have swayed him wasn’t present.   As witness the fact that the protests that happened did not sway him.

So I think protest is a worthwhile avenue for communicating our intentions to those in power, and it’s important for us to affirm those intentions, and not just sit back and accept passively the evil that will be done in our names.   But this kind of protest, by like-minded individuals who already believe in peace, isn’t going to be enough.   

For my part, I protest by writing letters more than by appearing in public.   I think the last actual peace rally I attended was the one in New York in 1982, unless you count Critical Mass, which was motivated by a desire to end wars over oil, and which I used to ride in when I could when I was living in San Francisco.  Although reading about those protests when I went to find links describing them got me all teary-eyed – maybe I should go to some more.

We can vote.   This is a hard thing to contemplate.   I have never had the opportunity to vote for a president who was unreservedly pro-peace.   The last one who spoke seriously about creating peace was Jimmy Carter, and he was run out of town on a rail eight days after my sixteenth birthday.   But I voted enthusiastically for Barack Obama, despite his pro-war stance.   Why?   Because I’d rather have a president who’s a diplomat willing to go to war than a president who is not a diplomat, and willing to go to war.

Obviously we will never end war simply by choosing presidents on this basis, but as a practical matter, actions which are less likely to lead to war are worthwhile.   People often brag about refusing to vote on principle, because the choice is between two evils.   But if you ask someone who lives in a U.S.-dominated country like the Philippines how life changed for them when Bush was elected, they’re quite unequivocal about it (I know because I have asked).   When you choose, on principle, not to vote for someone who’s less likely to go to war, I believe that you are choosing to risk war on principle.   I don’t think that’s actually a principled choice.

We can boycott.    The thing about boycotts is that they are essentially tactical.   It’s not that boycotting people is the right thing to do.   In all likelihood, the people who will actually suffer the most from the boycott are not the ones you want to injure.   And there it is – in a boycott, you are essentially seeking to injure someone in a small way in order to prevent a larger injury.

I do not mean to imply that boycotts are never the right thing to do, but I think that a boycott should stand the test of practicality.   If the boycott has some hope of actually accomplishing the change that’s intended, then perhaps it’s worth doing.   But to engage in a boycott as a matter of principle, when it will not actually change anything, to me seems immoral, because now you are attempting to injure someone, and you can’t even point to any good that will come of it.

So personally I tend to shy away from boycotts unless it’s pretty clear-cut.   I was pretty enthusiastic about the INFACT boycott many years ago, and I still think that, for example, boycotting chocolate that’s produced using slaves is a very good thing, but a lot of times when I’m personally called on by a friend to participate in a boycott, it just doesn’t feel like the right thing to me.

We can resist more actively.   I guess this would range anywhere from lying down in front of a train carrying munitions to Weather Underground and SDS territory.   I think engaging in a protest where you might be grievously injured is on the one hand a very powerful statement, and on the other hand, like a boycott, a very questionable tactic.   In effect, you are trading one moment of terrible risk for all the good you might do in the rest of your life if you survive.

I think Brian Willson’s story is worth examining.   I find what he says in his extensive writings on peace both inspiring and discouraging.   He’s an amazing person, but his principled act of self-sacrifice back in 1987 barely left a ripple on the national consciousness.   Whether we agree with his choice of tactic or not, I think his story should be required reading for anybody who’s serious about peace.

As for the Weather Underground and SDS, I think history shows a pretty clear conclusion.   WU and SDS made things a lot worse.   Because of their actions in the sixties, Barack Obama came under scrutiny, merely for an incidental association with Bill Ayers.   Furthermore, any good those involved do now is forever tainted by their actions as misguided youths in the 1960s.   Their actions are used as justification for police brutality against protestors, up to and including killing in self-defense.   Violence begets violence, whether it is in the service of peace or war, or any other cause.

We can think.   We can be slaves to our drives, or we can think our way out of them.   When we engage in war, we are enslaved by our drives.   We are not moral actors – we are dumb animals reacting to our environment.   Thinking is actually the most important thing we can do to promote peace.   Our drives are never permanently conquered.   We do not, one day, decide that we will never get angry again, and then thereafter our will is perfectly imposed on our drives.   Quite the contrary.

Even our thinking about war is muddled by our drives.   The more you read about human drives, the more clear this is.   People can be manipulated, en masse.   We are manipulated by our emotions even as individuals.   Look at the standard action movie setup: some bad guy commits an atrocity against the hero’s loved one.   Any subsequent action on the part of the hero, no matter how depraved, is justified by this initial act.   It works in real life too.

The only tool we have with which to fight this is our intellect.

It’s key to bear in mind that it is not only those who promote war who manipulate us.   It is also those who promote peace.   I don’t mean that peace activists are bad people.   What I mean is that we need to use our intellect to examine all arguments offered to us, not just those with which we disagree.   A peace activist friend who urges us to do something extreme, or even just something ineffective, in the service of peace is just as wrong as the war hawk who urges us to go to war.   Right now I think the peace activist who has a serious, intellectually rigorous answer for why peace is better than war as a tool for achieving any end at all is a very rare bird.   Are you such a rare bird?

So I don’t mean to discount all the other things we can do to achieve peace, because they are also important.   But we need more of those rare birds.   We should all be able to sit down with Bill O’Reilly and not be stumped by a single thing he throws at us.   We should be able to describe and justify our own agenda clearly, and we should be able to respond to cross-examination on any point.

It is in service of this crucial need that I debate with people about war and peace.   It’s why I agreed to write about peace here on this blog.   And it’s why I blew my targeted word count by about 700 words.   So if you got to this point in the article, that’s a very hopeful thing.

This morning I was reading the news, and I came to an article about Iran. It turns out that although Iran has not been working very hard on developing a nuclear bomb, they have been working on a delivery system, and on enrichment. Consequently, they are considered to be not all that far from actually having a nuclear weapon. They say their enrichment work is for peaceful purposes.

So what pops into my mind as I’m reading this, you might ask? Well, this is the confession. What popped into my mind was my recollection of Israel bombing a nuclear plant in Iraq many years ago, and how something similar might be done in Iran. Attacking, deposing the government there. Getting the current Ayatollah out of power. This is what my mind is like. Who am I to ever counsel anyone else that they ought to seek peace, if this is what my mind is like?

Here is the truth, as I see it. If we were to attack Iran in this way, it would make things worse. It feels like it would make things better. It feels like we could stop this madness by attacking. But I don’t think we can. Even though my natural first thought is to attack, I do not think that following my natural first thought is the right thing to do.

I don’t even know why Iran is pursuing nuclear enrichment. Maybe they really are going to build nuclear power plants, and generate power that way. I’m not a big fan of nuclear power, but would it be worth going to war with Iran if that were the reason they were enriching their uranium? I don’t think it would.

Iran has been through a terrible war in recent memory. The revolution there just turned 30. They are not stupid. I suspect they have planned for the possibility of air strikes. So going to war with them would probably be harder than going to war with Iraq. And going to war with Iraq is bankrupting us. Furthermore, going to war with Iraq has destroyed our credibility, so if we wanted to attack Iran as well, I don’t think we would find a ready source of allies.

If all that weren’t bad enough, it’s our attempts to control the middle east in the past that have led us to where we are today. The revolution thirty years ago in Iran was a revolution against a government that we installed. A government that had so harmed its people that when they revolted, they had no normalcy to fall back on, and they fell back on religious extremism instead. We really have nobody but ourselves to blame for our current relationship with Iran, and more to the point, the blame falls on us because of our warlike actions in the past, not because of any failure to prosecute a war.

This is the situation in Iraq as well – a despot we installed went crazy, and we wound up deciding to overthrow him.

So we really don’t have to think very hard to see that our warlike actions in the past have not served us well. And yet it’s been taboo in the U.S. to even talk about this, to even acknowledge that the problems in the middle east might be to some degree problems that we created. And it is only this shyness for confession, for taking responsibility for our actions, that allows us even for a moment to consider yet another act of war to try to make things better.

The world is in a dangerous situation right now. We have been mining aquifers to support our agriculture, and many of the aquifers we have been mining are nearly or completely empty. Grain production is sharply down, and we have been burning through our reserves. Food security is a dream for a lot of the world right now, and if things continue the way they are going, it will get worse.

And my reaction to this, I have to admit, is first to be concerned for all the bad things that could happen, and second to think, “well, I live in the United States, things probably won’t get that bad here.” And then finally I recall that the way this sort of thing typically corrects itself is by mass die-offs. People starve to death in the millions, and the problem corrects itself. Am I okay with that? I’m ashamed to say that it’s easy to comfort myself with the hope that things won’t get that bad here.

What is the point of all this soul-baring? It’s that we need to stop screwing around. We have to wake up and start changing the world. The Age of Aquarius has come and gone, and we have very little to show for it. The world will not improve itself. But improvement starts here, in my heart. If I can’t improve my heart, how can I demand of anybody else that they improve theirs? How can I demand that they be the one to start, while I sit back and criticize?

If it’s true that there are evil people in the world who are content to cause wars, to allow famines, even to profit from these evils, then I can always say “well, I’m better than they are, so until they improve, I don’t have to.” But if you think about it, this is completely backwards. Whatever the reason for their evil is, they are steeped in it. Turning around, for them, is going to be harder than it is for me. I at least recognize the problem. I at least can conceive of taking personal responsibility for it.

So if we are in that place, where we are not perfect, but we can allow ourselves to see our own flaws, and to confess them, we have a duty, I think. If the buck doesn’t stop here, I don’t know where it possibly can.

Serialbabbler asked a very good question in a followup to a comment I made on Dan’s posting earlier this week. I originally responded in the comments, but it’s such a good question that I felt like it was worth devoting an actual blog entry to.

This is what I wrote:

You can see this simply by looking back through history at all the times that peoples’ dreams have been deferred, and noticing that not all of those deferred dreams led to war, even in cases where the injustice was truly severe. And you can see cases where war has arisen for reasons other than deferred dreams.

This was the reply:

The main problem I see with this line of thought is that it is like arguing that cigarette smoke doesn’t cause lung cancer because not all smokers develop lung cancer and not all people with lung cancer smoked.

If I were to characterize the difference here, this is how I would do it. Consider the cause of lung cancer. It is mutation. So if we wish to prevent lung cancer, we need to prevent mutation. So what causes mutation? Well, one of the primary causes of mutation is tobacco smoke. Is it easy or hard to stop tobacco smoke? You can debate the point, but it’s certainly an easily identified problem, and in principle at least it’s easy to know if you have stopped it, so stopping it is a good goal.

Now, consider war. I claim that war is caused by the belief that war is a solution to one’s problems. So there are two obvious ways to prevent war. If you remove the belief that war can solve problems, then war won’t happen. And if you can remove the problems, then war won’t happen.

So what’s different about this, as compared to lung cancer? It’s true that poverty and broken dreams are problems, and that if you remove them, war will no longer be attempted as a solution to these problems.

However, there are two problems with this approach. One is that war gives rise to poverty. Because war kills people, and destroys property, and prevents the production of necessities, it tends to be the case that there is more poverty following a war than there was prior to the war. So you have a loop – let’s stop poverty, so that we can stop war, you say, but then you have to stop war so that you can stop poverty, so that you can stop war. The linchpin here is not poverty – it is war.

The other problem is that there is really no limit to human problems. By the standards of a poor person living in India, Americans are all rich. Even the ones who live in shacks. So that person would say that America has solved the problem of poverty. But of course we haven’t. We’ve just gotten to the point where the worst-off person in America is better off than the worst-off person in India.

And yet there are plenty of people in America who, for one reason or another, will happily shoot you so as to get your money, or just because they are angry at you for being better off than they are. Why? One reason is the war on drugs. So to stop that, you’d have to stop a war. Which leads us back to the beginning of the circle again, just in a slightly wider loop this time.

My point is not that we should not fight poverty. We should. Poverty is bad whether it causes war or not. We do not need the search for peace to be our excuse for fighting poverty – we have enough reason without it.

But if we do not understand what really causes war, and address that problem directly, then we will never triumph over war. We will fight tactical battle after tactical battle, but because we have no strategy, we will never be victorious.

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