Peace Studies between Infinities by Ian Harris

Harris, Ian. “Peace Studies between the Two Infinities,” Newsletter of the Concerned Philosophers for Peace, Vol. 26.2 (Fall 2006)

Between the terror of war and the promise of justice we struggle. On the one hand, the study of violence leads us to contemplate the horror of World Wars, omnicide through weapons of mass destruction, and the dreadfulness of human cruelty. Gazing at Goya’s etchings, “The Disasters of War,” we witness the horror of humans torturing others. On the other hand, the study of peace allows us to appreciate how just and considerate humans can be to each other. A careful look at the lives of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, Rigoberta Menchu, Mother Teresa, Bertha von Suttner, or other peace activists, provides glimpses into the best of human nature. Reading about the work of Desmond Tutu to reconcile the sufferings caused by the apartheid regime in South Africa illustrates the power of forgiveness to heal deep wounds.

There exists a dynamic tension in the struggle for peace. Peace studies presents an ideal of peace as a goal that we can subscribe to, not necessarily something we can achieve. On our best days we may resolve conflicts with family members, friends, and fellow workers, but still in the cities we inhabit, there are murders, rapes, and other acts of aggression and psychological manipulation. We may momentarily experience calm, but as we look around us we are assaulted with the images of violence. We live in countries that commit acts of war and use the so-called legitimacy of government to help the rich amass huge fortunes at the expense of the vast majority of people suffering in poverty. We slaughter animals for food. And so we wake up one morning and, to our horror, find ourselves thinking that it is impossible to live nonviolently. Don’t we all have blood on our hands?

Indeed, conflict is omnipresent. We can never really be ‘at peace.’ Anybody who thinks she is at peace is wearing blinders. Events may evolve to the point that an individual feels at peace, but around that person is a sea of conflict. The neighbors next door are fighting. People are suffering, and animals are dying. The whole universe is in a constant state of entropy. ‘Peace’ implies a constant struggle to manage conflicts in ways that aren’t destructive. Although ‘peace’ connotes passivity, it must become an active notion.

Imagine you are swimming in a large body of water. The wind dies down and you are swimming calmly. You feel at peace, but then winds of whip up waves and you struggle to stay afloat. Suspended between hope and despair, harmony and chaos, order and disorder we will never truly be at peace. Like the Charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus, we all drive the twin horses of passion and reason as we charge through daily life. As Sartre pointed out, we are suspended between being and nothingness, our desires for peace blown astray by hurricanes of violence.

Still we have the will to choose our existence and how to resolve our conflicts. We are free to be violent or peaceful. We do not have to strike back at those who dominate us forcefully. We can turn the other cheek. Nor do we have to accept our oppression. As we learned from the Civil Rights Struggle in the United States, we can organize nonviolently to fight the violence of injustice. We can also leave spouses who physically and psychologically abuse us.

The challenge is to act peacefully in a world where ‘peace through strength’ is used to resolve conflicts, and where ‘strength’ is mistaken for the threat of violence. Most of us–raised on corporal punishment, aggressive entertainment, violent media, and police force–believe that striking out is the best way to subdue evil. Kept ignorant about the ways of peace, we are not taught about nonviolent alternatives. Thus, humans who are attracted to violence as a path to security fail to see its long-term damaging effects. They despair of peace. They do not appreciate the power of speech, law, agreement, and compromise to build bridges between different cultures. Therefore, the dream of peace remains a chimera.

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Ian Harris is Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where he conducts research in peace education and male identity. Prof. Harris is the author of “Peace Education, Messages Men Hear: Constructing Masculinities, Experiential Education for Community Development” (with Paul Denise), and “Peace Building for Adolescents” (with Linda Forcey). He is director of the International Peace Research Association Foundation, and a founding board member of the Wisconsin Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. In 2004, he helped to launch a new publication, Journal of Peace Education.

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