Rotary Peace Center at Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand
I find ‘peace’ vexing. The word, I mean, not the concept – though you’ll note the inherent overlay. We of the post-baby boomer era bandy it around because it’s a succinct tool with which to flaunt bohemian sensibilities, besides which it seems to make for an irrefutable get-out-of-conversational-gaol-free-card. Alas I fear poor peace has been semantically degraded to popular sign language, tourist happy snaps, clicktivism and stoner paraphernalia. It has materialised as a superficial contrivance akin to believing that the Spicegirls truly represent feminist ideals, or that clicking ‘like’ on Facebook that time assisted the people of Uganda to unravel that pesky child soldier issue they’d been passively pondering for so long. It’s a little bit naive, isn’t it? Hence my annoyance, seeded in concern that the notion of peace in the global north has accidentally morphed into an oversimplified and patronising directive, rather than an authentic, utilitarian ideology.
Peace is not an outcome. There are no outcomes. The moon goes down, the sun comes up and no single person will be entirely free of interests that conflict in some way with someone or something of some kind before it all happens again. The inimical yet widely held untruth is that peace is the antithesis of conflict. But no! Peace and conflict are surprising friends – like Bette Midler and 50 Cent. Conflict is natural, healthy, necessary. It can be about helping to understand discordant perspectives and reconciling seemingly incompatible interests. It can be the process by which a minority can be heard, where peace for peace’s sake might eschew this. Is it not better to express a conflicting view than tolerate a racist or sexist or homophobic remark? Could disharmony in the short term help to offset eruptions that might eventually result from conflict aversion right now? Does one have a responsibility to dissent if one person’s enjoyment of peace is actively impinging on that of others? Conflict is the foundation of democratic governance. I don’t think conflict is the problem; I believe our approach to conflict is the problem.
Indeed, ‘peace’ makes for a pithy comment or greeting, but what we’re really looking for is something substantial, something more like a commitment to ‘constructive, empathy-based negotiation and conflict resolution’. I’d get on Cat Stevens’ Constructive Empathy-based Negotiation and Conflict Resolution Train any day. Kindness and concession are in. Tokenistic peace signs are out. Dialogue is in. Avoidance is out. Mindful, meaningful, respectful discussion is in. Vacuous or inconsequential sloganism is very much out. Group hugs and positive rhetoric are delightful, but considered daily action is productive.
There you have it. In my concern about tokenism I have come to regard the word ‘peace’ with disdain. This may be an unpopular assertion – perhaps your views conflict strongly with mine? Grand, let’s talk about that. Over here in the privileged north we can slap on a ‘peace’ bumper sticker and trust that it’ll serve as a salient reminder to Taliban forces, or we can commit to taking a more proactive approach to rights and justice through mindful, meaningful, respectful but non-avoidant daily dealings. Peace is personal and peace is political, and if we let go of perfunctory action, peace is possible. All I’m saying, as John Lennon almost said, is ‘give constructive empathy-based negotiation and conflict resolution a chance’.
Suzanna van Meegen, Australia
Rotary Peace Fellow
January 2013 Session