When we talk of peace we immerse ourselves in a debate that is laden with linguistic problems. First of all the word peace has become synonymous with the counter-culture activists of the late 60s and early 70s, roused by the legacy of an iconic protest strategy employed by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi to facilitate lasting independence from British colonial rule in India. This meant that as a result, like the counter-culture became, so to peace became, a symbol of commercialism.
Through a tactically-driven, media-orientated deification of satyagraha in the American consciousness, our notion of peace became commoditised and sold; giving it a sense of irony, with attempts to reify peace triggering a violent introspective response through the suppression of violent urges; physical or otherwise, justifiable or not.
The ideal of peace has been problematised by theories of human nature for centuries. From Hobbes to Freud, Darwin to Dawkins, rationalists and empiricists have cast the human in a state of dialectic violence. Two impulses, the free human will, and the individual’s self-mitigation of that will, causes tension in the person between their wants and their abilities. This becomes politicised when societies provide opportunities for will to be enacted and oppressive. The dialectic becomes furthermore antagonized between the realms of science and spirituality, as both offer aid whilst viewing each other as the perpetuators of violence; science creating death machines, with spiritual healthcare seen as dangerous and seductive.
Violence is then projected onto the international stage, further alienating any real hope for peace. As Emery Reves points out in Anatomy of Peace, a myriad of conflicting narratives produce synthetic language barriers when observing history. Consequently, these warring narratives propel social groups away from one another as their identities – crafted in history – no longer conflate.
These narrative problems then become structural as political ideologies are pitted against one another. As seen in the last century, Capitalism and Communism entrenched ideals of otherness and binary opposites. Similarly today we witness the simultaneous rise of one-nation conservatism and the far right across Europe, as a response to the hegemony and sense of otherness created and justified by conflicts between the Western (Christian) narrative, and the Eastern (Islamic) narrative.
For Reves, the solution to these issues of violence and their imposition on freedom is to enshrine them in law, and as situations arise and the social world changes, new laws and new restrictions create new freedoms. For Reves then, freedom and peace are not innate within us but the result of our social contracts. But this notion is deeply problematic.
Imprimis, if we are to establish lasting peace is it really enough to merely state this in law? Pragmatically how would that law be enshrined? If enforcement is the answer, how can this legislation consist of intrinsic peace, when that which is not wholly peaceful, cannot be peace at all?
If we ingrain freedom within our laws, then what is crime? If crime exists outside of law, then what is law?
In truth with crime created in law, the entire argument is tautological. As Howard Zinn explains; ‘The rule of law has regularised and maximised the injustice that existed before the rule of law.’
Without property rights enshrined in law the crime of theft does not exist, because without property in a society and recognised by that society legislation ceases to exist.
The problem extends beyond this. If freedom is created within law, and is therefore a result of the social, then how can law combat differences? If by enacting in law the prevention of harmful speech how do we protect against a reactionary and enraged opposition to this point of view? How do we prevent a minority, outweighed by a majority, from reacting to domination by the larger populous?
This problem is outlined by Foucault. For Foucault the point of legislation as power is naïve to the power discourses that emulate outside of our conscious recognition of it. This for Foucault is because the state or legislator, in all its omnipotence ‘is far from being able to occupy the whole field of actual power relations, and further because the state can only operate on the basis of other, already existing power relations.’ Thus to attempt to emancipate humanity from violence through state action would fall short of omnipotence and effect.
Furthermore how can peaceful law, supposing it possible, combat the indoctrination of those into affiliations that aren’t egalitarian? The problem becomes placed upon the scales of the greatest good. Is it right to literally “combat” elitism if your aims are peaceful: must peace be egalitarian?
Can civil disobedience be intrinsically peaceful? Must it be? We learn from a very young age that violence is the antonym of peace. We have divided human society through nationalism and antithesised our identities, principles and ideals.
Yet in this monstrously brutal world, we must peaceably resist illegitimate authority. Trapped in a paradigm, we feel our lives must be a counter-friction to stop the machine when obedience serves injustice.
To echo the sentiments of Howard Zinn, when in all the nations of the world the rule of law is the darling of the leaders and the plague of the people, the fall of this despotic hegemony cannot be brought about soon enough through a peaceable revolution.
But with conflict seemingly inexorable as we strive for positive social change – as we struggle for absolute peace – can we enact this?
We trigger a violent response each moment we react within the realm of our private thoughts; every time we outwardly respond to a stressor.
Satyagraha has been immortalised within our peace ideal, but to what end? For without an introspective revolution, our external environment will inevitably mirror the turbulence within the self.
When our highest ideals produce far more patrons of peace than peaceful individuals, we must look to shape our own identities — detach ourselves from the blessed auras of our most revered cultural heroes.
To truly enact peace is to observe the ego and see without ideals; to look upon our surroundings without fear; to transcend the authority of time. To recognise the turbulence within our values. To acknowledge that the violence which encompasses our world also exists within each of us. As Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, small fires can become a blaze.
Benjamin Levine & Dave Martin