Peace is a Verb ... and a Whole Lot More
As regular readers know, I’ve been working on a book about connecting the political dots for the last year or so.
As regular readers don’t know, the project keeps getting more complicated which has slowed me down so much that I feel like I’m spinning my wheels.
As regular readers also don’t know, just before Christmas, a friend asked me to write a book with her that would take peacebuilding and social change writ large farther into the political mainstream. I realized that it was worth doing because I would be able to include much of the material on the other “dots” I was working with, including climate change, race relations, economic inequality, and the like. However, we would anchor it in peacebuilding which, of course, I know best and which my coauthor approaches from a different angle.
Before we actually begin writing the book, we decided to make certain that we are on the same clichéd page. So, we agreed that we would each write a one paragraph summary of what a volume with the provisional title, Peace for You/Peace for Me would be like.
As is my wont, I also have to write something longer before I can turn it into a single paragraph. So, thanks for being my guinea pigs. The one paragraph, bare-bones version follows, and I’d be glad to share it in the unlikely event that you want to see it.
While I initially liked the provisional title, I found myself using a different intellectual hook once I sat down at the keyboard and ended up with To Peace instead and use a modified version of our first idea as the subtitle.
As I hope you will see here, the new title won’t change the new book’s content, but it should shift its emphasis away from ideas and take it toward the kinds of actions we will want our readers to take after they finish wading through a couple hundred pages of our prose.
Although I never used one myself before, I find myself drawn to books whose very titles make me think. From that perspective, Peace for You/Peace for Me just felt too insipid. So, I somehow stumbled on To Peace which can be read in two very different ways. And after trying it out on a couple of younger colleagues and getting a firm vote of support, I decided to go with it—and order the t-shirt which I used as the featured image of this post which arrive in time for my next weekly meeting with my coauthor.
The first and more obvious of the interpretations is one in which peace is a noun. It is a place, the destination that the “to” points us toward as suggested in the road sign.
Make no mistake. We definitely want to get there. My coauthor and I have spent a combined three quarters of a century trying to make it happen.
But if we’ve learned anything , it’s that the destination seems waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there in the distance for most people, including the people we hope will read our book. In fact, peace lies so far out on the horizon that many of the people we meet think that it is a utopian goal which can never be reached . And, even if if they could imagine getting there some day, it’s all but impossible to see how one’s own actions could take us more than a baby step along the way.
But we want to invent a new way to use the word peace—as a verb and think of “to peace” as its infinitive. While you might be happier stylistically with a phrase like to build peace or to make peace, I want you to focus on peace as a particular kind of verb akin to I exercise or I write or I meditate or, especially, I practice.
All invoke skills that we will never perfect. But we can get better at them. And, we can even measure the progress we make along the way.
To take an example that hits embarrassingly close to home, I wrote my PhD dissertation and first book at the rate of less than half a page a day, and, frankly, when I go back and read it now, I cringe at the prose. Today, I write 1,500 publishable and non-cringe-worthy words on an average day.
In other words, I write better today than I did in 1973. But I don’t write anywhere near as well as any half decent journalist or novelist. In other words, I still have a lot to learn.
So, the first thing we will want our readers to do is to think of peace as a verb that they can practice and that it is time for them to either start “peacing” of, if they already “peace,” help them do it better.
(Peace) for You and (Peace) for Me
It’s at that point that the original title comes into play and will structure the book. In this new formulation, it serves as a subtitle, and we may not need the word peace so that we can avoid overkill (pun very much intended).
The book will start with the first necessary step in overcoming the “waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there” problem for one simple reasons. None of us is capable of getting us to peace (the noun) in the way we all dream of. Peace is not going to somehow come to pass in one fell swoop as conveyed in Garth Brooks’ 2021 version of a song we used to sing around the campfire in the 1960s.
Each of us, however, can peace and make a difference at least in the microcosm of our daily lives in ways that could eventually tilt the balance toward the dream that Ed McCurdy put into words in 1951 .
Put as simply as possible, we will want our readers to peace (the verb) in three realistic and impactful ways that build off each other. We will be able to provide plenty of empirical evidence on the first. And while there is less we can draw on for peace, per se, on the other two, we can draw on what we can learn from the people who work on those other issues my “dot connecters” focus on and from what we know about paradigm shifts to suggest why we just might be able to get closer to peace the noun in my lifetime—and I’m 75.
Literally for Me and You
Our original title does make sense because most of us have no choice but to begin peacing in the microcosm of our daily lives because that is where our leverage lies. Even though I know people who hold exalted positions in the U.S. government who would at least respond to an email, that’s not how I can get us to McCurdy’s “mighty room filled with men (and he would now add women) who said we’d never fight again.”
What I can do is live peace in the way I deal with the people around me.
To do that, I have to change myself first. I have to figure out what it means to deal constructively with the disputes that crop up in our daily lives. And that means that I have to change what we used to call our own “modes of thinking’ in the Beyond War movement in the 1980s.
As we will argue in the book, we have to heed the words of another 1960s folk singer, Tom Paxton, who wrote in his song, Peace Will Come. “My own life is all I can hope to control. Let it be lived for the good of my soul. Peace. We need peace. Let it begin with me.”
Experience has taught me two things along those lines. First, if I don’t do what Paxton and Seeger sang in this version of the song, people have good BS detectors, and they will tune me out. On the other hand, if I do live the kinds of values I’ve worked since I first heard Tom Paxton sing that song in 1972, I serve as a kind of magnet. People want to know why I’m different, why I can solve conflict, why I can get along with people I intensely disagree with, how I can bring strange political bedfellows together, and more.
Therein lies the first step. If I demonstrate that I can make life at home, at work, in my neighborhood, or even in my online community better, good things result and the people I interact with themselves decided that it is time for them to learn how to peace, too.
But it is only the first step.
We also live in a time of transition in which, for the first time in history, everything is interconnected. We use lots of terms to describe the new world (dis)order including systems, ecological thinking, networks, complexity, and more.
All rest on the assumption that everything everyone does affects everyone and everything else, at least indirectly. In other words, what you and I do in the microcosm of our daily lives does make a difference. It may be small. It my be indirect. But when we peace, we do make a difference.
Yet, if I’ve learned anything in my forty years as a professional peacebuilder, it is that peacing for peace’s sake as I just described it is never enough. And if all we do is either work on ourselves or work to reshape our personal ecosystems, we will never get past the “waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay out there” dilemma.
We also have to solve the real world problems that give rise to the violent and other intractable conflicts that roil life here in the United States and around the world.
In other words, if we want to reach peace the noun we have to offer a credible alternative to the status quo on all of the issues we face and demonstrate that we are making progress toward them by peacing.
On one level, that’s not new. At least since the 1970s, scholars like Johan Galtung have been arguing that we have to get at the causes of what he called structural violence or, in more everyday language, get at the root causes that lead to the conflict in the first place. For good or ill, Galtung and the first generation of peacebuilders (of which I am definitely a part) did not give us any real practical guidelines for doing so.
In the twenty-first century, however, we’ve learned how to take some tangible and practical steps along those lines. In the terminology I’ve used for the last twenty years or so, that means addressing the world’s wicked problems whose causes and consequences are so inextricably intertwined that you can’t solve them quickly, easily, or separately—if you can solve them at all. As Americans, that means tackling climate change, structural racism, economic inequality, our public health system, gender issues, and more which are part and parcel of getting to the peace hinted at by my traffic sign. Indeed, if you take just a few minutes to think about it, we, in fact, won’t be able to get to peace-the-noun unless and until we more or less simultaneously make a major dent in solving those other problems.
There is no single approach to peacing in that way. But, my coauthor and I have separately been drawn to the Institute of Economic and Peace’s eight pillars of positive peace which we typically think of as happening at the national level which, after all, is where IEP’s own data come from.
However, we can begin the process of taking peacing beyond the individual or family level by exploring how we can strengthen each of those pillars in the communities we live and work in, not to mention the online communities we spend so much of our time in. That will be a key goal of an initiative I’m starting with Zebras Unite, the Horizons Project, and the National Association for Community Mediation in one southern city next month. If that even comes close to working, our plan is to take what we’ve learned and try it out elsewhere around the country.
Put in the language I used to use when I taught comparative politics, if we do that, we can begin to change our national political culture toward one that emphasizes finding collective solutions to our shared problems. In the days of Beyond War , we spoke in terms of “we are one.” In the 2020s, a more apt phrase is “we’re all in this together.”
Were we to actually live that way, we would have made the paradigm shift I’ve advocated since I first read Thomas Kuhn’s book as a college sophomore.
And the good news that we will talk about in the book is that there are signs that significant chunks of the American and global population are now taking those words seriously and we can speed the project up by experimenting with the kinds of projects like this one.
Third, as we learn to peace, we will also have to learn how to take our efforts to scale, not only to produce the cultural paradigm shift I just mentioned but also to produce drastically new policy initiatives in both the public and private sectors.
My friend Julia Roig used to lament that we don’t get a seat at the “grownups’ table” at the political equivalent of a holiday dinner. Now, we are often invited to it, at least for the occasional “snack.”
What we haven’t done is master how to scale our peacing efforts so that we don’t even need to be invited to “the table” because everyone assumes we have to be there because we are, in fact, grownups. If and when that happens, we get to determine “what’s on the menu” in the first place.
In other words, the third part of the book will have to be more speculative because we have to learn how to go to scale “horizontally” by taking initiatives that work in one community, adapt and expand them to work elsewhere, and build a true national movement or movements that can make a paradigm shift plausible, something that Julia Roig and her Horizons Project is itself working on.
At the same time, the third part of the book will rest on a significant empirical base that goes beyond Julia and her work. Movements that address many of the other wicked problems we face have made a lot more progress along those lines. And, if we can learn the lessons they have learned over the years and we can build coalitions with those organizations, we can build that kind of movement that will have its roots on people placing all over the country.
World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements
I began to think along these lines a few years ago when I read John Hunter’s World Peace and Other Fourth Grade Achievements. His book, documentary film, and TED talk are all based on a simulation he does each year with his students in which they solve fifty of the world’s wicked problems during a mere eight afternoons of game playing. The game is so effective that he and his students were invited to the Pentagon to show how they made it work to the Joint Chiefs of Staff how it works.
I had forgotten about the book until my then fourth grade grandson said to me, “grandpa, kids can solve problems, too.” So, I had him read it and realized that not only did he get what Hunter was saying but that he should be the coauthor of To Peace’s final chapter, because if my generation doesn’t figure out how to peace a whole hell of a lot better than we have so far, we will be leaving his generation in deep doo doo, as George H. W. Bush used to put it.
I’m hoping that my co-author and I (with a little help from now sixth grader Kiril) will be able to show this generation of adults not only that they can peace but that they have to peace and that they can join with the growling number of fellow peacers whom we will introduce them to and change the world.
And have a lot of fun along the way.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.