Capital Area Association for Peace Studies (CAAPS) Keynote Address

This weekend I had the privilege of giving the keynote address at the 24th annual Capital Area Association for Peace Studies student conference.  It was such a pleasure speaking with all the students and then attending several of their project and paper presentations.  I also enjoyed putting together my remarks because it gave me an opportunity to (1) explain how the work of peace scholars is transforming the world and why that is important and (2) how my work in the field of nonviolent conflict and civil resistance in increasingly influencing the interest in peace studies.  Click above to listen or click read more below to read my remarks.

Thank you all for inviting me to be a part of this event. It is a real honor to spend this time and share this space with you and to talk a little bit about why the work you all do as peace scholars is transforming the world around us.

To start, I wanted to briefly take a quick look at the peace studies tradition of which we are all a part. When I was an undergraduate student at Middlebury College up in Vermont, I had to put together my own version of a peace studies experience. Luckily for me, during my junior year, Middlebury offered a course called, the Geography of Peace. It was the first of its kind, and its actually only been offered once more since then. But that class introduced me to concepts such as mutual aid, nonviolent direct action, the hidden curriculum, negative and positive peace, reflective listening, and other concepts of which I am sure you are all familiar. And that transformed how I viewed the world. Now, there is a group of students on Middlebury’s campus who have started their own peace and conflict studies club, which is slowly but surely blossoming into its own minor at Middlebury. This is the one example of how the desire for peace studies is continuing to grow and its impact is being recognized and that recognition is coming from students who want this to be a part of their educational experience.

The first peace studies program in the United States was started at Indiana’s Manchester College in 1948. Fast forward to today, there are now over 250 active, university level, peace studies programs in the United States and over 400 across the world. There have been a variety of world events that have sparked the creation of these programs – from the Cold War to Nuclear Disarmament, and Septemer 11th to global climate change. These events bring people to the conclusion that peace and pathways to it need to be studied and developed with just as much rigor and attention as other academic disciplines.

For me though, peace studies is a special and unique academic discipline, for a couple of reasons and this leads into the first part of my talk, which I will frame by referencing and then adapting two quotes that I think outline what makes peace studies special.

The first is a quote by the playwright and co-founder of the London School of Economics, George Bernard Shaw. This quote was probably been made famous however by Robert Kennedy. The quote is, “You see things as they way they are and you ask why? But I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

I adapt this quote for our purposes today, in the following way: “You see things as the way things are and you ask why? We dream of things that can be and ask how?

Here’s how it relates. This growing field of peace studies, of which you are all a part, challenges what has been the dominant and default view of human history and development. And what is this default view?

The late, great peace scholar, Elise Boulding wrote, “History is generally thought of as the story of the rise and fall of empires, a chronicle of reigns, wars, battles, and military and political revolutions; in short, the history of power—who tames whom, who controls whom.”

It is this history, I would argue, that has too often informed our understanding of the world around us. If one were to open up the most popular history text books in American schools he or she would see that almost every chapter is punctuated by wars and conflicts, emphasizing violent approaches to conflict and minimizing peaceful resolutions and nonviolent approaches to world issues.

Historian Will Durant writes, “History books describe the history of the world as a river red with blood. Running fast, it is filled with the men and events that cause bloodshed; kings and princes, diplomats and politicians. They cause revolutions and wars, violations of territory and rights.”

He goes on to say, and this where the community of peace scholars comes into play, “…the real history of the world takes place on the riverbanks where ordinary people dwell. They are loving one another, bearing children, and providing homes, all the while trying to remain untouched by the swiftly flowing river.”

As peace scholars and practitioners, we highlight the practices, the communities, and the narratives that capture and instill the knowledge that we can and do, in fact, resolve conflicts peacefully, wage conflicts nonviolently, and transform conflicts positively. We seek out these traditions and these skills and bring them to the forefront.

As peace scholars we are shifting the lens through which people view the world around them and we are hence influencing how people shape their futures and develop their relationships.

So, in the spirit of Shaw’s quote, as peace scholars we do not accept the world as being inevitably violent. We do not see conflict as being inherently negative. Instead we dream of a nonviolent world. And we have knowledge that it already exists in many parts of the world and in many communities. And we have the confidence that it can exist and flourish elsewhere.

The second quote is by the hip-hop artist and renegade scholar and poet, KRS One. In his song 2nd Quarter he rhymes, “What does the rich versus poor really mean? / psychologically it means you’ve got to pick your team / when someone says the rich get richer / visualize wealth and put yourself in the picture.”

In this song, KRS One is not talking narrowly about material wealth, but about wealth in the larger sense of prosperity and success and how we must break ourselves out of engrained ideas that we are they way we are and there is nothing that can be done about it. The song instead challenges us to visualize where we want to be, how we want to live, and to then start adjusting our lives and our actions to live in accordance with that vision.

So I adapt this quote to read as follows: “What does war vs. peace really mean? / psychologically it means you’ve got to pick your team / when someone says that peace is our mission / imagine peace and put yourself in the vision.”

Peace is not a narrow discipline. It’s a holistic understanding of the world, and hence what we all study can be incorporated into every aspect of your lives. No matter what profession you choose, you can imagine peace and put yourself in the vision.

If math and engineering are in your future, imagine yourself at a design table. You may see yourself drafting up plans for energy efficient buildings that will reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and help alleviate conflicts that are fought over those limited resources.

If languages are your forte, imagine yourself in a region of conflict. You may see yourself translating for communities involved in a dialogue process to de-escalate violence and seek pathways to a peaceful co-existence.

If science is in your future, imagine yourself in a lab. You may see yourself designing drugs and vaccines that prevent people from needlessly contracting chronic and fatal diseases.

If film and media are of interest to you, imagine yourself behind the lens of a camera. You may see yourself capturing the stories of nonviolent movements that are fighting against oppression and injustice.

If politics excites you, imagine yourself as an elected official. You may see yourself advocating for and sponsoring legislation that seeks to address the myriad forms of structural violence that still plague our communities.

If economics is your main interest, imagine yourself in at a microfinance institution. You may see yourself working with rural farmers who are seeking to develop entrepreneurial skills to increase their livelihoods and better provide for their families.

So, in the spirit of KRS One’s song, peace can be found everywhere and can be practiced anywhere. We just have to imagine what that peace looks like and then put ourselves in that vision. That will reveal to us a path as we move forward with our studies and help drive our actions as professionals.

In my own life, I have found myself passionate about the fields of education and training. That passion has provided me with the opportunities to work with a civics education and engagement organization, an environmental non-profit, a national pro-democracy youth movement, a philanthropic internet company, a peace education training program, and I am now working for the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, or ICNC, which brings me to the second part of my talk.

Without a doubt, the first three months of 2011 will be remembered as one of the most revolutionary moments in human history with respect to nonviolent action and civil resistance. Ordinary citizens – not militaries, presidents, or diplomats – in Tunisia and Egypt have waged nonviolent struggles as a way to oust two powerful, autocratic regimes – Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Other people in surrounding lands have been inspired by these actions and events in the region continue to unfold. In fact, working in this field at this time and trying to follow and learn from these movements is like drinking from a fire hose.

But let me step back a bit from specific current events and share with you what we at ICNC, our academic advisors, and the activists with whom we’ve worked, have learned about nonviolent action when studying this phenomenon.

This phenomenon can be understood broadly as “nonviolent conflict,” which would be any conflict where one or more of the parties are not using violence. It can also be explored more specifically as “civil resistance,” which is what a nonviolent movement does when waging their struggle.

Civil resistance, then, is at play when movements employ methods of nonviolent action such as strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, and civil disobedience. And they emply this tactics in ways that challenge the control and legitimacy of their adversary – be it a dictator, a corporation, or a government’s law or policy. Successful nonviolent movements have then been able to coerce or persuade their adversary to change the way it operates or it may lead to the dissolution of their adversary all together.

What we do at ICNC is to study these kinds of movements and then develop educational programs, products, and online initiatives that distribute that knowledge and learning about this phenomenon in ways that can support people who are interested in either (1) teaching this subject, (2) reporting on these kinds of conflicts, or (3) are interested in organizing and waging these kinds of struggles in their own lands.

So, by products I mean books, films, and computer games that explore this field. By programs I mean educational seminars, workshops, and presentations that introduce key ideas for specific learners. And by online initiatives I mean video interviews, webinars, conflict summaries, online courses, and then leveraging social media platforms to further share these initiatives more broadly.

So I have taken my passion for education and training and put it to work for an organization that seeks to advance civil resistance as a way for people to fight for and defend human rights, justice, and democratic self-rule.

When looking at the rich history of nonviolent struggle, those who have waged these struggles have taught us that there are three basic principles that have been at play in the movements that have ended in success. Those principles are unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline. So, what are these principles?

With unity, nonviolent struggles have taught us that success is more likely when the movement is able to bring together a large, diverse, segment of the population – people of all ages, genders, ethnicities, religions, socio-economic strata, etc. Building this kind of unity requires listening to various groups, which in turn builds the movement’s legitimacy as being representative of multiple views. In other words, unity demonstrates that the movement is a viable and better alternative to the status quo.

This principle of unity was prominently displayed in Egypt. When Egyptians occupied Tahrir Square, it was a diverse population that, at that moment, was communicating a single, unified message, “Mubarak must go!” That unity was not spontaneous, however. Prior to the 18 days in Tahrir square, there had been years of organizing, mobilizing, and listening that sought to bring together a country that the regime had been trying to keep divided. Groups like Kefaya, the 6th of April Youth Movement, and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, were able to unite and mobilize opposition parties, labor unions, Islamists, Copts, Bedouins, students, intellectuals, and various civil society groups around unifying messages and issues such as stopping torture, combating corruption, ending the emergency law, and bringing an end to Mubarak’s 30 year autocracy.

With planning, nonviolent struggles have taught us that success is more likely when the movement spends a considerable amount of time analyzing the battlefield, mapping out potential allies, identifying their adversary’s pillars of support, and then choosing and sequencing nonviolent tactics that serve to meet movement goals. In other words, successful movements do not unfold spontaneously, but are rather organized systematically.

This principle of planning was prominently displayed in nonviolent youth movement, Otpor that brought down Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, also known as the butcher of the Balkans. It was not bombs and missiles, but creative and innovative nonviolent actions bases on systematic planning and strategizing that forced Milosevic from power.

Ivan Marovic, one Otpor’s founders recently told me, “It is important to be innovative and to not rely on the same well-known tactics. In most cases, security forces are well prepared for massive street demonstrations and already have plans in place to deal with such resistance. If the movement is constantly changing tactics is makes it much harder for the authorities to respond.”

And Tina Rosenberg wrote about Otpor’s strategic and tactical innovation in a recent Foreign Policy magazine article, titled Revolution U. She writes, “Otpor’s most famous stunt involved an oil barrel painted with Milosevic’s picture. Otpor rolled it down a busy street, asking people to insert a coin in a slot for the privilege of whacking Milosevic with a bat. This was Otpor’s favorite kind of prank, a dilemma action: It left the regime damned either way. If the government had let the barrel roll, it would have looked weak. But when the police stepped in, the optics were no better: The Otpor members fled, and the opposition TV the next day showed pictures of the police “arresting” a barrel and loading it into the police van. The country sniggered at these pranks — and signed up for Otpor.”

With this type of planning and tactical innovation, in two years Otpor went from having just 11 founding members to over 70,000 supporters across Serbia.

With nonviolent discipline, nonviolent struggles have taught us that success is more likely when nonviolence is strictly enforced. Through necessary planning and in the service of unity, nonviolent discipline serves two main purposes.

First, it allows everyone to be a participant – men, women, young, old, etc. With such a wide range of tactics, nonviolent action allows for varied levels of risk and commitment. More people are going to support a movement if there are actions that allow them to participate in ways that they are comfortable with. Violent actions, on the other hand, tend to marginalize people and limit mass participation.

Second, nonviolent discipline is more likely to create loyalty shifts and defections from individuals and institutions that are supporting the status quo. In some contexts, nonviolent discipline has appealed to the consciousness and basic human decency of the security forces and military, which make up a pillar of support that regimes often rely on to remain in power. Security forces are much less likely to shoot at unarmed, peaceful demonstrators than they are at armed and violent insurgents that are trying to kill them. In fact, violent resistance oftentimes works to further solidify support for the status quo among the ranks of the military and security forces.

In other contexts, remaining committed to nonviolent methods such as strikes and boycotts have also applied a coercive force on certain pillars of support like the business community. Using actions that apply economic pressure can force companies and businesses to shift their allegiance and start seeking ways to meet the demands of the movement so that their economic interests are no longer being hurt.

Waging a battle while maintaining nonviolent discipline requires strategizing and training, just like waging a battle with violence does. One needs to practice how to react in various situations, given the tools and methods they have chosen to employ.

This principle of nonviolent discipline was constantly reinforced in the 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement. Rev. James Lawson, who had recently returned from India where he was studying Gandhian nonviolence, held several workshops in church basements to prepare young student activists to sit-in at segregated lunch-counters. Having analyzed the battlefield, Lawson and the students knew that they would incur verbal and physical abuse from angry and racist patrons. So, in these church basements they would role play the kinds of situations they knew they would be placed in, allowing them to practice how to react nonviolently. Those who felt they were not capable of remaining nonviolent in the face of such abuse were given other ways to participate. Instead of actually sitting-in those people would instead be given quarters to call an ambulance in case any of students were injured during the action.

As the country witnessed the violence these students faced it allowed the movement to, as Dr. King put it, “dramatize the injustice.” The images of nonviolent students being beaten and abused by racists and the economic pressure put on downtown shopping districts through the use of boycotts, created a shift in consciousness among community members, politicians, and the general public. These actions led to the desegregation of lunch counters, which was just one of many goals that would be achieved over following decades through nonviolent means.

So, to sum up…

As peace scholars, your work is transforming the world because you are highlighting and advancing knowledge, skills, and attitudes that challenge the default belief that we are a violent world. You are pro-actively engaged in creating a nonviolent world.

As peace scholars, your work is capable of being practiced in every decision you make, personally and professionally. In all aspects of life, your actions can be in the service of peace.

As peace scholars you are witnessing a world immersed in nonviolent conflicts that are unfolding in revolutionary ways. My hope is that these events will continue to build interest and generate yet another wave of peace studies programs that will be led by some of you sitting here in this audience.

And lastly, as peace scholars, we stand in solidarity together as we imagine peace and put ourselves in the vision.

Thank you.

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