This article was originally published in Tampere Peace Research Institute‘s book A Flying Finn – Finnish Civil Society Actors in The Global Sphere under the title How I Became What I Am – The Role Of International NGO Experiences In Finding One’s Path.
I’m a devoted pacifist, a pacifist in the original sense of the word, which means a person who works for peace, tries to reduce violence in the world and promotes ideas on how to prevent war. Most of my public talks, newspaper writings, blog articles, posts on Facebook – all my tweets – have to do with these themes. Most of my time goes into peace work. Sometimes I get paid, but usually not.
There is nothing radical or utopian about my passion. The grand old man of peace research, Johan Galtung, compares peace research with medical science, and it can be applied to peace work in general: it took hundreds of years for medical science to break through the monopolies of church and religion in defining sicknesses and healing people. Galtung asks whether it is going to take as long for peace research to gain authority in the field of violence. Thinking that war is the way to solve problems is like believing that sicknesses are punishments for your sins (Galtung 2003, 131).
We can take the comparison further and state that peace work reduces violence in the same way as medical science reduces sickness in the world. There has always been sickness in the world, and always will be, but that has never stopped doctors doing their work, and that has never stopped the public from supporting and respecting their work. I wish to see peace work enjoy the same respect and financing as medical science does today.
The word ‘pacifism’ comes from two Latin words: ‘pax’, which means peace, and ‘ficus’, which means making. When the word was first introduced at the 10th Universal Peace Congress in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1901, it was a concept that united many different types of peace makers, peace promoters and peace friends – as they where called before the new concept. “Pacifism also meant social action. It was not merely a philosophy but a political program and a commitment to social change.” (Cortright 2008, 9).
According to David Cortright, the common understanding of the term pacifism changed after the First World War. During the First World War, writes Cortright, “most peace advocates […] abandoned their commitment to transnational solidarity and marched off to war. […] The purists who had opposed the march claimed the term for themselves. They narrowed its definition to the unconditional rejection of war in all its forms. […] This narrow definition of pacifism left most of the peace community out in the cold.” (Cortright 2008, 10)
Despite this, I prefer to define pacifism more broadly, in its original form, and the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy agrees with that by defining pacifism as “a commitment to peace and opposition to war. [It] includes a variety of commitments on a continuum from an absolute commitment to nonviolence in all actions to a more focused or minimal sort of anti-warism.” In other words, the concept used to refer to action on something, but nowadays it increasingly refers to refusal of something. From this perspective, the term nonviolence – defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “the use of peaceful means, not force, to bring about political or social change” – seems to indicate the original pacifism better than pacifism itself.
Unlike pacifism, nonviolence is gaining rising popularity as a method of political action, as a main mission or method for NGOs and as a subject of academic research (Sharp 2010, among others). To mention some of the most important organisations in this field, the Metta Center for Nonviolence was founded in 1982, the Albert Einstein institution (1983), The Center for Nonviolent Communication (1984), Nonviolence International (1989), Pace e Bene (1989), the M. K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence (1991), Forum Ziviler Friedensdienst (1996), Nonviolent Peaceforce (2002) and Waging Nonviolence (2009). There are hundreds more, and new ones are popping up every year. According to a list given by JustVision, there are more than one hundred peace building and nonviolence organisations in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories alone.
Regardless of what we call the ideology, one of my main goals is to inspire youth to drop their war games, turn off their televisions and get exited about Tolstoy’s, Thoreau’s and Gandhi’s texts. It’s not an easy task. These thinkers have been dead for quite a while. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the synonym for heavy books, and Gandhi’s collected works consist of 50,000 pages of letters, articles and books. How can I make the young interested in this when the other option is, say, first-person shooter games? You switch on your computer and start shooting everything that moves before everything that moves shoots you. This makes your sight better, your decision-making process faster, improves your concentration and offers a healthy way of managing your aggression – or at least this is what they say. Science agrees with everything but the last one (Bavelier, Anderson). Common sense would also say that it is not so healthy for your aggression. The US military uses these games for training their soldiers to get over the natural human dislike of taking a life from another. After tens of thousands of repetitions, the solders – and our children, since we adults buy these games for them – become used to the idea of shooting each other (Hsu 2010, Nagler 2004, 19)
My criticism of violent computer games is usually the subject my students have most difficulties with. They have chosen not to do the Finnish military service but are doing their Civilian Service instead. This means that after one month of training at the Lapinjärvi Educational Centre, they go out and work for eleven months in schools, libraries, hospitals, homes for the elderly, universities, NGO offices, etc. So one would think that this audience is already wired for pacifism and nonviolence – and for the most part they are. The overwhelming majority of them accept my criticism of military spending, they agree that we, nonviolent actors, need to do more analyzing and think more about strategies, we need to become more effective in making peace, and they love Gandhi’s thought that in order to be a nonviolent actor you need to be more brave than if you use violence. But when it comes time to raise the downsides of first-person shooter games in particular and the violence entertainment industry in general, many critical voices arise.
My understanding of the problem has been greatly influenced by first reading, and then having a private discussion with, Emeritus Professor Michael N. Nagler, the founder of the Metta Centre of Nonviolence. As I see it now, violent video games, or the violent entertainment industry in general, are not the problem alone – and simply forbidding them is not the solution – but it is very important to see that they are part of a culture of violence that is also manifest in the news, politics, sports and commercials, among other things. The message of this culture is that ultimately, we are separate beings from each other, we are doomed to fight against each other over materialistic objects, and you (or your team, country or culture) can only be happy by ‘winning’ this battle. Violent entertainment, together with some true TV shows, are the tip of the iceberg in this confrontationist culture, which is the source of both physical and structural violence.
The culture of violence also comes up in the much repeated storyline of good and evil, where, at the beginning, good is in a disadvantaged position, but, in the final battle, by using violence, good brings down evil and gets his reward. (Yes, his reward, not hers. Colin Stokes (2012) has pointed out that of the top 100 movies of 2011 in the United States, only 11 had female protagonists). This story is repeated not only in movies and books but also in the news and history. The Second World War is seen as an event of heroism rather than an event of the biggest failure of humankind. Criminal justice is seen as a way to warn and punish criminals instead of focusing on the needs of the victims, offenders and community.
The message of nonviolence is that we, as human beings, are one, interdependent in innumerable ways, and we can reach true happiness through things that are impossible to consume to the end, like love, a sense of belonging, usefulness, companionship and forgiveness. The unity of mankind is at the core of peace work.
Nagler’s writings have been crucial in making me interested in ‘gandhian nonviolence’, which is sometimes called principal, and sometimes also ideological nonviolence. According to Thomas Webers and Robert J. Burrowes’ introduction to nonviolence, “Ideological exponents choose nonviolent action for ethical reasons and believe in the unity of means and ends. They view the opponent as a partner in the struggle to satisfy the needs of all. More fundamentally, they may view nonviolence as a way of life.”
Nagler also opened my eyes to Mohandas Gandhi’s constructive programme, which could be a huge source of ideas and energy for modern peace work. The constructive programme means building an ideal society from the grassroots, and finding positive alternatives to oppression. For Gandhi, this was probably even more important than his well known ‘obstructive programme’ – i.e. non-cooperation with oppression. Gandhi’s own constructive programme was about self-sufficiency, unity, education, prohibition, village sanitation and so forth. The modern constructive programme can be something totally different, but the basic idea is to build the society we want. There are many advantages in this kind of peace work. First of all, the actors can decide when and where the action takes place and what the theme shall be. This is not the case in the usual type of peace work today, when the peace organisations react to someone else’s doings. Second, you admit that a problem has more than one side and, through example, you show how to do your own share. Third, and most important, the results of constructive work are much longer lasting than the outcome of stopping someone from doing something.
The other aspect of nonviolence I’m particularly interested in is Unarmed Civilian Peacekeeping. In this field, the Nonviolent Peaceforce is the biggest, most influential and most experienced organisation. During the last eleven years they have been sending trained and paid civilian peacekeepers to some of the world’s most dangerous battle zones, like Sri Lanka, The Philippines, South Sudan and South Caucasus. The peacekeeper’s aim is to foster dialogue among the parties in conflict and offer protection to civilians. I have had the opportunity to participate in Nonviolent Peaceforce’s annual meetings in Lyon, France; Mariehamn, Åland; and Oslo, Norway. These meetings have offered me concrete knowledge and understanding of how nonviolence can work in extremely violent conditions.
But the most crucial NGO experience that has shaped my world view comes from a much earlier stage during my teenage years. I participated in a two-summers-long family interchange programme through Children’s International Summer Villages. CISV left me with an indelible interest in multiculturalism and international questions. From the perspective of the effectiveness of peace work, I found the organisation’s core idea genius: bringing children together from different parts of the world and letting them play, communicate and learn in a friendly, inclusive and enthusiastic atmosphere. Not much more is needed and the result is usually a life-long passion for international questions, openness to the diversity of humankind and a sense of responsibility in solving global problems.
The effectiveness of different types of peace work should be debated more. Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are central figures of not only pacifism but also of world history, and the reason is clear: they were pacifists who spent a lot of time analyzing, making strategies, planning and weighing different options. Many different types of peace work are needed, but the early experiences of children seem to be the most crucial. In one of his lectures, peace educator Colman McCarthy asked the audience how many of them went to a high school where they taught courses in conflict resolution or peace studies. No hands went up. McCarthy’s conclusion from this is clear: “If this was a peace-loving, peace-seeking, peace-building and a peace-affirming society, every hand would have gone up.” It is easy to agree with his demand: peace studies should be part of the core curriculum, and should include the philosophy of peace, the writings of the great peace leaders, and nonviolent conflict resolution. This is the way forward; we need to take peace work much more seriously.
Timo Virtala is a lecturer, writer, translator, and secretary general of Loviisa Peace Forum, an annual summer event that aims to lessen the fears of humankind and celebrate life.
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Hsu, Jeremy. (Aug 19th, 2010): For the U.S. Military, Video Games Get Serious. Live Science: http://www.livescience.com/10022-military-video-games.html
JustVision: Peacebuilding and nonviolence organisations. http://www.justvision.org/organizations
Martin, Brian: Nonviolent futures in Futures, Vol. 33, 2001, pp. 625-635. http://www.bmartin.cc/pubs/01futures.html
McCarthy, Colman: Teach Peace: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yauNFMpcMtY&feature=share&list=PLZ51ZJFoAIZ3Kz1bbRQfVVhLd-kSql8Kl
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Sharp, Gene (2010): From Dictatorship to Democracy – A conceptual Framework for Liberation. The Albert Einstein Institution: Boston.
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Stokes, Colin (Nov 2012): How movies teach manhood. TedTalks: http://www.ted.com/talks/colin_stokes_how_movies_teach_manhood.html
Weber, Thomas and Burrowes, Robert, J.: Nonviolence: An Introduction. http://www.nonviolenceinternational.net/seasia/whatis/book.php