Re(de)fining Work Against Violence

Crises, Conflicts and Development: Multifaceted Perspectives to Security 11. – 12.2.2010 Helsinki, Finland. Organizer: Finnish Society for Development Research. Website:

Given my background as a peace activist and peace educator – not as a scientist – this is not going to be a academic paper in the traditional sense. I’ll tell about my impressions from the field, how I see the aim of peace education, the problems of peace education in Finland today, and finally I’ll share some suggestions on how to make the situation better.

The Aim of Peace Education

In November 2009 I traveled around Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina, interviewing people about their home town. I met artists, bureaucrats, activists, small-business owners and religious professionals, who were very eager to talk about the great spirit of Sarajevo, and also about the difficult times during the siege of 1992 – 1996. At the end of each interview I had some standard questions, and one of them was: What can we do in order to prevent future wars. Most of the people had great difficulties to answer this question. “Punish the real war criminals, the soldiers, not only the leaders,” answered one. “Make the media promote tolerance,” said another. “People should travel more,” answered the third, but these where exceptions. Almost everyone else didn’t answer the question at all.

As a peace activist and peace educator, I ask this question regularly, both to myself and my pupils, but also to people outside of the peace education field. Instead of an answer, very often I face skepticism. “Wars have always existed and will always exist. You can’t heal the world by hugging each others and avoiding military service,” as one person answered to my invitation to Loviisa Peace Forum. I had not asked him to hug anyone or avoid military service, but welcomed him to contemplate how are we to reduce violence in our society.

Apathy is the biggest obstacle engaging people in peace and human rights work. If people don’t believe it is possible to preempt wars and reduce violence, then the struggle is lost from the outset. From one perspective people who have fallen into apathy are right: in the colossal questions of humankind, the possibilities of one person alone to have effect on events is minimal. But also the opposite is truth: in order to make the changes in society, the work by an individual is crucial. The same paradox is perhaps easier to see in democratic elections. By looking back at the latest elections one can conclude that one’s vote didn’t matter at all based on the end result of the election. The result of the election would have been the same if one had voted differently. On the other hand, an equally undisputable fact is that individual votes, and nothing else, determined the election.

One truth, two perspectives. From the latter perspective, peace education is one of the most valuable things one can imagine. In the time of slavery there where many people who thought the slavery system pitiable, inhuman and morally wrong, but who didn’t believe it was realistic to change it. The same kind of attitude was common under feudalism, colonialism and public beheadings. The moral development of humankind has occurred thanks to those people who believed the possibilities for an individual to influence the surrounding world, even in global issues. One of the most important input peace educators are having to our society is keeping the hope alive and the apathy away.

A UNICEF working paper on Peace Education defines peace education as “the process of promoting the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values needed to bring about behaviour changes that will enable children, youth and adults to prevent conflict and violence, both overt and structural; to resolve conflict peacefully; and to create the conditions conducive to peace, whether at an intrapersonal, interpersonal, intergroup, national or international level” (Fountain, p. 9). Making it more simple, I see two questions at the core of peace research, peace activism and peace education: How can we reduce the amount of violence in our society? What can we do in order to prevent future wars?

The Challenges

Unfortunately peace work doesn’t enjoy a very high level of financial or moral support from our society. In fact, it is considered to be unrealistic, idealistic, old fashioned and even harmful. Considering the outright aim of the peace work described above, and the fact that we have on our side religious and cultural icons from Jesus to Einstein, Gandhi to John Lennon, and Buddha to Charlie Chaplin, it is quite an achievement that we have succeeded to marginalize ourselves.

What has gone wrong? Why is the message not reaching the audience? In Finland the problem is partly historical. During the Cold War, the biggest peace organization had a strong reputation of having close ties with the Soviet Union and even now, twenty years after the collapse of the communist block, that reputation is still alive (Metsämäki).

Another problem, linked to the first one, is that the key concepts of peace education – peace, pacifism and non-violence – are loaded with emotions and prejudices or are widely misunderstood.

According to the Finnish language dictionary, pacifism is the same as peace ideology, which in turn means “striving to avoid wars” and “striving towards a situation where nations are interacting peacefully.” Most of the English dictionaries in the Internet, including Encyclopedia Britannica, define pacifism as a generic term which includes a diverse set of beliefs. One of these beliefs is absolute pacifism, which rejects all violence and war of any kind. The other form of pacifism is conditional pacifism. Conditional pacifists are against war and violence in principle, but they accept that there may be circumstances when war will be less bad than the alternative. The New Penguin Encyclopedia defines all pacifism as absolute pacifism. According to it, pacifism is rejection of all wars. is equally one-sided: pacifism is opposition to war or violence of any kind.

Both definitions at the opposite extremes – “pacifism is striving to avoid wars” and “pacifism is opposition to war or violence of any kind” – are problematic in their own ways. The first, because it makes almost everybody a pacifist and the latter, because according to it almost no one is a pacifist. Armies have been established and armaments intensified in the process of striving to avoid wars. If we define as pacifist everyone who strive to avoid wars, we also have to include those who would classify themselves as opponents of pacifism. If we, on the other hand, define only absolute pacifism as pacifism, we are forced to exclude most of those who characterize themselves as pacifist. Neither of these options are purposeful.

The origin of the word “pacifism” is from the Latin word paci- (from pax) meaning “peace” and -ficus meaning “making” (Stamford Dictionary of Philosophy). From this point of view “peacemaker” would be a better translation for pacifist than “a supporter of peace ideology.” Peacemaker would emphasize working toward something, rather than being against something. At the same time it would also solve the problem of who is defined as a pacifist and who is not; a pacifist would be a person who is doing deeds in order to strive towards peace.

Another basic concept of peace education, non-violence, is also causing confusion. Linguistically speaking, “non-violence” is a negation and referring only to the absence of violence, rather than describing the action of problem-solving in a positive way. The most famous advocate of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi, started by using the term civil disobedience, which he had adopted from an American author Henry David Thoreau. Gandhi later rejected this term, because he felt that his fight was not disobedient, since he was fighting for a just cause. He was obeying his conscience, whereas his opponents who were putting immoral laws into action were disobedient toward their conscience. Gandhi moved to use Leo Tolstoy’s term passive resistance. This term is still widely used in Finland, especially when referring to the non-violent resistance against the Russification of Finland in the beginning of 20th Century. But there is reason to ask how distributing forbidden leaflets and literature, and organizing forbidden meetings and strikes can be considered passive.

Gandhi stopped using the term passive resistance, because it was inadequate to express the real meaning of the method and it was being looked upon as a “weapon of the weak.” The method is not about passivity, and it’s not a method for the weak. It is active intervention against injustice with potentially dangerous consequences, and only the morally and emotionally strong can use it. One more reason to give up both “passive resistance” and “non-violence” was that Gandhi wanted an Indian name for the movement that was primarily Indian (Chadha, p. 125). In Johannesburg, South Africa, on September 11th 1906, Gandhi launched the first satyagraha -campaign. The term satyagraha is a synthesis of the Sanskrit words satya (meaning “truth”) and agraha (”insistence”, or “holding firmly to”). He stuck to this term for the rest of his life.

This movement is no longer only an Indian movement. There is much to learn from the effectiveness, wiseness, firmness and honesty of this method. But since satyagraha is a Sanskrit term that only a handful of people would understand without explanation, there is still a need for a understandable, proactive term. According to Michel N. Nagler, professor at University of California, Berkeley, there have been suggestions to use “integrative power” (from K. E. Bouldings book, Three Faces of Power) instead of non-violence. Integrative power – or why not integrative conflict resolution – would highlight the problem solving and creative side of the method.


It is possible to change the language and start talking about “global(ization) education” instead of “peace education”, “work against violence” instead of “pacifism”, and “integrative conflict resolution” instead of “non-violence”, but that would not solve the core problem, which is that the peace education message is not accepted or understood by the general populace.

From my ten years of experience in the field, I would say that we peace educators need to be less withdrawn. We need to be more active communicating outside our own seminars and our own magazines. We need to stop talking about world peace, and concentrate on aiming to reduce violence instead. We need to keep in mind the effects our language have on the listeners.

In one of his last lectures, historian Howard Zinn (1922 – 2010) talks about the Holy Wars of the Unites States, meaning three wars that are barely ever criticized: the American Revolution, the Civil War and World War II. Zinn points out that even though these wars accomplished something good, they where extremely disastrous and that unbearable wrongdoings happened on both sides of the battlefield. Zinn’s point is that these wars also need to be examined carefully and critically, because the existence of the concept of a “good war” that has been created around these violent conflicts makes it possible for some to justify wars that are obviously bad, like Vietnam (1959 – 1975), Grenada (1983) and Iraq (2003 -).

Very often I have faced situations where this same phenomena has happened in people’s minds when they think about pacifism. They think about an extreme case where violence is justified, and thereafter they draw conclusions that violence is acceptable and unavoidable elsewhere also. This is why it is so important for peace educators to make clear that even though some violence in rare situations might be justified, it doesn’t lessen the importance of work that strives to reduce violence in the world.

In his autobiography Johan Galtung, the founder of peace and conflict studies, describes the difficulties peace studies faces today and compares them with the difficulties that medical science had for hundreds of years with the monopoly of church and religion (Galtung, p. 131). This comparison is worth developing further. According to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain the purpose of medical science is to “diagnose, treat and prevent illness and disability” (PhP). With this in mind, why wouldn’t we announce that the purpose of peace studies and peace work is to diagnose, treat and prevent violence and war. Medicine fights against diseases, while peace work fights against violence. Every time a disease is cured, or a violent act is prevented, we have gained a significant win for humankind.

This is a very important argument against the most common form of skepticism peace work faces. The work of reducing violence and preventing wars is not more radical or idealistic than the medical profession’s work to cure diseases. Diseases are always going to exist, as well as violence between some people and groups. This is not an argument against peace work, but quite the opposite. This is the reason to do peace work.

Chadha, Yogesh: Gandhi, A Life (In UK: Rediscovering Gandhi). John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York, 1998.
Fountain, Susan: Peace Education in Unicef. Unicef, New York 1999.
Galtung, Johan: Rauhan tiellä. Tammi, Helsinki 2003.
Metsämäki, Mikko: Taistelu rauhasta – Sadankomitea ja Rauhanpuolustajat 1960-luvun Suomessa. Pro gradu. University of Helsinki 2001.
Nagler, Michel N.: Lecture at the University of Berceley 2006:
Royal Pharmaceutical Press (Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain): Home / Online Resources / Healthcare Communication: Model Answers.
Suomen kielen perussanakirja. Edita, Helsinki 2001.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
Zinn, Howard: “Three Holy Wars”, lecture at the University of Boston Nov 11th, 2009:

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