“Give peace a chance.” I’ve heard the phrase before but I heard it twice in a day in different circumstances: the first watching the film Birdemic* and the second in a café: a picture of a child pointing a finger, in the manner of the classic “Uncle Sam” recruitment poster, above a rant about the current generation – currently older than the writer, that it – being too lazy and bigotted to find a peaceful solution to disagreements.

How do you define a peaceful solution? No physical harm? What about psychological, emotional or financial harm? What about the way we treat people who disagree with us: calling them names or using prejudicial and emotive language, caricaturing them as vitriolic or intolerant or stupid or (the insult of the moment) bigotted? Is this peaceful because it isn’t explicitly or physically violent?

The words on the poster spoke of wars, specifically of foreign invasions by certain democratic countries, fought because ‘you are too lazy to change your greed and bigotry’ et cetera. True, the other person’s obstinacy might be the reason for the conflict. Their unwillingness to change unjust laws or actions might need to be changed. But who has the right to decide whether or not this should be through violence? If not, then how long would a gentler, kinder way take? And are the people experiencing the injustice willing to wait? Not all of them are, of course; and would it be right (volumes could be written on what “right” means in this context) to wait?

Giving peace a chance is a laudable desire in and of itself; however, it seems to me that people who urge it imply by default that the other person is the barrier to a peaceful solution; while they themselves, do not create or escalate conflict. With about (what is the current statistic?) 40% of relationships breaking down in the Western world – relationships between two people who supposedly are devoted to one another – what are the chances for peace between people who barely know each other, or not at all, in any given society or group of societies? It doesn’t look good.

Moreover, no one is interested in or passionate about the same subjects, and it’s easy for someone who doesn’t care about a subject to assert that those who do should “give peace a chance.” If we aren’t interested in a topic we won’t study it, which means our understanding of it will be simplistic, so it’s easy for us accuse the people involved as too intransigent or intolerant and unwilling to compromise. It’s true that they might be like this but, on the other hand, the issues might be more complex than we know. The more we study a topic we begin to appreciate how many factors are involved, and how complex it is.

If we believe our demands are good or right – even if other people don’t agree – why should we back down? And if the other side equally believes their position is right, why should they kowtow to the other party? An instance is found Oliver Wendell Holmes’ assessment about the people who fought on both sides of the United States’ Civil War:

…we equally believed that those who stood against us held just as sacred conviction that were the opposite of ours, and we respected them as every men with a heart must respect those who give all for their belief.

The saying “Give peace a chance” assumes that we must be able to achieve peace without war or conflict. The passive resistance shown by Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi are instances of trying to solve conflict without violence. But King and Gandhi were, and represented, oppressed people. “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.” The appeal to give peace a chance is directed to the person who would start the conflict. It has been said that it only requires one foe, not two, to breed a war. Technically, a war does require at least two antagonists, otherwise it’s just an invasion or large-scale murder, even if those who fight back are defending their homes and family. To maintain or establish freedom from oppression, force must sometimes be answered with force.

If there is to be peace, on whose terms? With or without conflict, at least one party has to turn their back on their beliefs, desires or demands, and accept the other party’s terms. That isn’t co-existence or tolerance, it’s surrender, and the imposition of one party’s views over the other’s. Is that the sort of peace that’s desired? Peace will always come at the cost of one party’s surrender, but the conflict won’t stop. It will go underground, and eventually resurface. But how else can it be when people have different beliefs about good and bad, right and wrong?

Even if war were conceptually impossible, what happens when there are irreconcilable differences? Whose opinion should win out? Cynically, I infer that the spruiker for giving peace a chance intends that the settlement should conform to their opinion. But what if it doesn’t? What about if the ruler enforces a vegetarian diet on the population? Many businesses would go bankrupt; mostly cattle farmers. Or what if it was decreed there should be no individual ownership of cars, or no more than one vehicle per family, or no more than one child per family? Or discussion on certain topics restricted? Or hunting animals for sport? Or they instituted a curfew? What if you disagreed with those regulations? Would you submit to them? If not, how would you seek to change them? How far would you go to change them? How would you act towards the people who promoted them? If you succeeded in getting the laws changed, there would still be people who objected to the changes – what would you do to to make sure they didn’t get the laws reversed again? What would you do about their opposition? How would you treat them as individual people?

How much of a chance does peace need? Could the issue of states’ rights and slavery have been resolved without war? The secessionist states claimed the right of self-determination – the freedom to live as they wished – yet by supporting slavery, they denied those same rights to others. But perhaps, after long years of people slowly changing their minds, freedom from slavery would have come. But at what cost in the interim?

Napoleon is reputed to have said about Jesus of Nazareth (and even if he didn’t say it, it’s still true):

Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded his empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for him.

However, even love for others won’t end disagreements, but it might end resolving disagreements through war. Even then, some people will still be discontent because we will still have our own opinions about what is right. Only if we all willingly agree to – more, if we all want to – follow one way (whatever way it is) can there be true, universal peace. In the meantime, love means we will allow people to have opinions different to ours without excluding or insulting them. “Give freedom to have a different opinion a chance” doesn’t sound quite as snappy, though.

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Endnotes

*You haven’t seen/heard of Birdemic? If you enjoy your cinema rivetting, subtle and thought provoking, you won’t enjoy Birdemic. The only thought it provokes is – how did this get past post-production?

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