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Cultures of Peace: Is it cliche?

  • Posted by: Ellen Kandell

Newsletter Edition: February 2015 

In light of recent tragic world events in France and the Middle East I thought it was timely to write about cultures of peace, a phrase we’ve been seeing in many different contexts.

What is a culture of peace?

If you look up the phrase “culture of peace” in any online search engine, it is likely to spit out a long list of varied and disparate results. Environmentalists, musicians, educators, activists, and mediators (myself included now, of course), all have resources online explaining how their work relates to realizing cultures of peace. But what is this broad maxim?

First of all, what is meant by peace? This is a terribly complicated question. If we poll the hive, the first line of the Wikipedia entry on peace reads “Peace is an occurrence of harmony characterized by lack of violence, conflict behaviors and the freedom from fear of violence.” This is a good place to start, but then it gets more complicated. Does peace mean we don’t want any conflict at all? That’s a problematic notion. In conflict resolution we often emphasize that conflict is a part of all societies, and when managed mindfully, it can be healthy, important, and productive (in businesses and organizations, for example). To think through “peace,” especially from a conflict resolution perspective, it’s helpful to turn to the idea of “nonviolence,” which explores more concretely the ways in which conflict becomes harmful and begins to threaten “peace.”

Once the ideal of “peace” or “nonviolence” is outlined, there are many approaches to its realization. A “politics of peace” might be understood as attempting to structure policies of governance in a way that promotes as limited harm as possible to all. Mediation and conflict resolution might be seen as “peace strategies,” emphasizing the active and procedural elements of peace, and employing particular formations of interpersonal peace “making” or “building.” A “culture of peace,” then, implies another angle. It suggests that collective habits, consciousness, and normative practices of interaction can inhibit or contribute to peace – and also that we can learn and choose which kind we prefer. (Note that the word “culture” can mean many things, too, and it can be dangerous to use sweeping labels or imply homogeneity within “cultural” groups. In this context it makes sense to think of a “culture” as something that is dynamic, heterogeneous, alive, and constantly changing.)

The boundaries between the categories above are fluid, and they frequently overlap and heavily inform one another, but the idea of peace “culture” has grown increasingly influential. The year 2000 was declared as the International Year for the Culture of Peace by the United Nations, and UNESCO has a notable focus on the issue. Still, peace culture means a lot more than peace between cultures or nation states; it means peace within them, too – percolating all the shared spaces that connect us in our homes, our workplaces, our lives. Conflict Resolution and mediation can offer insights on how to foster and cultivate cultures of peace and nonviolence, giving us the agency to choose a productive and healthy mindset for dealing with conflict.

Strategies for a Culture of Peace

So what might it mean to cultivate a culture of peace in your home or your workplace? Below are two approaches to consider.

The first strategy I want to highlight is nonviolent communication (NVC). NVC provides a crucial strategic mindset for fostering peace, and can have lasting and contagious effects in areas of our life ranging from the intimate and personal to the professional and public. It is a central concept that informs mediation and conflict resolution in both theory and practice. Note that the concept of NVC can apply to highly varied forms of communication. For example, there’s nothing about NVC that would inhibit a healthy level of humor or competition in a workplace. In fact it’s likely to help cultivate the positive effects of those interactions and avoid possible negative effects. My blog post from last June expands on NVC, its qualities, and strategies for its application.

Another key element of a culture of peace is the way in which difference is framed, understood, and accommodated. Elise Boulding, a prominent Peace & Conflict Studies scholar, wrote that “the creative management of differences is at the core of peace culture.” A culture of peace is about not letting differences (inter or intra-cultural) create or foster conflict, and not letting them keep us from sharing in both the collective and the individual elements of the human experience. How are differences dealt with in your daily cultures? Are cultural representations (images, text, body language) diverse and accepting, or homogenous and dominant? Are stereotypes an ingrained part of the common lexicon? Is there space to express and dialogue about differences? Is there a dominant view of “reality” firmly in place, or is it possible for individuals to express their different experiences openly and without fear?

We can end here, after working our way through a definition and some strategies, with another quote from Boulding. Her colorful rendering of how a peace culture might be described touches on some of the different aspects we explored here, and leaves us with an image to aspire to: “a mosaic of identities, attitudes, values, beliefs, and patterns that leads people to live nurturingly with one another and the earth itself without the aid of structured power differentials, to deal creatively with their differences, and to share their resources.”

Ellen F. Kandell is a certified professional mediator and attorney with over 30 years of public and private sector experience. She provides mediation, group facilitation and training to diverse, national clients. Get in touch with her via email, LinkedIn, Twitter, or give her a call at 301-588-5390.

Author: Ellen Kandell

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