Illustration © Hamadeh
What is Peace?
by Anis Hamadeh
December 24, 2002
This essay investigates how peace is more than the absence of war and violence. In the etymologies of some languages there are semantic relations with "free" (German "Frieden"), "contentment" (German "Zufriedenheit") and "being intact, entirety" in Arabic.
"Peace is when you have peace." The task of visualizing and dreaming peace is in part the role of artists and philosophers, for they, e.g. John Lennon, are independent and can find new ways to make the society sensitive and aware, and to counter-balance violence with creativity, sensation, and publicity. A major supposition for peace work is the awareness that there is no peace now. With the example of movies and the heroes of the society and even in Grimm's fairytales, it shows that the public encourages violent images which entails the sacrifice of peaceful elements. It may be argued that the superiority of violence is a belief that can be surpassed by another belief, in peace, and that the writing as well as the actions of Gandhi and other peace people are examples of a successful public response, the essay ends with the sentence: "So half of peace is the absence of pressure and the images of pressure, while the other half of peace is the empty space of an open situation which is to be filled individually and creatively in order to find its meaning, similar to freedom, the one half of which is passive (free from or of) and the other one active (free for or to)."
War and violence, say some politicians, may only be the very last means of conflict settlement, when all other means have failed. This opinion is controversial because doves say: war and violence must not be a means of politics at all. War and violence should be resorted to more often, the hawks think. In one way they are not far from each other's positions, for both hardly consider alternative ideas for conflict settlement. How can we make peace without violence, if others use violence as their argument? What is the better argument? And aren't violence and war part of our humanity?
With this background the talk will be about the character of peace in this essay. What really is peace? According to the German etymology, "Frieden" (peace) semantically has to do with "freedom" and also with joy ("Freude"). The Indo-Germanic root "priti-h" means "joy, satisfaction". The relationship to "free" lies in the root "prai-", also Indo-Germanic, for "protect, treat with consideration, care for, like, love". In law, "Frieden" means the unbroken juridicial order as the basis for community life. "Cease-fire" is another meaning of "Frieden". The German adjective "zufrieden" (content) from the 17th century is explained in the standard dictionary "Duden" as "not troubled, calm". English "peace", derived from Latin "pax", has to do with agreement, undisturbance and being unmolested. Meaning that it primarily is about the absence of something else. Generally, peace is seen as a state, rather than an action, a property or a feeling. In Arabic - and analogously probably in Hebrew (salaam / shalom) - there is a root sa-li-ma which denotes the being intact and the entirety of a person or a thing.
Among all these variations in the semantic field it mostly is the absence of war and violence that spontaneously comes to our minds. There is a close semantic relationship between the opposites "war" and "peace" in probably all languages. The definition of peace as non-war seems more concrete and credible than other linguistic derivations. For everybody knows what war is. War is death and injury, hopelessness, bombs and planes, destroyed houses, screams, destroyed cities, grief, tanks, generals, media and media control, and so on. One can imagine that. One can build up a picture with this. It is not a nice picture, but it is a picture. There are clear constellations and clear action paths. Almost everything of what happens in wars happens by force, people feel obliged to do these things. War and violence have a high situational and experiential content.
Peace as the absence of a thing, however, does not bear such a high situational and experiential content. When a situation is defined by an unobtrusive person sitting on a chair watching TV, then the evidence of the absence of war is given, and one could call it peace. Yet, this would not occur to anybody, for what is special about an unobtrusive person watching TV? Is this peace? Or what is peace?
Peace is when you have peace. With this motto, a first approach to the self-identity of peace is attempted. It centers around the person who poses the question, and not on a doubtful objectivity. This is the best short answer I can think of. One of the main causes - if not the only cause at all - of war and violence is lacking Zufriedenheit, i.e. contentment. So we can also view violence as the (typical consequence of) absence of contentment and search for the essence in the positive concept. And maybe the negative concept is not really the one that is richer in experience and sensation.
Peace is contentment. When people are not oppressed and when they can develop, as they don't have a reason for aggression, and there will be no violence. We just do not have the measuring instruments, as we have them for violence. How does one paint peace and contentment? How does contentment show? It is individually different. And yet here is where peace starts: with the feeling of contentment and the resulting lack of aggression. Or, respectively, it begins with those circumstances of life which make a transformation of aggression into nonviolent acts possible, for there will always be aggression, be it on the personal, the familiar, or the political level. Analogously, there will always be war, the question is how it will be led, for war is nothing but a violent conflict and can be transformed into a nonviolent conflict, if that conflict is recognized in its essence. War is a matter of definition, too, and the thesis and anti-thesis of war and peace can be brought on a different level. The development of chess in the Middle Ages, a game which lives war in a playful way shows how much power and authority can be to nonviolent! Think of the chess world championship in 1972 in Reykjavik, when the victory of the American Bobby Fischer over the Russian Boris Spasski became an important factor in the "cold war".
In this definition, peace in its philosophical core is about the creation and maintenance of general contentment, starting with the individual, starting even with the "I". Our own contentment also has a social and political dimension: when there is force and misery prevailing in my surroundings, I cannot really be content and enjoy life. But how am I to define my peace, if I am helpless in view of the problems of my surroundings and the world? In most societies, in former times as well as today, this question has led to the isolation of the individual, to an abstraction and a separation of the outside world. In the twentieth century, the indifference towards violence in films and TV may have supported the lowering of certain inhibition thresholds by the presentation of violent situations and violent role-models. The conscience, too, as the control entity of our actions, may have become indifferent, so that some of us can find peace in a situation where somebody else would rather be troubled. The question posed to the powerful in the world, if they don't have any problems with their conscience ( e.g. in the song: "Masters of War" by Bob Dylan), may sound used up and meaningless for some people, but it is not! A society of content people, which claims to live in peace, will be aware of such political consequences and will aim for a responsible and true contentment.
Some time ago I attended an oriental festival with music and dance. The main room of the building was covered with mattresses and carpets on which the numerous guests sat around the dance floor. At the head of the room there was a narrow stage on which the musicians sat and played. A dancer went out on the floor and danced a solo in Melaya style. The whole room was filled with this situation. There was magic in the air. The rhythms of the Egyptian drums brought the dancer into a slight trance that spread to the audience in a lesser form, so that the beats were affecting the audience in two ways, directly and indirectly. It was a shared experience of great power. When the dance was over and when the rain of applause had closed the situation in a celebratory way, I knew that this dancer had accomplished something. She had made peace. That was peace. And it had a very high situational and experiential content.
A colleague asked me what art had to do with peace. He reported the question of a songwriter who was pondering about how he could do something for peace with his songs, at all. Perhaps, the archaic role of the artist in a society can be illustrated with the juxtaposition of Elvis and Hitler. Whereas Hitler had tempted the masses to be violent, with authoritarian behavior and especially with the ridiculous theory of a "master race", Elvis had tempted them with musical peaceful behavior and the magic of his loving heart. Both had a huge authority in their times, and after Dylan it was his follower, John Lennon, who also realized and lived the political chance of this peace art. There is no doubt that the Beatles have made peace through the power of their self-identity and their art. Every artist today can profit from these experiences, especially in our internet age in which everybody can set up their own worldwide medium with little cost and effort.
The responsibility of art today lies also in the mastering of the prevailing social alienation and indifference. Let the senses be touched again! This is an essential task of peace art. People might become more sensitive for the pain of others. And our consciousness expands and that we regain our conscience. We regain the realization of life which otherwise we half-consciously find in violence. Art can be a projection field to replace stereotypes of an enemy. Art, this self-legitimating archaic power, like philosophy and like sports, is one of the main areas in which such authorities develop and have kept their independence in a credible way.
This I say in times of great and unpredictable dangers of war. The necessary discourse cannot be led by the military, the politicians, the business people and journalists alone. They all have their dependencies and are more or less un-free and livea quick life. In former times, it was religion that held most of this authority, but then somebody thought that Galileo, Darwin, or Freud had made the scriptures superfluous. Later, people understood Nietzsche in a way that they thought, "God is dead" means that there is no God. Yet the Zarathustra book rather is about that you don't need God to please God. God's existence is not the question here; it is the human who the book considers.
The philosopher Schleiermacher brought up the concept of "art religion" ("Kunstreligion") in a former century and this referred to the kinship of artistic and religious characteristics, which both can be called "spiritual" and can be recognized as being peaceful. Both also harbor dangers: there had been the dark pop stars, like the criminal Charles Manson, who propagated a violent cult, similar to contemporary racist bands and their music. There was also the omnipotence of the church with all its known violent excesses, before democracy and the human rights. The idea of the engaged artist, formulated by Sartre in his "What is Literature?" seems to be a topical issue again.
Art also often is a digestion of violence and thus has a healing effect on the artist and the audience. There are the openness, the fantasy and the liberty to generate orientation patterns and peace patterns: ways to contentment. Values are independent from materialism and accessible for everyone. Art transcends conflicts and can actually solve some and contribute to their solutions. Art shows life the way it is, as an enhancer of awareness and as an experience, and art shows the possibilities of life by dreaming the wishes of society. This is how it can be: a temptation of love.
Peace and war are both contagious. Whereas war and violence legitimate their claims with their official necessity and have success with this and prosper, peace is an attraction for the fulfillment of wishes and the freedom of expression, the beauty and the search for perfection, an attraction which affects the social climate. But it is not easy to bear love and peace. When someone experiences love for the first time, the question may come up why he or she had to live in such a loveless world before. Maybe they find out that many of the pressures under which they had lived were lies, unnecessary aggravations and unnecessary abstinence and pain. Interestingly, people for this reason are more afraid of love than of violence. They would rather bear violence than love and prefer it to love. You don't believe this? Here are some examples:
A similar phenomenon occurred as soon as in the Grimm brothers, in the year 1812, published the first edition of Grimm's fairytales. Although the Grimm brothers wrote in the preface that they had not changed the stories, but only gathered and polished them, we can find in later editions that certain passages of the tales were rewritten. The radio program 'Zeitzeichen' of the Deutschlandfunk explained that the Grimms, who were living under poor conditions, had made these changes so that the book would sell better. There were two changes; on the one hand, violent scenes were enriched and added (Rumpelstilzchen, Haensel and Gretel u.a.), on the other hand, erotic scenes were omited or belittled (e.g. Rapunzel). This means mass compatibility to the favor of violence. There also seem to be parallels in the history of the publication of the "Arabian Nights", so it is not only a western phenomenon.
Moreover, the basic question of journalism, the one about what makes news ,news, can honestly only be answered in the way that news tends to focus on violence, pressure, and mischief, and to highlight them. Thus we have an over proportional amount of war pictures and violent pictures in our consciousness and they define our notion of normality. Peace work in this context is the distribution of peace pictures and creative pictures. There has to be a clear stand against the prejudice of an alleged dirtiness of love, especially in its physical form, and the arguments have to be formulated to neutralize such allegations.
The belief in the superiority of violence is deeply rooted. It has to do with the need of protection, the defense of power, and a feeling of powerlessness. It is based on the traitor theory which says that a single black sheep is sufficient to destroy a nonviolent policy. Yet the traitor theory is too brief in two points: it regards the "black sheep" from outside and with suspicion, so it deprives itself of the option of analyzing the "contentment structure" of the violent perpetrator and to have the effect of not stopping the violence. The other point is that the traitor theory neglects the alternative weapon against violence, and that is publicity. There is nothing that injustice fears more than public knowledge. There is a secret in every war, and there is the absence of secrets as a part of every peace. And there is another sound argument against the belief in the invincibility of violence, for it is a belief, and thus it can be surpassed by another belief. The life and work of Gandhi and other peace people shows this convincingly. "Peace" always is close to the people who personify peace.
To indicate that the public is stronger than violence we can again point to the press, this time in a positive context. Investigative journalism is the best example for an unenforced peaceful victory over violence. So-called public opinion is powerful, and by mastering the prevailing isolationism, can become the most powerful tool for peace. The fundamental motivation for this is the consciousness that there is no peace now. My question "What is Peace?" in the end aims at the awareness that peace is something that we will have to create and build first: something that we will have to re-dream anew in each concrete situation by ourselves.
It is easier in world and state politics. When on these levels peace is primarily understood as non-killing, and secondarily as nonviolence in the context of structural and cultural violence, then this will suffice to make the world a beautiful place. So half of peace is the absence of pressure and the images of pressure, while the other half of peace is the empty space of an open situation which is to be filled individually and creatively in order to find its meaning, similar to freedom, the one half of which is passive (free from or of) and the other one active (free for or to).