Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Peace and Conflict

An interview with Metta Spencer, a woman long active in the peace-building field, inspired a discussion about peace and conflict. It is common for us to say that where there is conflict there can not be peace. Of course, we are not talking about armed conflict here -- it does seem to go without saying that armed conflict and peace can not coexist. We are, however, discussing conflict in the sense of disagreement, of argument, of debate.

For some of our Agents of Peace it is clear that conflict of this kind can not lead to peace; for example, Frankie James, an environmentalist, writer and artist, argues that Canada is in a state of conflict, especially over the oil sands and environmental protection, and that Canada is not, therefore, a peaceful country. However, even here we see Frankie James insisting that despite this conflict, the existence of a third party with representatives from every interest group could mediate these conflicts and indeed lead to a more peaceful society. So, perhaps she does not mean that conflict can not exist if a society is to be peaceful; rather, a society must deal with its conflict in an organized and all-encompassing manner.

But, to the question at hand, can conflict and peace coexist? Does conflict necessarily make a society less peaceful? Metta Spencer tells us that she can not imagine a society without conflict, and in fact she does not have any desire to. Conflict, for Metta, is essential. Without conflict, life would be boring.

Indeed, we can all see why this would be true. Perhaps we are geared towards conflict. Perhaps it is in our nature. Dr. Ian McKay tells us, and Ben Hoffman (author of the Guerilla Peace Handbook) agrees, that peace is the natural state of being for humans. So, why do we seek out conflict?

There is some suspicion that while peace is the natural state of being for humans, it is not the "peace of the graveyard", in Kant's words, that we are seeking. Rather it may be that the peace we seek is one that allows for conflict and disagreement and constant moving forward. Human beings exist in action. As Aristotle explains, the human being lives to act and all virtue is grounded in action. One can not simply study peace and the ways of peace and then find that they have mastered it. Rather, peace is something that must be worked for and towards and that when achieved does not lead to inaction.

Somewhat in line with Aristotle, Chantal Mouffe, in On the Political, discusses politics as a discipline of action. She is advocates for a society which transforms naturally occurring antagonisms into agonism. The “political” for Mouffe necessarily encompasses a struggle whereby contesting groups with opposing interests compete for hegemony. Rather than being the rational conversation of modern liberalism, politics involves a battle where a recognizable “we” fight against a likewise identifiable “they.” Mouffe scorns the pervasive idea in post-Cold War political theory which sees actors existing in a post-political world. The ignorance of antagonism can not lead to peace -- in other words, you can not fix what you think is not broken. Mouffe insists that, an agonistic model will actually lead to a more safe and peaceful society, is in part because competing parties are allows an arena in which to discuss their differences. Mouffe argues for a pluralism that recognizes real difference, while ensuring that every player is subject to the same set of rules.  

Is this type of politics of peace plausible? Can we find peace by recognizing difference, embracing conflict? What would a society like this looks like?

We would love to know what you have to say. 



To listen to the interviews with Ian McKay, Metta Spencer and Frankie James, visit us on Vimeo.

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