What is the nature of peace? A simple absence of conflicts, or a positive force in itself? Is peace the outcome, or the process? As i think about the ways that power is held and exerted at the highest levels in the world, the risks we face relate to economic stability and national security, as well as integrity of values and cohesion of our culture itself, I’ve been thinking about the nature of peace. Conflict has been part of history for as long as there has been history: so is it inevitable? Do we hold a capacity for conflict that must be fulfilled? Is war not simply a matter of offence or defence, but rather a matter of fundamental truth, pitted against whose image we are powerless, as against the wind or rain?
Conflict is polarising: we collapse to being ‘with‘ or ‘against‘. Our communities are coherent through unity, but a unity that comes at a price: fewer opportunities for engagement and dialogue with those we mistrust, those we are in conflict with. National strength is a type of networked power: held within the shared mindset of the populace, defined not necessarily by ‘what we are‘, but by a clarity of ‘what we are not‘. The frameworks of law and culture may overlay the power, channeling and enforcing it, through hard and soft means, but true power lies within the network itself, with it’s power to accept or exclude you.
Peace may lie beyond us if it challenges established power, power that is grounded within the conflict itself. Peace may be a fiction, at least beyond small islands in a perpetually stormy sea.
I remember growing up in The Troubles in Northern Ireland: to me a seemingly intractable conflict, the subject of weekly news reports and decades long casualty counts. And yet, as we stand here today, that conflict has passed. The unthinkable was thought and the unthinkable action taken.
I was forced to confront my normalised bias: the pastiches and stereotypes that i had been fed my whole adult life turned out to be just that. Convenient tokens to focus mistrust and hatred. Funnels for conflict. In the end, neither side ‘won‘, but peace was ‘found‘. And the most eye opening thing to me was, it was found in the middle ground. The landscape that nobody could tread turned out to be the space where peace was forged.
You cannot take peace without giving it. You cannot force peace through violence alone, although the think i learned was that sometimes you seemingly cannot have peace without passing through the violence.
The reverend Ian Paisley was a firebrand: a man of clear moral judgement and cast iron will. A man who both rose from and perpetuated conflict. And yet, in his old age, a man who found peace, who bridged friendship across a divide. When he died, there were questions asked: had he perpetuated conflict? Had he caused the rifts that caused the war? One answer was that we could not have had Paisley the peacemaker without Paisley the warrior. That the dialogue came through force and force alone: that the peace really was won out of conflict, and that without the conflict there could have been no peace.
Can this be true? Do we always have to fight our way to peace? To surrender too early, is that to concede, rather than to negotiate? Is there a role of conflict in cohesion, not simply of one community, but of a global one? These are difficult ideas: can we hope for a world at peace, or are we destined to inhabit one at war? Is conflict divisible: from nations to regions, cities to households. When it’s just you and i left, will we fight?
Or can conflict be avoided with communication?
Just as we see other fundamental shifts in how it is to ‘be in the world‘, in the Social Age, do we see the evolution of conflict itself?
Part of me sees hope in the evolution of communications technology: today, we can find voices that sit beyond formal control. If we think back to previous conflicts, the stories we hear, at least the stories that we hear freely were both slow and controlled. Today, they are virtually synchronous, wide and deep. Body cameras, GoPros, drones and CCTV capture and record, shared almost instantly through digital channels. Is this a good or a bad thing? Possibly both: it leads to greater accountability and transparency, but also the perpetuation of group mindsets and possibly polarisation of national views.
We see widespread vindication and self validation, but perhaps fewer signs of inclusive dialogue and discussion. Indeed: in online discussions, it’s interesting how quickly social norms are thrown out and we find recourse in insult and argument. It’s as though we have allowed ourselves to lose the spaces for dialogue, perhaps even the space for peace itself. I suspect the impacts of this remain to be seen: we are feeling the tremors, but may not yet understand the plate tectonics that lie behind them.
Clearly we are seeing an increased speed of communication, both within the formal systems and in terms of underlying crowd view, the socially moderated view and community held opinions. Those are the effects we’ve seen in recent movements of social change: aggregating, polarising and conflict effects. Possibly there are others, as yet less clear: could we see a more rapid evolution of societal (and hence formal) views? The Troubles in Northern Ireland lasted over a century, the conflict became normalised before it could be subverted, but is it possible that both normalisation and resolution may happen at an increased pace in this new, more Social Age?
Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but we should not underestimate the depth so change that we are experiencing. Possibly conflict will become more normalised, but maybe so too will peace?
At a national level, what is most interesting is that old mechanisms of power: trade and influence, concentrated in government, are now being substantially displaced by new mechanisms of power, based in brand, travel, networks and even ethics. We tend to be subscribers to multiple cultures where previously we were simply born into one.
The resolution of conflict, the emergence of peace, must surely come through dialogue, but that dialogue may come from places other than formal authority.