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To a culture of peace from a culture of war

The culture of war is like a mangrove that takes root in our everyday lives and institutions occupying a dominant position in the field of cultural reproduction. Jennifer Allsopp reports from the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference on the nonviolent tactics, syllabuses, movements and strategies in place to build a culture of peace.

Jennifer Allsopp
29 May 2013

Peace is many things, from human security to equality, but at its heart lies a culture; a culture based on people, acceptance and dialogue. This was the view advanced today by various participants at the first day of the Nobel Women’s Initiative conference here in Belfast. If we see peace as a culture - one that is at once deeply personal and also transnational in its reach - it follows that the process of deconstructing the ubiquitous culture of war must be an aspect of moving beyond militarism to a nonviolent world. In the words of Yemeni Nobel Laureate Tawakkol Karman, speaking this morning, from the ‘culture of hating and fighting...we need to build another culture that supports peace and which refuses conflict, violence and revenge...there is no way to build without challenging bad customs and traditions.’

Culture is, of course, more than ‘customs and traditions’. Indeed speakers today demonstrated that the culture of war is more like a mangrove that takes root in our everyday lives and institutions and, in doing so, comes to occupy a dominant position in the field of cultural reproduction. Culture is, of course, also deeply linked to identity. Speaking this morning in a session on “Building a Lasting Peace” in Northern Ireland, Gerry Greham, Chair of Peace People, concluded, ‘we have a problem with how we define ourselves’.

'A conflict created for me'

The way in which conflict everywhere targets young men – and especially ‘alienated’ young men - was a common theme in much of today’s discussion. This discussion is one that feels especially close to home to me, for it is one that has been taking place in the UK since the coldblooded slaughter of a soldier named Lee Rigby on a street in London last week. This incident has been the subject of much discussion here in Belfast. ‘For someone who has lived in 14 years of war I was shocked’, said Liberian Peace Laureate Leymah Gbowee, ‘by the boldness with which those young men took to the streets and killed someone’.

So how can we – if at all – make sense of this senseless and brutal act with reference to concepts such as a ‘culture of war’ and a ‘culture of peace’?

Writing on the London killing in The Guardian newspaper last Friday, Labour MP David Lammy argues that ‘lslamists, gangs, the EDL (English Defence League) - all target alienated young men’. He continues: ‘the very notion of masculinity has been bastardised to the extent that in their code, power and respect can only be achieved through intimidation and fear’. For Madeleine Rees of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, speaking in this afternoon’s plenary on “Citizen-led Movements for Peace, Justice and Equality”, the key problem is also - in part - one of masculinities.

War necessitates and reproduces a type of masculinity, said Rees, that is prepared to go and fight – and even kill - for something. Dominant models of masculinity, in turn, commonly draw on a militarised idea of the nation. Reflecting on the recent murder in London, Rees commented that the episode – and the subsequent response by member of the far-right EDL – simply perpetuated one violent masculinity after the other. But why is it, Rees asked, that most have viewed this episode through the lens of the nationalist identifications which reproduced it rather than that of Ingrid Loyau-Kennett, a woman on a nearby bus who got off to talk to the perpetrators one-to-one, advising them that it was unwise to ‘start a war’?

The militarisation of everyday life

That the culture of war pervades both countries experiencing conflict and those experiencing relative peace on their streets such as England was demonstrated in a number of examples given today of the militarisation of everyday life, from popular culture to education. It was in this context that US Nobel Laureate Jody Williams argued for the need to tackle not only violence and war, but the ‘glorification thereof’. ‘What the hell are those on active military duty doing in Hollywood movies?’ she asked, drawing attention to the increasing number of movies in which military personal participate. Why is the Pentagon offering its machinery of war to make Hollywood films more ‘realistic’?

Another field in which the culture of war is reproduced, various participants explained, is that of education. In a breakout session on “Demilitarising Education”, participants spoke about the militarisation of education both in countries where there is obligatory military conscription, such as Israel, and in those where individuals are invited – and incentivised -  to ‘sign up’, like in the US and the UK. Rawan Eghbariah, Legal Coordinator at New Profile, a feminist anti-military organisation which supports conscientious objectors in Israel, explained that the education system in Israel is segregated along religious lines. As such, children are ‘trained’ for the military using different strategies in a way that comes to reinforce identity politics.

The way in which militarism seeps into education is also linked to the way in which gender identities are taught, stressed Leymah Gbowee. In line with Amina Mama’s reflections this afternoon on the fact that ‘militarism and gender identities as we know them are co-constitutive’, Gbowee spoke critically about the way in which her child had been taught that ‘daddies work’ and mummies are- well – mummies in her native Liberia. She concluded: ‘children are being taught patriarchy and militarism in a very mild form. How do we step into their world?’

Moving forward: towards a culture of peace

As well as hearing about many situations still haunted by war - and by a culture of war - today we also heard of many positive examples where the culture of war is already being deconstructed and replaced by a culture of peace.

Peacejam is a project that connects young people in over 7 countries to Nobel Peace Laureates to work for justice in their community and to address questions - among others – of identity and difference. Another educational initiative which seeks to educate young people in a culture of peace is Peace Boat, a Japanese educational organisation that works with students and activists from conflict areas including Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, Belfast, Colombia and the Balkans. Explaining why she became involved in the project, Jasna Bastic, International Coordinator for Peace Education Programs, explained, ‘I grew up in Sarajevo, Bosnia. I witnessed how the army can change young men; what it means to get a union or a sniper in the hand and a machine gun. How it can twist the mind of the most optimistic positive person in the world...we had cinema, boyfriends, summer holidays, music, optimism, lots of ambitions for the future and that was gone in a second. A big challenge of my life was how that happened. A war doesn’t happen overnight. I was interested in the structure of the military mind and how to fight against it’.

These are not just examples, but methodologies of making a culture of peace. Indeed the first day of the conference demonstrated the vast array of nonviolent tactics, syllabuses, movements and strategies for peace. It also demonstrated the integrity and diversity of the peace movement. Yet as Amina Mama concluded, whilst ‘we’re very good at building the picture and building the map that has the potential to subvert the tyrannies of our day. It’s the disconnect’. Part of the next stage in tackling this ‘disconnect’ is perhaps, as Jody Williams says, ‘to tackle the denigration of those who work for peace’. This means the practical work of continuing to protect human rights defenders on the ground from death and violence. It also means continuing to elevate the culture of peace. Through events such as these, which are stamped across the front pages of the national news here in Northern Ireland as I write, we can occupy the position currently occupied on our TV screens, buses, radios, schools and streets by the culture of war. We can move from a culture of war to a culture of peace.

Jennifer Allsopp is reporting for openDemocracy 5050  from the Nobel Women's Initiative conference  Moving Beyond Militarism and War: Women-Driven Solutions for a Nonviolent World  May 28-31, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Read 50.50's full coverage of the conference 

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