‘Tis the season,’ right? Peace and goodwill toward all. But as the days draw in what we hear isn’t the music of Christmas carols, it’s the sound of knives sharpening in one of the most divisive General Elections ever.
I head up a global peacebuilding organization called International Alert, which works to help people resolve war and violence in places like Afghanistan, Ukraine and Nigeria. Does this work have anything to teach that’s relevant for us in the UK right now?
From the experiences of our partners all around the world, we’ve seen how ugly language melts into threats of violence; how violent words bleed into violent deeds; and how uncivil discourse descends into civil war. In Rwanda, for example, steadily more incendiary hate speech on the radio hardened into calls for mass violence over decades prior to the genocide 25 years ago. Similar processes have unfolded in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kenya, Myanmar and elsewhere as the litany of incitement to hate and bloodshed has been repeated. Sadly, the list goes on. These experiences carry a stark warning for today.
Clearly, we’re not staring down a new civil war or genocide in the UK, but we are certainly playing a dangerous game as civil discourse coarsens into accusations of betrayal, surrender and ‘othering.’ Hard evidence shows that inflammatory rhetoric inflames people who are already inclined to violence. Studies show that hateful language can be the trigger that sends the lone wolf out into the world to do real damage.
In 2019, for example, research by criminology professor Matthew Williams showed that increases in anti-Black and anti-Muslim rhetoric on Twitter were associated with increases in racially and religiously aggravated violence. As Williams notes in his blog, “social media is now part of the formula of hate crime.” It appears that some people - some violent people - actually do “give a toss” about what’s said on social media.
We also see that women most often suffer the brunt of that violence. Here in the UK, female MPs are standing down in record numbers, with many citing threats against them as a cause. In 2018, a Parliamentary audit highlighted how online threats can bleed into physical threats against MPs, with women and minorities the main targets of this abuse.
Is all this starting to sound familiar?
This year’s Hansard Society audit of political engagement shows that 50% of British people think politicians “don’t care about people like them.” Over half say they think Britain needs a “strong leader willing to break the rules.” Our own Peace Perceptions Poll last year, conducted with the support of the British Council, found that 41% of respondents in the UK felt less able to influence political decisions that affect them.
So....violent language. Accusations of treachery and surrender. Women in the crosshairs. Whole populations that are painted as threats. Differing opinions that harden into battle lines. A big chunk of the people feeling mired in hopelessness and powerlessness, willing to entertain even radical, authoritarian solutions for the sake of some kind of real change.
Am I getting warmer?
Peacebuilding looks to understand the roots of conflict. At International Alert we work with brave, persistent people on both sides of a divide to help them understand why they are fighting and move towards solutions. This work is hard. It takes time, requires great courage and demands perseverance. Peace isn’t simply about the absence of war – it’s about people having their voices heard when the big decisions get made that make an impact on their lives; about having ready access without discrimination to decent services like schools and healthcare; and about everyone being able to go about their everyday in safety without the threat of violence – including those that are broadcast across social and other media.
Those are the preconditions for what’s called ‘positive peace,’ and they are universal – they apply just as much to us here in Britain as to war-ravaged places around the world. So what can we do to foster positive peace here at home in such a time of insecurity, fear and division?
First, let’s back the call made a year ago by Hannah Stuart and Trevor Phillips with the Policy Exchange to call out anytime anyone steps over the line from good, old-fashioned political rough and tumble into hate. As they point out, we all ‘know it when we see it.’ Our political leaders need to take their own ‘ice bucket challenge,’ chill out on the hyper-aggressive hyperbole, and heed ex-House of Commons Speaker John Bercow’s advice that they “treat each other as opponents, not as enemies.”
Second, our cities can lead the way in recommitting to peace at home. There’s a new campaign called ‘Peace in Our Cities’ which is part of the UN’s Global Goals, and which has an ambitious but reachable target of halving all forms of violence in cities by 2030. It’s being co-led by a global coalition of peacebuilding organizations called +Peace (International Alert is a founding member).
Cities are important because over half the global population is now urban – rising to two thirds by 2050. Some 83% of lethal violence occurs outside war zones – and that means a large proportion hits people living in cities. So understanding and reducing urban violence is going to be fundamental to sustaining peace. The campaign will build a powerful city to city network, generating evidence for what works in reducing urban violence of all kinds and then applying those lessons to deliver concrete action in city after city.
Third, we should learn from those brave and persistent peacebuilders out there. The goal isn’t about ending conflicts, since differences and tensions are part of every healthy society. Instead, it’s about stepping away from using and promoting violence to try and solve those conflicts. As one Rwandan Hutu told us in our post-genocide reconciliation dialogues: “My prayer is that, in the future, no one is deceived like I was…to hate…to kill…I did terrible things to innocent people.”
Peacebuilders work hard to understand rival viewpoints, dig deep on the real root causes of violence, and never give up on solutions. Close to home we can look to the experience of Northern Ireland for clues on what that means in practice: 11 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, peace in the province is still a work in progress, but none of the parties involved is going to give up. Even in the heat of Brexit, no one has stepped back from a commitment to ensuring that the peace endures.
I know that ‘civil peace’ is a concept that’s hard to get your head around. But I also know that such a peace is easier to break than to get back once it’s broken; and believe me, you’ll know it when it’s gone. In this election, let’s all take a deep breath and work to bring peace home.