Updated: May 3, 2021
How can humanity achieve world peace? This is a question that has been plaguing human beings for centuries. It is one that I am asked once in a while when people find out about my life’s work. Of course, there are different renditions you hear such as “what do you think we need to do to achieve world peace” or “what do you think are our biggest challenges to achieving world peace?” Although the essence of such inquiries, namely becoming more peaceful, is definitely worth pursuing, it is the framing of these questions that show how abstract our thinking can be about conflict, violence, and peace. Thinking in the abstract can be effective for brainstorming and innovation but it does not always help us develop practical strategies that advance peacefulness. So, I will share here a more comprehensive version of how I typically respond to such questions with the hope it might be useful to some readers.
The first helpful step in my view is to reframe the question itself so that we understand peace and its relationship to us in a way that more accurately reflects reality. When we ask how to “achieve” peace this can give the impression that we can take certain steps to bring about a state that we can point to and call “peaceful” as if our work is done, the same way that we take steps to achieve a certain body weight or academic certification. However, peace is not the same as these easily identifiable markers or states of “achievement” as not everyone agrees on what “peace” looks like and feels like, making its universal “achievement” reliant on intersubjectivity. Here, intersubjectivity means that two or more people’s personal worldviews, beliefs, and/or interests are shared, such as our collective acknowledgement that human beings indeed need food and water. But achieving a shared state of “peacefulness” is very difficult as one person’s “peace” might require social and structural systems that are knowingly or unknowingly harmful and violent to others.
These complexities about “achieving” peace – however it is defined – is why many specialists across disciplines and sectors do not frame humanity’s plight for a more peaceful world as a future “achievement”. Instead, specialists often differentiate between “conflict” and “violence” to help reframe what we are actually working toward. On the one hand, “conflict” is primarily understood as a natural and healthy part of life where human beings experience difference of opinion, beliefs, and interests, and “violence” on the other hand, is often referred to as actions producing mental and/or physical harm that should be eradicated altogether. The aim then for many specialists is to manage “conflict” in a way that prevents “violence” as the latter is often thought of as the absence of “peace” and the former, an inevitable and potentially constructive part of human interaction. Thus, instead of asking how to “achieve” a state of peacefulness – which cannot be universally defined without conflicting views – we can ask: what do we need to do to become more effective at managing conflict without the threat or use of violence (i.e., peacefully)?
This reframing makes “peacefulness” a phenomenon that is continuously being defined and redefined in juxtaposition to how violence is described, and crucially, it reminds us that peace is necessarily a perpetual goal. A relatable example of a perpetual goal for many people could be maintaining our overall physical health as “if we let go” (i.e., stop exercising and eating nutritious foods) our bodies deteriorate so our work toward this goal is never done. Admittedly, the reframed question leaves the concepts of conflict, violence, and peace described in extremely general almost elusive terms. But this space is required for us to account for the diverse experiences shaping our respective interpretations of all three notions. Consequently, there are myriad responses to the revised question that are extremely context specific and therefore I strongly advocate against prescribing universal answers. Instead, if we want to have a discussion at the global level about how to manage conflict more peaceably, we can identify patterns across many contexts that are crucial to address, one of which I prioritize here: communication.
Obviously, we have yet to master how to peacefully communicate about our conflicting views. However, since most people have the capacity to use words and body language to share their thoughts and feelings, it seems like an odd area to spotlight. But if I draw your attention to the reasons, spaces, and timing people often use to discuss conflict-and-violence-related issues with each other, my argument might become more persuasive.
Why do we bother communicating with each other about our differences? An obvious response might be to increase our understanding of one another with an eye toward reconciling our differences. But this is not always the agenda. Sometimes, people express their views as a way to heal themselves or as a form of truth-telling with no particular interest in trying resolve an issue. People can also communicate their views to intentionally cause harm to those receiving the message out of spite, revenge, or some form of redress for harms suffered. Still others might express their view as an end itself, a right they are exercising with no particular purpose(s) attached to the action. So, we cannot assume that the intention behind communicating with each other about contentious topics is necessarily to reconcile such differences peaceably. But it is crucial to figure out whether the latter is the goal when we communicate because if we do indeed express our views with the purpose of peacefully resolving conflict there are implications in terms of space and time that we do not pay enough attention to in public discourse in many contexts.
I can illustrate these implications by analyzing how social media platforms have been used over the last ten years or so to sort through highly contentious issues such as racism, particularly during the recent pandemic. People “tweet” their positions at each other, post Facebook essays or at times “diatribes” about their views. We’ve also seen videos on YouTube where people present their arguments or post controversial images on Instagram and the list goes on. But do these modes of communication provide the most effective space(s) to address such sensitive topics? Well, that depends on the purpose the poster attaches to communicating on that forum about that topic. If they are looking to generate awareness about an issue or excrete their views and do not really care how they land in the world, then sure social media seems like a logical space to use.
But if we accept that we are working to manage contentious issues non-violently, then I would argue we are embarking on a process of persuasion to which social media forums might not effectively lend themselves. Can someone’s worldview or position be transformed by a fleeting exchange on social media where algorithms feed predominately likeminded views to users, which in turn can decrease our resilience to hearing divergent ones? Can someone’s heart and mind be persuaded to feel and think differently on sites where we are bombarded with commercialism and where we often communicate before an audience of family, friends, acquaintances, and colleagues that all influence what we share and how we share it? With some obvious skepticism from me, maybe. But we are not as strategic as we could be about choosing the right space for such difficult, emotionally laboursome, and identity driven discussions. As countless people across the world have shown us through theory, practical guides, storytelling, art work, and other means, the spaces we use to exchange our views significantly affect whether we can non-violently settle our differences. But unfortunately, these sources of knowledge are not made accessible for popular consumption to the degree they should and consequently, the strategies they propose do not inform our everyday interactions as much as they could. Such experience can help us brainstorm innovative ways to use social media strategically. For example, what if we only used social media to connect people so they can then have video or in person exchanges about conflict and violence? What if in recognition of the ideological silos social media algorithms help to create, users befriended people with divergent opinions as a prevailing social norm? Additionally, what if content producers necessarily presented worldviews that are in conflict with each other, especially when discussing violence to increase our exposure to conflicting opinions regardless of the algorithm-induced siloes we engage? These activities do indeed happen but they are not prevalent enough to counteract the harmful media trends undermining transformative dialogue.
Our non-strategic use of social media is just one example of how humanity’s cumulative wisdom on how to use space to manage conflict peaceably is not being maximized. Such knowledge also does not sufficiently inform how we structure many of our societies to increase the chances of resolving conflict peaceably in the context of governance. For example, we have seen an embarrassing number of acts of physical aggression over the last decade by parliamentarians toward one another during parliamentary sessions or full-on parliamentary “brawls”, which some refer to as “legislative violence”. A potential contributing factor that has not received enough public attention and discussion is that members of parliament in almost all cited cases here are consistently seated in separate clusters in accordance with their political party and positionality in government. This segregated arrangement is displayed in the form of semi-circles or aisles, but even more conflict-inducing is the British House of Commons layout used in many of these contexts where the ruling party sits on one side and the opposition sits directly in front of them as if they are in a stand off ready to go to battle. As well, in many of these contexts, when one parliamentarian makes a comment, supporters often clap, stand, or pound on the ledge or table in front of them as they make a guttural sound to show their support and agreement. Such practices are often used to drown out contrasting opinions being yelled by “opponents”. Is this the best we can do?
We know that parliament is where some of the most contentious issues facing our societies are being debated by elected and appointed officials. They often deliberate land matters, citizenship rights, immigration and refugee laws and policies, social services, the creation of criminal codes, foreign policy, national budgets, among other conflict-inducing topics. We can easily anticipate that there will be emotions flying and that the worldviews, allegiances, and moral beliefs of each representative in our parliaments can factor into their positions and actions in these discussions. What blows my mind is that for centuries mediators and conflict management specialists across cultures have produced methods and tools that outline how to make use of space to maximize the chances of having a productive dialogue that resolves conflict non-violently. Facilitative mediators provide a contemporary example as they often strategize how parties should be seated in relation to each other and the mediator to communicate the latter’s impartiality. They also carefully consider whether to position each party’s chair with access to an exit to increase their sense of safety and in turn increase their willingness to meaningfully engage in dialogue with the other conflict party. But we do not use such conflict-sensitive thinking and methods to organize one of the most inherently conflict-riddled spaces in our society: parliament. What if we intentionally staggered representatives from the party with house majority between opposition party representatives? What if each legislator had to consistently walk into parliament and sit next to those affiliated with other political groups? Would they express their opinions in the same way? Would they act in the same way? Would tensions escalate as they have in the past? How would relationships across party lines grow over time and what would be the implications for law and policy? Is this not worth exploring? How we use space can be intentionally designed to maximize our chances of resolving contentious issues peaceably, and even furthering our capacity in this regard is the aspect of timing.
In addition to where, when do we start communicating with others that have conflicting or divergent views in the public realm? The amount of time we spend with each other can make or break our ability to resolve conflict peacefully. Many people tend to primarily engage those they already know as time is indeed a luxury for most of us in this competitive global political economy. Additionally, our shrinking social spheres are contracting further as calls for social distancing continue. But why does this matter in the context of violence prevention and advancing peace? Well, because of our limited time and exposure to those outside of our intimate circles, there are countless situations where the first encounter between people or groups is in response to a conflict between them. This can deprive conflict parties of pre-existing relational ties that can incentivize making concessions to manage their differences non-violently. Such foundations can also increase conflict parties’ stamina to continuously re-engage in what could be a very painful dialogue process. Lack of time to build such resiliency to conflict resolution itself is even more detrimental in situations where people and groups have historically conflictual and/or violent relationships as such intergenerational experiences can instill distrust, fear, anger, and hostility as launching pads to resolving contemporary issues.
Building strong relationships as a foundation for conflict resolution takes time in all of these situations so what can be done? What if in anticipation of conflict, we started to proactively reach out to understand other people and groups sharing our environment as a way to build resilience to future disagreements? What if the young people from groups that historically fight each other proactively engage to build relationships in anticipation of future conflict and to sort through the intergeneration effects of past conflict between their groups? These proactive engagements already happen, don’t get me wrong, but these efforts are exceptional – often celebrated – but exceptional and I am asking, what if we made such engagements a norm? Proactive relationship-building with those we anticipate having conflict with could help to build a series conflict-free or at least historically informed foundations for resolving our differences non-violently in the future.
The examples above help to paint a picture of how important it is to become acutely aware of how to use space and time to communicate effectively about our differences. But given our diversity, figuring out the best communication strategy for non-violent conflict resolution requires local public debate. It would be worth it to facilitate inclusive community discussions on how to communicate in general and particularly to sort through differences non-violently. Such consultations could also be used to familiarize ourselves with effective tools and methods across contexts so that we can collaboratively stitch together approaches that set us up for success when our views and interests inevitably clash.
So, my extremely long-winded response to the original question of how to “achieve” world peace is to first change the question to ask how we can better manage conflict peacefully (i.e., non-violently). And my answer to this reformed question at a global level is that we need to master how we communicate about contentious issues. This is one of many actionable steps to prioritize in my mind so we can increase humanity’s resilience to conflict and to advance peacefulness in perpetuity.
With utmost love and sincerity,
 For an example of this dynamic please see, Ruben Gonzalez-Vicente, “The Liberal Peace Fallacy: Violent Neoliberalism and the Temporal and Spatial Traps of State-Based Approaches to Peace,” Territory, Politics, Governance 8, no. 1 (January 1, 2020): 100–116, https://doi.org/10.1080/21622671.2018.1550012.  Admittedly, many specialists from across sectors, disciplines, and cultural contexts often use the words “conflict” and “violence” together or synonymously. For example, when a country is experiencing a civil war, specialists often refer to this as an “armed conflict”, “violent conflict”, or a “conflict setting” and when there is a peace agreement to end the armed conflict, we often call this a “post-conflict” setting. But without such qualifiers there is acknowledgement that there are important differences between the two notions, particularly when discussed in relationship to each other.  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This is partially why we at Collaborative Social Change try to target audiences outside of professionalized fields working on violence prevention. 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