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Political peace starts with everyday interactions

Political peace starts with everyday interactions
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For many, the Trump presidency represented an era of divisiveness. 

A November 2020 article by the Pew Research Center noted that “America is exceptional in the nature of its political divisions.” In the past year, sharp disagreements about the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the nomination and confirmation of Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettMcConnell signals GOP would block Biden Supreme Court pick in '24 Supreme Court confounding its partisan critics Progressives want to tighten screws beyond Manchin and Sinema MORE to the Supreme Court further contributed to these differences.  

In his first address as President-elect, Biden said, “But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again.” This is even more important in the wake of the Capitol Hill riots on Jan. 6. 

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But how can bridges be built moving forward to overcome divisiveness? The answer can be found in a book authored by the late Elise Boulding first published two decades ago, titled Cultures of Peace: The Hidden Side of History.” 

Boulding, a sociologist and contributor to the field of peace and conflict studies, explored the dynamic processes underpinning peace. A culture of peace is one that promotes peaceable diversity grounded in shared values, beliefs and behaviors that prioritize mutual caring, respect and human well-being. A culture of peace does not deny conflict but, rather, recognizes that conflict is an unceasing social constant. Peace requires arrangements for navigating conflicts to minimize violence as a means of resolution. Cultures of peace, which take on varying forms, exist in all societies and allow people to live and work together. 

In Boulding’s telling, peace is not given and defined by a society either being peaceful or not. Instead, she promoted the idea of “peaceableness,” which represents an active, evolving process of individuals discovering, practicing and promoting methods of peace in their daily lives. Peaceableness involves “a constant shaping and reshaping of understandings, situations, and behaviors in a constantly changing lifeworld.” One of Boulding’s key insights is that peaceableness is everywhere. It exists when we navigate conflicts in our families, in our places of work and in our local communities. It applies to political conflicts but is a much broader concept and politics is but a small subset.  

What does this have to do with America in 2021?  

Boulding’s use of the plural “cultures” in the title of her book makes clear that there is no single, top down solution to bridging gaps that exist between people. Instead, the maintenance of a liberal self-governing society requires people to practice peaceableness and in the process contribute to broader cultures of peace. The various manifestations of peaceableness will be diverse and local. They will often appear mundane and will be missed by the observer who isn’t paying attention or who is looking for grand solutions to divisions. Discussing the everyday behaviors of peaceful societies, Boulding noted that,  “A smile serves as a bridge builder.” As this simple example makes clear, we are all in a position to be daily practitioners of peaceableness.  

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If we want to embrace the full power of peaceableness, there are three straightforward steps we might take. First, we need to appreciate that each of us has the power to be part of the solution by embracing peaceableness to navigate the unceasing range of conflicts we face. The ability of politicians to fix divisions is limited because, as Boulding noted, in complex societies elites “cease to share locally based knowledge” regarding cultures of peace. It is up to citizens to embrace their role as peace activists in free and self governing society and to continually cultivate their skills in this area. 

Second, we can each focus on being self aware in our interactions with others, whether they are in person or online. This entails ensuring that we are respectful, tolerant and committed to understanding instead of winning, even if others do not always return the favor. 

Third, we can think about what having a productive exchange with others involves. My colleague Emily Chamlee-Wright recently discussed the characteristics of productive conversations. She notes that a good starting point is to search for shared commitments and agreements to serve as a foundation for subsequent discussion. These commitments can be broad (Can we agree that we are one another’s dignified equals?) and serve as an entry point to engage in peaceableness.

America faces real challenges and cultures of peace cannot be taken for granted. But it is crucial to remember Boulding’s insight that “underneath the layers of violence each society, without exception, has its peace behaviors — precious resources that can be available to help bring about a new and gentler form of governance locally and on a larger scale.”

To varying degrees, human societies always face conflict and experience divisiveness. Boulding reminds us that we have the power to contribute to peace both in our lives and the lives of those around us.

Christopher Coyne is professor of economics at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies.