‘And if ever someone calls my child a terrorist [...] I will tell them that what freedom looks like, what democracy looks like, is the push for and realization of justice, dignity and peace.’ - Patrisse Khan-Cullors, co-founder of Black Lives Matter
On Saturday 27 August 2022, Manchester will march for peace. This year’s Pride Parade will send a big, bright, colourful message that everyone deserves to live in a world where all LGBTQ+ people are free to live and love in peace. This is incredible! But in the wake of Black Lives Matter’s message of ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ I cannot help but wonder what it is we’re specifically marching for. Is a march for peace also a march for justice? Are there different kinds of peace, and different ways of achieving peace? What is it exactly that we’re marching for?
Peace is not an easy concept to define, mostly because we cannot remotely agree on what it is or what it looks like. It is often thought of as the opposite of war, existing on a continuum of violence and pacifism. But there are so many different kinds of violence. What about psychological violence? Emotional violence? Economic violence? Political violence? Do these count? Is there peace if we just avoid conflict, even at the expense of the most marginalised? Is political apathy peaceful? Is ignoring injustice an act of peacekeeping?
Perhaps an end to war is not necessarily the start of peace.
There are many, many different understandings of peace. But there are two key types of peace I want to think about here.
The first type of peace is what Oliver P. Richmond calls ‘narrow’ peace, in which there is an ‘absence of overt violence,’ prioritising security through ‘the preservation of a pre-existing hierarchy’ (pgs.6, 8). This version of peace draws on the view that human beings are inherently violent, that it is a part of our biology and thus conflict is an inescapable part of society (Richmond, pg. 7). Ensuring peace, then, requires systems of domination and control, such as police or military force and creating a docile and obedient population.
Narrow peace is an inherently right-wing approach, and its prevalence is something that neuroscience can help us better understand. According to Lydia Denworth, right-wing people are more likely to want narrow peace because ‘the amygdala, which is important for regulating emotions and evaluating threats, is [often] larger in conservatives.’ Right-wing brains, so to speak, are often more likely to perceive other people as dangerous, and thus social structures, being what keep these dangerous Others at bay, are what keep themsafe. This leads to justifying and maintaining social systems, even if these systems are unfair or oppressive. As H. Hannah Nam, et al. argue, the amygdala processes motivationally salient information such as threats, uncertainty, or features of social groups, and thus the bigger it is the more likely it is for someone to have ‘attitudes and behaviours that attribute legitimacy to existing hierarchical social systems, such as stereotyping, conservative and meritocratic ideologies and a reluctance to help those who are disadvantaged.’ This explains why we will often see people vote against their own interests; they are voting from a place of fear, keen to maintain the peace no matter the cost.
Narrow peace is unsustainable because it maintains the roots of social conflict such as inequality and systemic harm. This leads to our second type of peace, a ‘broad’ peace, which seeks to create a society in which people can live free of poverty, institutional oppression, domination and injustice. According to Giorgio Shani and Sana Saeed, this approach celebrates human differences, refusing to let one group have a ‘monopoly over the definition of what it is to be human’ by ‘bringing in the voices of those who have remained marginalized’ (pg. 71). Broad peace is much more complex and much more difficult to achieve than narrow peace, and the fight for broad peace is often one of social justice activism, be it in the fight for improved human rights, the redistribution of wealth and resources, the restructuring of institutions and the cooperation of differing social groups.
Broad peace is a much more left-wing approach, and again neuroscience offers theories to explain this. Just as right-wing people are more likely to have a larger amygdala, according to Ryota Kanai, et al., left-wing people are more likely to have a higher volume of grey matter in their anterior cingulate cortex, which helps with detecting errors and social processes, meaning they have a ‘higher capacity to tolerate uncertainty and conflicts, allowing them to accept more liberal views.’ Those with a more left-wing brain are thus less likely to see people as a threat, and more likely to identify social structures as dangerous and in need of changing.
Importantly, then, the two approaches to peace are inherently at odds with one another. One sees people as threatening and finds security in hierarchical systems, the other celebrates differences and identifies social structures as harmful. To ensure narrow peace we must limit broader forms of peace, and to create broader peace we must disrupt narrow peace. And so perhaps this is why the division between different political camps seems to be only ever widening. At the end of the day we all want peace, but we’re looking for it in such completely different places that we directly contradict one another.
So then, how do we achieve peace?
When Black Lives Matter declares ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ they are stating that without broad peace there can be no narrow peace. That in a system of injustice, where Black lives are not protected and valued by judicial and legal systems, then civil and social peace must be disrupted through the upheaval and restructuring of oppressive social systems. For Black people in America, this means changing approaches to community safety. And so too for marginalised communities all over the world there are benefits to restructuring historic institutions so that they are better fit for purpose and better meet the needs of everyone.
This level of systemic change was a key goal of the Stonewall Riots and the early Pride movement: demanding changes to unjust laws, fighting against police brutality and pushing to create safe and public spaces for LGBTQ+ people. As Matthew Todd recounts, to help achieve these goals of a broader peace for LGBTQ+ people, Pride marches were organised around the world as an ‘annual reminder’ of the Stonewall Riots and the need for improved human rights for LGBTQ+ people. Today, Pride continues to shape cultural belief systems all over the world.
Changing historic institutions and cultural belief systems are big, long-term projects that require social organising on a massive scale. It’s important to get involved in these endeavours, but it’s also important to know that there are things you can do in your day to day life to help achieve a broader peace. The key thing you can do: talk to people who think differently than you do. Yes, I know, this is a lotharder than it sounds. But hopefully the following will help.
In a 2020 study published in Nature, Jeffrey Lees and Mina Cikara argued that most people are likely to overestimate how much people from other social groups hate them. Regardless of political affiliation, they found that people were consistently inaccurate in assuming how intensely those from other social groups felt about them, resulting in a diminished likelihood of cooperation and a higher likelihood of conflict. Sometimes these feelings are justified, and sometimes moments of ignorance can be interpreted as intentional hate, or rightly calling someone out can feel like a severe condemnation. In a world with so much pain, it’s no wonder that defensive walls go up quickly and we either lash out at one another or refuse to engage with people from other groups at all. But if we continue to assume that those who are different from us aren’t good people, then how can we possibly build a peaceful society with them? In order to mitigate this issue, Lees and Cikara found that ‘interventions that directly inform individuals of their inaccurate beliefs may be able to induce positive behavioural change.’
One such interventionist approach was uncovered by David Brookman and Joshua Kalla. What they did was listen. Naming their approach ‘reverse canvassing,’ a team of fifty-six canvassers went to the doors of over five hundred transphobes. Instead of telling the transphobes what to think or reprimanding them, they created a space for the transphobes to actively process their own views:
‘Canvassers first asked each voter to talk about a time when they themselves were judged negatively for being different. The canvassers then encouraged voters to see how their own experience offered a window into transgender people’s experiences, hoping to facilitate voters’ ability to take transgender people’s perspectives. The intervention ended with another attempt to encourage active processing by asking voters to describe if and how the exercise changed their mind.’
Three months later, many voters demonstrated a decrease in prejudicial attitudes and an increased likelihood to support non-discrimination laws.
Creating a space for active processing requires a great deal of emotional labour, and I wouldn’t recommend it if you don’t feel safe engaging in such conversations. But I would encourage you to pause amongst all the conflict in the world and ask yourself what will bring you inner peace? Because for me it’s refusing to agree that human beings are inherently violent, that it is a part of our biology and thus conflict is an inescapable part of society. I refuse to accept that the size of one’s amygdala makes them more likely to be hateful, or less likely to understand inequality or injustice. I refuse to believe that our brain chemistry determines whether or not we can connect with one another, value each other’s differences or work together toward shared goals. As Emma Dabiri argues, ‘on the most basic level, we have to see our struggles as interconnected because they are, and because we are’ (pg 129).
Our struggles, and in turn our aims, can find connection in a variety of ways. For example, as I have argued elsewhere, fighting for the rights of one social group can often have significant benefits for other social groups as well, such as how enabling medical bodily autonomy for trans people may also ensure abortion access for cis women. There are benefits in the workplace too, such as how a flexible uniform policy may support both non-binary people and those of various ethnicities, cultures and religions. (Click here to learn more!) Grassroots organising and coalition building is also a route to inter-group connection for broad peacebuilding. For example, improving disabled people’s access to housing and social services also improves everyone else’s access to these important parts of life as well, and bringing an end to police brutality will not only protect people of colour, but will save the lives of working class white people too. I can go on and on.
And so, as we march for peace, let’s ask ourselves what our end goals are and how we hope to achieve them. If we are ever to build a broad peace that benefits everyone, perhaps the place to start is to assume that those with differing identities or views from you are not inherently hateful or evil. Yes, there are bad people out there who are doing bad things that are causing a great deal of harm to various communities. But maybe this isn’t the characteristic of the majority of people. Maybe, if we all start assuming that (most) humans are good, then we can be brave in the face of difference, gentle in the face of ignorance, and loving in the pursuit of connection. Let us choose kindness, and then from there, maybe, just maybe, we can finally find peace.