Expanding Our Definition of Peace

Peace. I think it is safe to say that everyone desires peace. Whether you live in Seattle, Nairobi, or Seoul, dwelling in peace has much more appeal than living in a non-peaceful society. But what do we mean by peace?

If I were to survey people on the street what they think peace means, I bet that the majority of responses would equate peace with an absence of violence, not being in war, or living without conflict. While those responses represent a type of peaceful situation, they also are not the whole story.

One of the pioneers in peace studies — Johan Galtung — has provided us with a helpful dichotomy to better understand peace: negative peace versus positive peace. Negative peace means this absence of violence that so many people think of when they think of peace. Negative connotes there is something missing, in this case violence.

Positive peace, though, isn’t about what’s not present in society, but what is present. As defined by the Institute for Economics and Peace in their annual Global Peace Index, positive peace is “the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful societies.” In other words, do the institutions and underlying structures in society help humans to flourish, or do they create an environment which make it impossible for people to succeed, thus crippling that society?

I think that it is time we stop thinking about peace in negative terms and start focusing on peace in positive ways. To help us expand our definition of peace, I am going to discuss three elements of society that, when strengthened, lead to a more peaceful society.

The first social component that needs strengthening is race relations. The lack of racial equity is apparent in a society that incarcerates far more people of color than whites. Racial inequity is not so noticeable, though, when institutions have implicit biases that create barriers to equity. One example is the chain grocery store that won’t open in certain neighborhoods because of the perceived threat of violence or robbery. The food desert that is then created leads to people in that neighborhood relying on junk food, leading to obesity and the other health conditions that go with it, further leading to a lower life expectancy. If we build up our relations between races, we increase our level of positive peace, and ensure a healthy environment for all.

Gender is the second element we need to bolster. Women continue to face unfair hurdles trying to achieve positions of power, and receive unequal compensation when they do gain such seats. Board rooms and executive seats of companies are predominantly filled with men. Even our own Congress suffers in its composition of less than 20% women—not very representative of a society that is made up of over 50% females. Imagine how better society would be if its responsibilities were divided equally between genders.

The third social element to enhance is class. We don’t need Bernie Sanders to tell us that the divide between rich and poor keeps widening. Housing prices are through the roof, homelessness is in a state of emergency, and the minimum wage is nowhere near a viable wage. When society’s wealth is confined to a small percentage of its people, we become no better than the serfs of the Middle Ages and we have no buy-in to our well being.

Race, gender, and class: each of these social elements can be strengthened in very simple ways, such as befriending those who are different than us, respecting all people as inherently the same, and working to ensure people are fairly treated.

Peace will not happen just because we are not at war or we take away guns. Let me remind everyone that post-World War II America is often looked at as an idyllic time for society. However, the neglect to strengthen the underlying social structures led to the turbulent period of the 1960s that continues today in the widening divide of America. In fact, the 2016 Global Peace Index that I referenced earlier ranks the US as the 103rd peaceful country in the list of 163 nations. Not exactly an exemplar of peace in the world.

But by expanding our definition of peace and building racial, gender, and class structures, we will improve that ranking and become a more just and peaceful society.


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