Updating the maps: peace is conflict

There is a distinction between conflict and violence and therefore between conflict and war. Let's go into deeper concepts about this topic.

by Daniele Novara

Some myths die hard.

That of peace as goodness, harmony, and mutual love is one of the hardest of all. It is a pernicious myth because is essentially self-destructive because it contains an operational impossibility that makes it useless on a practical and historical level.

Peace education is a movement with a long history.

We have traces and documentary evidence1, since the beginning of the 20th century, but always with this philanthropic fervor.

In the end, peace education came to refer to the strengthening of the light zones of the human being, and thus to everything related to the improvement of good feelings.

The analysis of Franco Fornari2, perhaps the psychoanalyst who has done the most work on peace issues internationally, recovering the Freudian and Kleinian tradition, has allowed us to point out that such a position is physiologically unmanageable, in the sense that it contains within itself its essential negation.

A negation dictated by the fact that it is precisely on the terrain of goodness and good feelings that the culture of war, or at least the reasons for violence, is most concentrated.

The warrior, the mobster, the terrorist, and the religious fundamentalist are convinced that they belong to a cause whose purpose is the perpetuation of the values that their adversaries question.

These values basically concern the affective sense of belonging, but they can also be subliminal values of an ideological nature, as they have been for some terrorists or in so many wars of liberation, and they imply an unconditional and firm adherence of the individual.

These values may refer to the sphere of the family, the motherland, one’s group, one’s clan, and one’s cause (in groups of an ideological nature).

However, there is always a primary call to a symbiosis and group fusion of belonging that implies the individual’s willingness to make the supreme sacrifice, including self-sacrifice, in order to see the values in which he or she believes triumph.

These are the same values that are preached by those who make peace education a field of emphasis on good feelings.

The most egregious case is undoubtedly that of the Mafia, where even objectively criminal activities are carried out as activities belonging to the clan and under the ethical value component of the family.

So often the term “family” even replaces that of the Mafia.

Therefore, fighting the mafia based on good feelings is ridiculous and grotesque, to say the least.

It is not just a matter of passive and conformist adaptation, as the studies of Salomon Asch, Stanley Milgram, and the reflections of the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt have shown us. A psychic motivation legitimizes itself based on a very strong sense of belonging, including ethics and blood, which not only allows but emphasizes the willingness to create, as Fornari says, a paranoid culture of the Other, as if the Other were the cause of all evil.

It is difficult not to notice, in interviews with members of the armed forces or with people who are involved in wars or violent actions in general (think, for example, of ultras), how their actions have a definite appeal to larger components, to ideal goals, to feelings that go beyond the particular or to an alleged personal evil.

It was in this context that, at the beginning of the 1980s, peace education began to emerge, which had to come to terms with these legacies and at the same time construct a new way of intervening.

The picture was rather bleak.

What remained were pedagogical approaches based on the idea of “staying good”, of bringing goodness to bad children, of emphasizing everything that called for peace, harmony, absolute well-being, and a dimension of total fraternity.

On this leitmotif, the most incredible didactic-educational programs have been recorded at the school level, with digressions that could then only slip into soporific tones, devoid of any reference to reality. In Italy, even today, one can find exhibitions on peace, full of poems and nursery rhymes, full of all the good sentiments that any terrorist or mobster could easily subscribe to.

Impossible prescriptions

This kind of distortion of reality, at the strictly educational level, creates relational and managerial difficulties that are easy to imagine.

We can define these difficulties by the term “impossible prescriptions”, that is the setting of goals that are incompatible from the perspective of reality.

These are problem management strategies based on trivialization, the logic of which is basically “the problem will be solved when there is no more problem”.

From a strictly logical point of view, this is a kind of tautology, but from the point of view of dealing with problems in reality, unfortunately, this strategy still has a very strong impact3.

We also see it at the educational level. For example, it is widely believed that quarrels among children will disappear if children stop quarrelling, or when everyone loves each other, or if even the most agitated are quiet, troublemakers stop disturbing, shy people speak up, and so on and so forth, in a long series of formative self-prescriptions that are impossible to achieve, except in exceptional cases.

Unfortunately, these prescriptions often become educational goals as well. In the context of the problems we are dealing with, we find an educational program in which one of the goals is to avoid quarrels among children.

From this example, we can make a series of considerations that revolve around the inevitability of certain phenomena, behaviours, and situations.

There is a perceptual mythology related to peace as harmony that does not allow for situations of disturbance, conflict, aggressiveness, and all that happens when divergence becomes part of the interpersonal relationship.

Impossible prescriptions generate anxiety because they are unattainable. They create a state of permanent tension, dissatisfaction, and sometimes frustration.

Certain phenomena are physiological: components of order and disorder seem unavoidable; the problem is how to deal with them, in what spirit, with what attitude.

Emotional settling is necessary, accepting the dimension of disorder as an essential and normal part of the relationship itself.

Updating the maps: peace is conflict

This brings us to the need to approach the issue of peace from a completely different angle than that which has been the culture of common sense.

Peace has been seen as the opposite of conflict, and conflict as war, devastation, and armed combat (these are the definitions that appear in all the dictionaries). A new way of approaching the possibilities of peace that knows how to be something concrete and operational is to subject, in epistemological terms, the concept and the very idea of peace to a semantic, cultural, and psychic restructuring.

A strand of research has developed, especially in the field of education, which considers peace to be consistent with conflict.

Peace is conflict in that it allows relationships to be maintained even in divergence.

In this view, war often takes on the appearance of a paradoxical and obsessive attempt to re-establish peace, understood as an element of aconflictuality, order, and the absence of divergence, contrast, and diversity.

We have noted this with much emphasis and also with much disgust in the context of what is called “ethnic wars”, which appear as a psychotic attempt to re-establish an order that passes through the total elimination of the disruption caused by the other’s presence.

Peace education tries to propose an idea of peace as conflict, and thus a new map for traversing these territories.

A map that has this orientation: to consider conflict as a generative element.

In this kind of work appears the difficulty of decentralization, of understanding the reasons of others, of accepting divergences.

This is the challenge of peace education, to create the conditions for the relationship to nourish itself not only in sympathy but also in discord and diversity.

It is an enormous but unavoidable challenge in a society that is becoming more and more ethnically and socially complex and where change is very rapid.

Peace education is nothing more than a process of learning an art of coexistence that is more refined than mere tolerance, mere control of diversity.

An art of coexistence that becomes a continuous, incessant training, a true literacy that leads us to acquire the ability to face conflict and diversity as a moment of growth and no longer as a factor of fear or threat.

  1. M. C. Giuntella, “I bambini eroi di pace”, in AA. VV., Il bambino nella storia,
    Ed. Scientifiche Italiane, Naples 1993 ↩︎
  2. F. Fornari, Psicoanalisi della guerra, Feltrinelli, Milano 1979; Psicoanalisi e
    cultura di pace
    (anthology edited by G. Maglerini), Ed. Cultura Pace,
    Florence 1992 ↩︎
  3. Paul Watzlawick, Istruzioni per rendersi infelici, Feltrinelli, Milan 1997;
    Change, Astrolabio, Rome 1976, and other writings by the same author. ↩︎