THE PROBLEM OF MANAGING HUMAN DIFFERENCE
by Elise Boulding
Peace culture, neither a fantasy nor accident, is as central to human nature as war
ELISE BOULDING is Professor Emerita of Sociology at Dartmouth College and former
Secretary-General of the International Peace Research Association. Among her publications
are: Children's Rights and the Wheel of Life, 1979; Building a Global Civic
Culture: Education for an Interdependent World, 1990; One Small Plot of Heaven:
Reflections of a Quaker Sociologist on Family Life, 1989; Underside of History: A
View of Women Through Time, 1992; and, with Kenneth Boulding, The Future: Images
and Processes, 1994. She is currently writing a book on the culture of peace.
The creative management of differences is at the core of peace culture; in other words,
it is not a culture without conflict. Since every human individual is different from every
other, conflict is a basic part of any social order. Each of us sees, hears, and
experiences the world uniquely, and we spend our lives bridging the differences between
our perceptions (and the needs and wishes they generate) and the perceptions of others.
Even though it is reasonable to ask why we do not fight constantly, given our differences,
much of the time we do this work peacefully. The explanation lies in the two opposing
needs for bonding and autonomy. Every human being needs to bond with others. We need to be
part of a community; we need others to care for us; we need to care for others. Children
who do not experience this caring have trouble dealing with others throughout their lives.
At the same time, we need autonomy, our own space -- room enough to express our
A peace culture maintains creative balance among bonding, community closeness, and the
need for separate spaces. It can be defined as a mosaic of identities, attitudes, values,
beliefs, and patterns that leads people to live nurturingly with one another and the earth
itself without the aid of structured power differentials, to deal creatively with their
differences, and to share their resources. Although peace cultures exist as separate,
identifiable societies, they are not common. They may be found among some, but not all,
indigenous peoples, and in faith-based communities totally committed to nonviolence.
Purely aggressive cultures, in which everyone is actively defending his/her own space at
the expense of others' needs, also exist; they are not common either. Usually, we find
coexisting clusters of peaceableness and aggression. Each society develops its own pattern
of balancing the needs for bonding and autonomy.
The balance may change over time, with periods of more peaceable behavior following
periods of more violent behavior. It cannot be said that humans are innately peaceful or
aggressive. Both capacities are there. It is socialization, the process by which society
rears its children and shapes the attitudes and behaviors of its members of all ages, that
determines how peacefully or violently individuals and institutions handle the problems
that every human community faces in the daily work of maintaining itself.
We might think of problem-solving behavior as a continuum. At one end lies war in its
various forms: extermination of the other, limited war, threat systems, and deterrence.
One then comes to arbitration, mediation, negotiation (exchange), and mutual adaptation.
Toward the far end from war is cooperation, integration, and, at the greatest remove from
extermination, union. Understanding the wide range of alternative approaches to conflict
in this way can help to clarify choices.
The Culture of Peace
Because religious traditions and teachings are important shapers of societies, it is
important to identify two contrasting themes in religions: holy war culture and holy peace
culture. The holy war culture is a male-warrior construct based on the exercise of power.
Often headed by a patriarchal warrior God, it typically demands the subjection of women,
children, and the weak to men, the proto-patriarchs. The social structure of patriarchy
continues to mold generations of the major religious traditions -- Hinduism, Buddhism,
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
In the holy peace culture, by contrast, love is the prime mover of all behavior. It is
a gift from the Creator, or Creative Principle. Women and men share with one another, as
brothers and sisters, each person equal to every other. The weak are cared for and
trouble-makers reconciled. Nonviolent holy peace communities do exist as minority
presences in the major religious traditions. In Christianity there are the Anabaptists and
in Islam, Sufis -- to mention only two -- but they are minorities.
The holy war culture has tended to encourage the exercise of force at every level, from
family to international relations. The holy peace culture might work to restrain the use
of force, but historically its voice has often been muted. This century has been
characterized by rising, increasingly intrastate, violence that has left little room for
the workings of a peace culture. In fact, globally, society is out of balance.
This situation need not be permanent, however. Each society contains in itself
resources that can help to shift the balance from a preoccupation with violence toward
peaceful problem-solving behavior. These include a perennial, utopian longing for peace,
both secular and faith-based peace movements, environmental and alternative-development
movements, and women's culture.
A utopian longing for peace shows up in the variety of visions of the Isles of the
Blessed, Paradise, and similar havens of delight that inhabit every human tradition. It is
remarkable that even the most war-like people can imagine gentle and peaceful ways of
living. This ability to imagine a better way of life never disappears. When other social
conditions permit, these images of a different future can empower social change movements
and produce a new dynamic toward nonviolence.
The holy peace teachings of each religious tradition have generated peace movements
over the centuries and continue to do so today. Christian peace fellowships -- Catholic,
Orthodox, and Protestant -- increasingly collaborate with Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and
Buddhist peace groups in interfaith efforts to bring an end to all forms of violence,
including war. Their strategies to develop the spiritual awareness of humankind as one
family include intensive nonviolence training in local communities and political efforts
to delegitimate militarism and support peaceful diplomacy.
Secular peace movements have been multiplying as part of a larger twentieth-century
social phenomenon: there has been an encouraging emergence of international
nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that provide linkages among people's organizations
with common social, economic, political, and cultural interests. There are now some twenty
thousand such organizations. While the number of NGOs actively dedicated to peace building
is modest, the majority of NGOs contributes, to some degree, to the development of an
international peace culture because their common concern is human betterment. Their effect
is multiplied by the fact that they provide an interface between local householders and
communities with otherwise remote regional and national governmental bodies. They also
provide means of communication with United Nations and other inter-governmental agencies
to facilitate problem-solving and conflict resolution and circumvent rigid governmental
Today, peace-movement NGOs are building new coalitions to work for the abolition of
nuclear weapons by the year 2000, as a step toward general disarmament. Their work is
substantially amplified by those scientists and professionals whose work is focused on
peace and disarmament. The Pugwash Conference on Science and World Affairs (named for the
place in Canada where the group first met in the 1950s) is the oldest and most prestigious
group of scientists trying to develop ways of controlling militarism; it has made notable
contributions to each of the more limited arms control agreements that have been achieved
so far. The International Association of Physicians for Prevention of Nuclear War, the
International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms, Economists Against the Arms
Race, and the new Center for Economic Conversion (in Bonn, Germany) are resource
organizations invaluable to the work of peace activists. The International Peace Research
Association has played a special role in recent decades in providing policy-oriented
research on peace processes and in developing peace-studies programs in universities
around the world to train student generations in nonmilitary approaches to international
and civil conflicts.
A new set of professional organizations focused on practitioner skills of conflict
resolution, mediation, and reconciliation are just beginning to form international NGO
networks and to establish peace-building training centers on each continent. Another
important development of recent decades has been the creation of NGOs to maintain peace
teams on the Gandhian model of the Shanti Sena ("Peace Army"). Peace Brigades
International has been the pioneer, and many secular and faith-based NGOs now support
their own peace teams.
Women's organizations are an important part of the peace movement. Recent examples
include the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's "Great Peace
Journey" to heads of state around the world; the women's peace camps established at
military bases such as Greenham Common in England; the Women for a Meaningful Summit Group
that permits no "big power" summit to take place unquestioned; and the
relatively new WEDO, the Women's Environment and Development Organization. The series of
U.N. women's conferences is slowly creating a general awareness of the need for the
knowledge, skills, and competence of women in the conflict-ridden arena of public
decision-making. The international women's movement has also raised public consciousness
about the relationship between violence against women, in homes and in communities, and
Children and youth are all too often ignored in peace movement activity, but their own
initiatives are beginning to have public impact; the Voice of Children and Rescue Mission
Planet Earth are two such organizations. At the 1995 World Summit of Children in San
Francisco, young delegates drafted an impressive proposal for a U.N. Youth Assembly. This
proposal is still under consideration in the U.N. system.
The environmental movement's close relationship to the peace movement and the concept
of peace culture is evident in the Earth Charter initiative, developed since the U.N.
Conference on the Environment at Rio. A document to be signed by peoples everywhere (to be
accepted, it is hoped, by the U.N. General Assembly in 2000), it spells out a commitment
of humanity to exist in peace with all living things -- living sustainably, sharing
resources equitably, and resolving conflicts nonviolently. The Earth Charter also gives a
special role to the "ten thousand societies" -- ethnic, racial, and
cultural-identity groups that straddle national borders -- in the creation of a culture of
peace, drawing on their many time-tested but unrecognized ways of settling disputes
peacefully. Overlapping with these groups are the many thousands of grassroots
organizations that apply their resources and ingenuity to the creative resolution of local
environmental, economic, and social crises. The Chipko "hugging the trees"
movement is an example of how such nonviolent action can work -- in this case saving
forests from a destruction that would also impoverish local populations. The structural
violence of a globalized economy run by megacorporations can be countered nonviolently
through local self-help organs, such as the Grameen Bank that assists in pooling local
resources to empower the productive capacity of villagers.
All of these movements are helping to create an interconnected but diverse mosaic of
peaceful life ways and a new sense of planetary identity in opposition to the global
military system that sucks up common resources to maintain the dominion of powerful states
and divides the rich from the poor.
Where Peace Culture Can Be Found
The familial household is an important source of peace culture in any society. It is
there that women's nurturing culture flourishes. Traditionally, women have been the
farmers as well as the bearers and rearers of children, the feeders and healers of the
extended family. The kind of responsiveness to growing things -- plants, animals, babies
-- that women have had to learn for the human species to survive is central to the
development of peaceful behavior.
Through most of human history people have lived in rural settings and in small-scale
societies. Just as each familial household develops its own problem-solving behavior, so
each social group has developed strategies of conflict resolution rooted in local culture
and passed on from generation to generation. Similarly, each society has its own fund of
adaptability, built on knowledge of local environment and the historical memory of times
of crisis and change. Such knowledge and experience are transmitted through familial
households as they are organized into communities. The knowledge is woven into religious
teachings, ceremonies, and celebrations; it is present in women's culture, in the world of
work and the world of play, in environmental lore, in the songs and stories of each
people. These are the hidden peace-building strengths of every society.
The familial household can also be the source of violence. Exercise of power in the
patriarchal family model too often leads to wife- and child-abuse. Boys can be gentled by
their experience of growing up male when the values of nurturing and sharing exist in the
community and women are visible and equal participants in the more public life of the
society. If we look at societies that set a high value on nonaggression and
noncompetitiveness, and therefore handle conflicts by nonviolent means, we can see how
certain distinctive child-rearing patterns produce nurturing adult behavior.
The Twa people in northeastern Zaire (or Congo), now endangered by the civil war that
has swept over their country, provide a striking example of how a peaceful society raises
its children. The Twa are hunter-gatherers who dwell in the rain forest. The basis for
their peacefulness is their relationship to the rain forest, which is mother, father,
teacher, and womb. The family hut is also a symbolic womb. Children grow up listening to
the trees, learning to climb them at an early age so that they can sit high in their
branches. Twa is a listening culture, but also a singing and dancing culture, as adults
and children sing to and dance with the trees. Ekima, quietness, is highly valued
over akami, disturbance.
Although this preference for quietness and harmony is reinforced at every stage of
life, it does not preclude children's rough-and-tumble play. There is also a lot of petty
squabbling among adults, which tends to be controlled by ridicule. While children are
slapped when they engage in forbidden activities and nuisance behavior, they are also
taught interdependence and cooperation. Adults seem to enjoy horseplay and noisy disputes.
Semi-humorous "sex wars," in which men and women line up for tugs-of-war, serve
as tension-dissipaters; they break up with much laughter. They are also an indication of
the companionable equality between women and men. Most groups have a "clown"
whose antics also help to keep conflicts from getting out of hand. For all of the
squabbling, disagreements rarely get serious.
The contrast between the love of forest silence, on one hand, and the raucous pattern
of argument, joking, and ridicule, on the other, is interesting. The Twa place a high
value on "letting it all hang out"; they do not let conflicts fester. In this
culture there seems to be a nature-based equilibrium based on a combination of listening,
singing, dancing, and squabbling that is not easy for Westerners to understand.
Another example of unusual child-rearing practices in a peaceful society is found among
the Inuit. Living in the circumpolar North, from eastern Siberia through Greenland and
Canada to Alaska, they survive the harsh and unforgiving winter cold through cooperation
and social warmth. Violence and aggression are under strong social prohibition. The social
values are centered on: (1) isuma, which involves rationality, impulse
control, careful problem-solving, and foresight; and (2) nallik, which is
love, nurture, protectiveness, concern for others' welfare, and suppression of hostility.
The distinctive child-rearing practices that produce these rational, compassionate,
controlled adults revolve around what Jean Briggs, an anthropologist who has studied the
Inuit, calls benevolent aggression. This behavior combines an unusual combination
of warm affection for infants with a complex form of teasing that creates real fear in
children and then induces them to laugh at their fears. The title of one of Briggs'
studies, "Why Don't You Kill Your Baby Brother?," suggests the extremes to which
the teasing goes, at least from a Western perspective. That this behavior produces adults
who exhibit both isuma and nallik (and a remarkably peaceful society) I
would ascribe to the fact that young children in general are far more socially perceptive
and far more sophisticated in their assessment of social situations than adults usually
give them credit for. They can figure out what is going on and learn to respond
creatively, when given the chance. Although one can imagine this tricky form of
socialization going wrong with some individuals, it does seem to turn children into
self-reliant problem-solvers with a well-developed sense of humor, who are affectionate
and acutely aware of the disciplined anger-control systems in themselves and others. Girls
and boys get the same type of socialization, and Inuit men and women are equally
resourceful. They like to fondle infants and baby arctic animals, share food communally,
and laugh together. The skill of handling conflict playfully, as in song duels (or drum
matches) between offended parties, produces enjoyable public events instead of battles.
The Anabaptist cultures of the historic peace churches, originating in Europe in the
late Middle Ages in revolt against the power structures of church and state, live on today
in a number of religious communities, among which the best known are the Mennonites, the
Brethren, and the Quakers. These communities share with the peaceful societies described
above a careful attention to rearing children to become peaceful adults. While each group
has its own unique practices, they all live "in the world but not of it,"
holding to testimonies of simplicity, gender and racial equality, and personal and social
nonviolence. In war they refuse military service; their commitment is rather to work for
the realization of "the peaceable kingdom." The cultivation of the divine seed
in each child makes child-rearing and family life of central importance. Girls and boys
are reared in similar ways and are prepared early for participation in decision-making.
Explicit training in nonviolent responses to conflict and alternative ways of dealing with
conflict are emphasized. At their best, these Anabaptist communities produce adults with
imagination and skill in organizing peace-building projects for social betterment.
Celebrations are the play life of a society, and a healthy play life strengthens the
peaceableness of any people by reaffirming the best in their social values. Feasting and
gift-giving emphasize sharing and reciprocity, the sense of the community as one family.
When sharing and gift-giving have a character of spontaneity and exuberance -- and singing
and dancing are freely and widely practiced -- then celebration is a powerful reenforcer
of peaceful and caring community relations. It becomes an opportunity to let go of
grudges, a time of reconciliation among persons whose relations may have become strained.
To the extent that there is a clearly articulated basis for the celebration, patterned in
ritual, it can also become a way of reconnecting with creation itself, a reminder of the
oneness of the cosmos and of all living things. Celebration becomes a time for the making
of vows in service to the community; it marks the rites of passage from birth to death,
wounding and healing, beginnings and endings, and historical moments from the
When celebrations lose their playfulness, when gift-giving becomes carefully calibrated
exchange, when performances become competitive, then these rituals lose their replenishing
character and cease to be resources of genuine peaceableness. Play itself, by its very
nature, performs a serious creative function for each community. Taking place outside of
the realm of everyday life, play nonetheless creates boundaries, rules, and roles
("let's play house -- you be the daddy and I'll be the mommy"), and structures
spaces in which children can create their own realities. Play can also teach nonviolence
and self-control -- when, for example, in the rough-and-tumble of play a child is
That play space is also where children can practice grown-up activities does not take
away from the fact that play is done for its own sake, "for fun."
Playing can therefore be important for adults as well. Although competitive sports may
work against the spontaneity of play for both players and spectators, the rudiments of
There are other less obvious forms of play. Some are highly developed: the mind at play
in science; the muse at play in poetry, music, and art; the body at play in song, dance,
and drama. Play goes on at the grassroots level in the folk culture of each society, and
it goes on among the elites, although the play of each tends to take separate forms in
terms of style, language, and content. Some art, and some sports, have become so violent
that they have lost the character of play. The recovery of play as fun, a basic heritage
of every society, is the best response to such violence.
Zones of Peace
As far back as the historical record goes, we know of sanctuaries, or safe places, for
anyone under threat. Temples and holy sites have become sanctuaries; sometimes the land
immediately around a king's palace has been designated as safe for persons fleeing their
enemies. Market places have always been treated as zones of peace, since violence would
destroy trading activities. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Koran declare croplands and
orchards, as well as the women and children who tend them, protected in time of war. The
Catholic Church extended this protection through the Pax Dei to pilgrims, merchants, and
cattle in the twelfth century, and controlled the violence of war by forbidding soldiers
to fight on certain days of the week.
Since the beginning of the nuclear age, there have been many grassroots movements to
persuade states or regions to declare themselves nuclear-weapon-free zones, and
counterpart movements to define individual towns and cities as zones of peace. This
combination of traditional sanctuary practice with new peace-movement activity has
resulted in a gradual spread of physical areas that have a certain political and social
commitment to peace culture.
Today there are twenty-three or twenty-four states that have renounced military defense
and have no armies. There are also a growing number of regions that have been declared
nuclear-weapon-free zones by a treaty process facilitated by the U.N. and signed by the
member states of the region. The treaties of the Antarctic, the Treaty of Tlatelolco
(Latin America), the Treaty of Raratongo (the Asian Pacific), and most recently the
treaties of Bangkok (Southeast Asia) and of Pelindaba (Africa), all identify these areas
as nuclear-weapon-free zones. Clearly, this is a direction in which states would like to
go, although the major powers often do their best to hinder this treaty process. The
production and transport of materials for nuclear weapons are specifically forbidden in
these treaties in all of the states in the regions. Inter-governmental bodies monitor
compliance. Peace NGOs in each region have played an important role in getting states to
sign these treaties and to uphold them. Outer space and the seabed are also in theory
nuclear-weapon-free areas, although they are not so in practice, mainly because the major
powers insist on preserving freedom of movement for nuclear materials on the seas and
Indigenous peoples on all continents seek zones of peace for their territories. The
World Council of Indigenous Peoples, the Inuit Circumpolar North Conference, the
International Indian Treaty Council, and the Unrepresented Peoples Organization all seek
removal of weapons and environmentally damaging activities from their territories,
annually bringing new cases before relevant U.N. bodies.
None of these treaties or zones of peace would have come into being without intensive
activity by local NGOs. At the grassroots level, both NGOs and community-based
organizations have succeeded in declaring over five thousand towns and cities around the
world nuclear-free, or more strongly, zones of peace. Once such a declaration has been
officially made, there are all kinds of opportunities for creative community action.
Boulder, Colorado, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, are two such communities. Both have
active nonviolence training and mediation programs in the communities and school systems.
Sister City projects link local communities in different world regions. Local projects
include economic conversion of military plants, environmental protection (particularly
from toxic wastes), local-to-local international trade (with a strong emphasis on human
and social development and the infrastructure needed to sustain such development). They
also include developing peace education and conflict resolution programs in schools,
creating peace parks and public peace sites, and planting peace trees. Local members of
the International Federation of Sister Cities, the International League of Cities, the
World Congress of Local Authorities, and other NGOs help both with local community
education and with the international networking process. As a result, many cities and some
state governments have established international affairs offices and have declared
The declaration by local churches and citizens' organizations of violence-free zones in
the midst of some of the major metropolises of the Americas and Europe is one more
manifestation of this growing international movement. Courageous community groups in
war-torn areas from Somalia and Bosnia/Croatia to the Philippines have made pacts with
soldiers, guerillas, and rebels to keep their localities free of weapons and fighting.
Another aspect of the zone-of-peace movement can be found in UNESCO's World Cultural
and International Heritage Sites. The Zone of Peace Foundation is promoting an expansion
of these sites to include more places of sanctuary, refuge, and peace-building in such
public arenas as museums and schools around the world. Special national environments that
need protection -- waters, forests, mountains, grasslands -- are also included. A feature
of all of these zone-of-peace sites is that local managers are to develop training
programs in conflict resolution so that visitors will not only experience a violence-free
setting, but can learn the skills of peace-making. The Global Land Authority for the
Development of Peace Zones (GLADPZ) has actually put peace-building initiatives in place
in such conflict areas as Cyprus and the Kuriles. Probably the most experienced
peace-builders and protectors of zones of peace are groups like Peace Brigades
International and other civilian teams skilled in nonviolent response to conflict and
The U.N. works through many vehicles in the building of zones of peace beyond the
U.N.-facilitated treaties already mentioned. These include U.N. peace-keeping (which only
works when peace-keeping forces have special training), U.N. observer teams and police
forces, and the activities of U.N. agencies, especially UNESCO and UNICEF. An important
"new" concept from UNICEF is the declaration of each child to be a Zone of
Peace, which can provide the basis for a number of creative initiatives involving not only
protection of children but more active peace training in schools. The 1990 U.N. World
Summit for Children began this process. One important outcome of that gathering is an
ongoing Children's World Summit, through which children and youth are working to create a
U.N. Youth Assembly. Children are an important but largely ignored resource in the
development of peace culture.
The Future of Peace Culture
In this exploration of peace culture, we have considered the fact that peace, like war,
is a social invention. We have noted the sometimes precarious balance between humans' need
for bonding and autonomy. If humans did nothing but bond with one another, societies would
be dull, lacking in adventure. If they did nothing but claim individual space, societies
would be full of action, but it would be aggressive and violent action. Finding the right
balance in a complex world in which technology shields us from one another and even from
ourselves is difficult. Global corporations weaken local economic and social capacity. The
military-industrial system seems beyond the ability of states to control, and the
biosphere is losing its capacity to regenerate itself and feed the growing population of
humans. Weakened local community and family systems are racked by violence.
How can peace culture grow and flourish, bring us better futures, under such
conditions? We have noted the persistence of social images of life at peace, the
ineradicable longing for that peace, and the numbers of social movements working for a
more just and peaceful world. With the growth of the global civil society in this century,
there are linkage systems among peoples and movements that never before existed, making
possible unheard-of interfaces between governmental and nongovernmental bodies. We have
seen that there are many sites where peace learning can take place, from family and
community to international peace-building centers, and noted peaceful micro-societies like
the Twa, the Inuit, and the Anabaptist communities. We have seen that the zone-of-peace
concept is spreading.
It seems that in spite of the visibility of violence and war, many are able to see past
that violence to a different future world. People who cannot imagine peace will not know
how to work for it. Those who can imagine it are using that same imagination to devise
practices and strategies that will render war obsolete. The importance of the imagination
cannot be overestimated.
Peace culture, however, is not just a figment of the imagination. It exists in daily
life and habitual interaction as people get on with their lives and work, negotiating
differences rather than engaging in interminable battles over just how to solve each
problem as it comes up. Aggressive posturing slows down problem-solving. Violence is more
visible and gets more attention in our history books and in our media than peace does. But
peace culture will take us where we want to go.
Kenneth Boulding always used to say, "What exists is possible." Since peace
culture exists in all the social spaces described here, it is possible. If we want the
world to be one planetary zone of peace, full of adventure and the excitement of dealing
with diversity and difference, without violence, humans can make it so.
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