Positive & Negative Peace:
The World State Peace of Stagnation & the Importance of Conflict in Peace
In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, we are given a picture of a society which has fervently striven to eliminate all modes of suffering, discomfort, and dis-ease. Though the society of the World State is without overt, direct forms of conflict, it is also without a citizenship capable of critical thinking. It is a world bereft of high art, committed relationships, free will, and is saturated with nearly ceaseless forms of indulgence and stimulus. All of which have been sacrificed, or established, in order to maintain a manufactured stability and a structurally imposed peace. However, it bears questioning the viability, sustainability, and the legitimacy of this form of peace—is it in fact peaceful?
This paper sets out to argue that the World State of Huxley’s Brave New World is in fact far from peaceful for two main reasons; its use of structural violence and its suppression and avoidance of conflict on the whole. Using the World State as an example of what is referred to as negative peace we will take a critical look at the importance of conflict in creating positive peace while exploring the efficacy of the more explicit forms of conflict and violence in global affairs today. Finally, drawing upon the works of prominent peacebuilders, we will explore some of the philosophical underpinnings as well as practical skills for constructively working with conflict in hopes that positive peace will not simply exist as a conceptual abstraction for the reader, but as a lived experience. Before addressing these topics however, we must ask, what is negative peace and how is the World State an example of it?
The World State has created peace at the expense of the development and growth of the individual, and in turn, the society as a whole. The Director makes this painfully clear as he asserts, “…no offence is so heinous as unorthodoxy of behavior. Murder kills only the individual—and, after all, what is an individual…? Unorthodoxy threatens more than the life of a mere individual; it strikes at Society itself" (Huxley 113). The Director is describing a form of oppression, and as will be discussed in greater detail later, this form of oppression is referred to as structural violence—a more subtle form of violence, but to be sure, it is violence nonetheless.
Given then that the World State implements forms of oppression and structural violence, we can say that though it appears to be peaceful insofar as it has managed to suppress forms of direct conflict and violence, it is not genuinely peaceful, as it implements forms of aggression in the governance of its people and forcibly stagnates the development of its citizenry. This form of peace is referred to as negative peace—it is the peace created from the sheer absence of conflict, or “perpetual pre-hostility” (“Metta Center for Non-Violence” par. 2). In the case of Brave New World, it is a peace of stagnation.
To understand negative peace more clearly, it is important to have an understanding of what differentiates positive peace from negative peace. Johan Galtung, sociologist, mathematician, and the thinker considered by many to be the father of peace studies, speaks to this distinction in the following way;
Negative peace refers to the absence of violence. When, for example, a ceasefire is enacted, a negative peace will ensue. It is negative because something undesirable stopped happening… Positive peace is filled with positive content such as restoration of relationships, the creation of social systems that serve the needs of the whole population and the constructive resolution of conflict. Positive peace then does not mean the total absence of any conflict. It means the absence of violence in all forms and the unfolding of conflict in a constructive way. Peace therefore exists where people are interacting non-violently and are managing their conflict positively… (Dijkema par. 1)
Put another way, we can say that negative peace is created from the absence of overt forms of violence, though often violence is still occurring passively. The Cold War between Russia and the United States could be used as a strong example of negative peace, as there were no guns being fired, although there were undeniably elements of aggression and violence present. Positive peace then, is the constructive engagement with conflict. Its aim is not to eliminate conflict but rather to address it head-on, peacefully. Conflict then, is not viewed as an enemy or threat to positive peace but as a fundamental element to its realization.
Returning to the World State of Brave New World we can see that it does perceive conflict as a threat—a threat to stability. It is in a sense, in conflict with conflict itself. This struggle, in turn, manifests in one of the strongest ways in which the World State exemplifies negative peace—it’s extensive use of the aforementioned structural violence. Structural violence takes many forms. In the broadest sense it is oppression, denial or suppression of human rights woven into the sociocultural fabric of daily life. David Barash writes:
A slaveholding society may be at ‘peace’ in that it is not literally at war, but it is rife with structural violence. Structural violence has the effect of denying people important rights such as economic opportunity, social and political equality, a sense of fulfillment and self-worth... When [people] are denied a decent education, housing, an opportunity to play, to grow, to work, to raise a family, to express themselves freely, to organize peacefully, or to participate in their own governance, a kind of violence is occurring, even if bullets or clubs are not being used. Society visits violence on human rights and dignity when it forcibly stunts the optimum development of each human being… Structural violence is another way of identifying oppression, and positive peace would be a situation in which structural violence and oppression are minimized. (Approaches to Peace 147, emphasis my own)
One of the clearest examples of structural violence in Brave New World can be found in the caste system of the World State which determines the socioeconomic status and occupation of its citizens for the duration of their life. However, it could be argued that since each individual is engineered to be satisfied with their position in life, that perhaps no violence is in fact taking place. To this, it should be made clear that the strongest form of structural violence is that of the removal of choice—whether the citizens of the World State want it or not is inconsequential. The violence occurred the very moment their choices were removed.
The World State is thus replete with examples of structural violence, as its very existence is dependent upon the developmental stagnation of its citizens. The World State has gone to every length to remove the catalysts of conflict and tribulation, technological advances, leaps in philosophical and scientific understanding, and the provocative qualities of art, music, and literature. The citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World are then relegated to a static existence of living solely to sustain their own existence, which in turn maintains the fragile stability of the World State. Mustapha Mond, in response to a radical paper written by Bernard, speaks to this as he says,
It was the sort of idea that might easily… make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible. (Huxley 136)
This cyclical, Mobius loop-like relationship between the individual and the World State lacks any ability to evolve, as every precaution has been taken to remove the possibility of emergent or radical breakthroughs. Yet, evolution and conflict persists, as is evidenced most clearly in two of the book’s characters.
Both Bernard and Helmholtz show us the World State’s attempts to suppress conflict in favor of stability are not entirely successful. These two are at odds with what they experience as a conflict between a self which yearns to be expressed and the tightly bound constraints of the World State intent on smothering that very inclination. The end result is a weighty psychic toll on them both. Helmholtz captures this sentiment poignantly, as he says “…I sometimes get a feeling that I've got something important to say and the power to say it—only I don't know what it is, and I can't make any use of the power” (Huxley 54). Helmholtz seems to be touching upon on an inchoate sense that he has much more to offer, express, and experience than what the rigid parameters of the World State will allow.
This reflects that conflict is in some way inextricably tied to, even embedded in the human experience, as even when every need and desire is met (as is the case for Bernard and Helmholtz), it still arises. Carl Jung, the famed psychologist is credited for saying, “Nobody, as long as he moves about among the chaotic currents of life, is without trouble” (C.G. Jung Quotes…). Jung appears to believe that as long as we are alive we are in conflict. Thus, any attempt to suppress the arousal of conflict is not only a suppression of a fundamental facet of the human experience, it is an act of violence and it is doomed to failure. To quote Jung once more, “We cannot change anything until we accept it. Condemnation does not liberate, it oppresses” (C.G. Jung Quotes…). In a word, the only way to transform conflict into peace is not by denying, or condemning the conflict, but by embracing it.
We have seen that peace built upon the absence or suppression of conflict is tenuous at best and volatile at worst, as conflict is a much a part of being human as breathing. The question then becomes, how do we work with conflict? Or more pointedly, how can we work with conflict peacefully? When we look at the state of present day global affairs, it is easy to see that, unlike the World State, we certainly have no aversion to conflict. A striking example of this can be seen in America’s own history. Of the 237 years that America has been a nation, it has been at war for 215 of them (Crichtfield). Yet, this approach to working with conflict certainly has not achieved any measure of peace either—for if it had, why would we continue to be at war? This then highlights what is the most essential element of positive peace—the constructive engagement with conflict. To understand this more completely, we must take a look at the core values and principles of positive peace.
Positive peace is built upon the recognition of three distinctive, yet, interrelated sets of human rights and needs: material rights and needs- including food, shelter, healthcare, and resources to meet physical needs; Social needs and rights- which include human dignity, security from attack, and participation in life affecting decisions; and cultural needs and rights- which include the ability to give life meaning through personal, cultural, and religious identities without persecution (Shirch 14). However, we live in a world where these human rights are continuously encroached upon, often even blatantly disregarded. It appears that in this way, the world we presently live in is in many ways hauntingly similar to that of Huxley’s Brave New World.
Some may argue that in order to ensure the strength and continuity of our own human rights and needs we sometimes must diminish those of others. In fact, this seems to be the prevailing logic behind America’s dizzying history of war. The most recent military engagement with Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, was set in motion due to the apparent threat of terrorism and what essentially equated to a perceived encroachment upon the rights and needs of the American people. Though the threat was indeed real, as we all witnessed on September 11th, 2001, our chosen methodology for working with this conflict has perhaps done far more harm than good. The little good that appears to be done through the use of violence is, in the words of Mohandas Gandhi, “…only temporary; the evil it does is permanent” (Essential Quotes…).
As we continue to violate the rights of others in an effort to secure our own, a destructive cycle is set in motion, the momentum of which carries us ever further from establishing positive peace. Martin Luther King Jr., reverend, civil rights leader, and outspoken proponent of the power of non-violence, spoke and wrote extensively on the dangers of using violence to establish peace. On this, King writes:
The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder the hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate… Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive our darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. (Where Do We Go From Here… 62)
Dr. King is not only pointing out how ineffectual the use of violence is in establishing peace (positive or negative), he is also drawing our attention to a more subtle yet paramount component to the realization of positive peace—the attentiveness, awareness, and development of our inner landscape.
Because positive peace demands the development and implementation of a constructive means of addressing conflict, it also challenges us to develop the internal means of working with conflict skillfully. As is illustrated in the graphic below (Lederach), positive peace is established through tiers, or echelons expanding in scope, the foundation of which is the individual self. When peace is established in the individual, it can then extend into the structural systems of government and economy. This is not difficult to imagine when taken into consideration that each system or culture is ultimately comprised of groups of individuals.
Additionally, we can see yet another flaw in the efficacy of war in creating peace throughout the world. Wars are essentially attempts at creating peace from the structural or cultural (outermost) tiers, as one government or culture asserts itself over another or pits itself against another. This method, however, circumvents the foundational elements of relational and personal (innermost tiers). To change a government or a culture, we must alter the minds and hearts of its citizens.
Government and culture cannot change people because they are extensions of people themselves. Put another way, to change the focus of an essay, we don’t just change the title we rewrite it sentence by sentence. Thus, sustained positive peace cannot be enforced externally—it must be developed within before it can be realized without.
This personal relationship with peace was also a critical element missing from the citizens of Huxley’s Brave New World. In fact, the approach of World State was very much one of external enforcement of peace, which in turn so stunted the ability to self-reflect and the emotional development of its citizens that they lacked any internal resources, tools, or even vocabulary for addressing conflict, be it internal or external. This appears to be the main function of soma, the drug consumed on a regular basis by the patrons of the World State—to escape the bewildering and uncomfortable array of tense experiences that inevitably befall us all.
Unfortunately, many of us in the world today have adopted similar methods for approaching conflict—we would much rather avoid it altogether. On the whole then, it is not hyperbole to say that, like the citizens of the World State, most of humanity also lacks the skills, tools, and vocabulary for constructively working with conflict, which is quite possibly why positive peace remains an elusive goal on a meaningful scale.
Marshall Rosenberg, psychologist and founder of Nonviolent Communication, has dedicated his life’s work to addressing this lamentable absence of conflict resolution skills. According to Rosenberg, “All violence is the result of people tricking themselves… into believing that their pain derives from other people and that consequently those people deserve to be punished” (Nonviolent Communication 32). Rosenberg places the responsibility for our emotional reactions and responses squarely in our own lap. This of course, radically shifts the framing of conflict, as it ceases to be about blame or making the other person realize how wrong they have been. Rather, in being accountable for our emotions, we are more able to empathetically connect with the needs of others. Our conflicts then become a process through which we learn to identify and speak our own unmet needs and build empathetic bridges between us and who would otherwise be considered an enemy.
Empathy, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” (“Empathy”). Empathy then is a key skill in constructively working with conflict. Marshall addresses this as he writes:
Peace requires something far more difficult than revenge or merely turning the other cheek; it requires empathizing with the fears and unmet needs that provide the impetus for people to attack each other. Being aware of these feelings and needs, people lose their desire to attack back because they can see the human ignorance leading to these attacks; instead, their goal becomes providing the empathic connection and education that will enable them to transcend their violence and engage in cooperative relationships. (Speak Peace 129, emphasis my own)
As Rosenberg alludes to, empathy is what allows us to transcend the notion of other and enemy by connecting with our shared humanity. It could be said then, that it is the absence of empathy which allows for wars, and it was the element of empathy that the World State took every measure to suppress.
Empathy, however, is but one critical skill in a myriad of equally important skills essential to constructively addressing conflict and ultimately to establishing positive peace. Such skills include things like: self-reflection, appreciative inquiry, creative problem-solving, dialogue, negotiation, and mediation (Shirch 19-20). It is easy to see then that learning to constructively work with conflict requires a tremendous amount of personal growth, development, and awareness, and it is likely not work completed even in the span of one’s lifetime. This seemingly makes the realization of positive peace all the more elusive. However, this realization should not be taken as cause for despair. Rather, it should be witnessed as an invitation to embark on a profound sojourn into the depths of our own being.
As we have seen in the example of the World State, the denial or suppression of conflict does not and cannot create peace. This can equally be applied to the conflict we experience within ourselves. It would seem then, that the only way out is indeed through. Peace is not created out of the absence of conflict, for no such state exists unless artificially imposed as was the case in Brave New World. Rather, it is created through the radical acceptance of conflict, and the willingness to engage it with the whole of our self-awareness.
Indeed, the realization of positive peace hinges upon our ability to understand peace within ourselves and our ability to reflect that understanding in our relationships with others. This understanding then has the potential to permeate into the very foundations and structures of culture and society—thus, transforming the world as we presently know it. Though positive peace has yet to be seen exemplified on a large scale, it is entirely attainable, given that each of us take up this invitation to explore and cultivate our relationship with the inner landscape, to challenge ourselves to meet conflict with open arms, and take responsibility for our emotions.
Conflict is a natural part of each of our lives. Perhaps then the next time we find ourselves in the midst of a heated discussion, experiencing feelings of self-righteousness, or when we begin to see enemies where there once where friends, we can remember the negative peace of Huxley’s Brave New World and instead of turning from our conflicts, we can turn toward them. Turning to face our conflicts, we can remember the words of Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marshall Rosenberg, and we can remember that positive peace begins with us, right here, in this very moment.
“[Some] see things [that are], and say ‘Why?’ …I dream of things that never were; and say ‘Why not?’”
~George Bernard Shaw (Return to Methuselah 227-8)
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