Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ What Peace Means to Me

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Half an Hour, May 07, 2018

I read today in an article that "Modern liberals have no working theory of authoritarianism. Of its causes. Its spark. Its fuel." I'm not sure that this is true, and I'll return to this article a bit later in this post.

First I want to return to my visit to Colombia a couple of weeks ago. I gave two talks, both on the theme of how open education can change the world. And I participated in a couple of panels; one was recorded and I'll post it some time soon. But in the second, the recording failed (Samsung's voice recorder shuts itself off of you take a picture).

It's this second panel I want to address. It included powerful statements from some victims of the violence during the Colombian war (pictured), and we (Jutta Teviranus and I) were asked to respond from the perspective of open education. There's no easy way to respond, and I can't speak authoritatively about peace in Colombia.

But I can talk about what peace hears to me, and relate that to what I was hearing from the statements that day. And that's what I did. And I want to make sure I don't lose those thoughts, because what peace to me is the working theory of what authoritarianism does to a people, why it's wrong, and how we should respond.

So I said that what peace means to me consists of four things: security, identify, voice and opportunity.


The first think they take away from you is your sense of security. This doesn't mean they are attacking you directly - more often they don't - but they want you to feel like you're in danger of being attacked at any moment.

We've seen this through history in many guises and under many names. The direct threat of violence is the most brutal and the least effective. The threat of violence against your property, your business, or those you love, is more common. The threat that some other will inflict this violence is the most subtle. But the outcome is always the same: you do not feel secure, and hence feel compelled to comply.

We are told that the only response is to arm ourselves, to be prepared to be violent ourselves, and to participate in the common defense. I don't think these are especially effective, especially if the defense force becomes as dangerous as the threat. They are not effective because they don't address the feeling of danger. If we carry weapons, our own weapons become a constant reminder that we are in danger.

The only response, I think, is to remove the effectiveness of violence. Each time we comply with the demands of an aggressor, we make violence more effective. So we have to make it easier to refuse to comply. We have to make it possible, and safe, to report the threat. The solidarity of, and trust in, a community is the only effective response. The community must exist to protect the people. If one person is threatened, they should be able to stand behind the other members of the community.

In Canada, we have campaigns that encourage people - especially children - to seek help, and if necessary, speak out. They need to be able to report abuse or bullying and be protected. The same protections need to apply to women and to people who are vulnerable. We all need to be able to communicate our need to various social agencies - police, fire, health services, legal aid, education, housing authorities, workplace rights and safety, welfare agencies - with the expectation of support, and with no fear of penalty.

And this means we need to ensure every person is aware of these services, and is able to communicate with them, and understands that they are trustworthy. The first thing the authoritarians and the violent seek to do us undermine trust in these basic community services. People who are undermining any of these - police, health care, education, etc. - are undermining peace.


Identity is the right to define, and to be, who you are. War reduces each and every one of us to one thing: a tool of one side or another fighting the war. We are no longer seen as individuals, we are seen as instruments, as weapons.

The depravity of this becomes evident as we look at it more closely. If you read A Long Way Gone, or watch Blood Diamond, you see how war creates child soldiers. No army is innocent. In war, entire societies are mobilized. People become kamikazes, or suicide bombers, or make heroic sacrifices. You're either supporting the war effort, or you're a traitor. You are asked to do the unthinkable, and then to do it again.

More generally, conformity becomes the order of the day. People are expected to dress in certain ways, to speak in certain ways, or in certain languages, to believe the same things, support the same religions. Obedience is demanded, and expected.

If a people is at peace, there is no need for order and conformity, and no sense that diversity and distinctness of identity poses a threat or a danger to society as a whole. And from the perspective of the individual, there is no peace unless there is freedom to establish and live one's own identity. Importantly, though, identity isn't just the right to say yes to some things, it's the right to say no to others.

In Canada, we have a good though not perfect right to express our own identity. We can for the most part dress as we please, speak in what language we prefer, follow any religion, or none, to work for or against the stated policies of the state, to support the government or opposition. We have a professional civil service, which means that any member of society, whatever their identity, may be a teacher, police officer, or legislator, and that any member of society, no matter what their identity, will be treated fairly by the civil service.

But we've also learned though our failures that we need to attend to the needs of the most vulnerable. We have historically discriminated against indigenous peoples, and must engage in a process of reconciliation. We need to do more to assist those who are vulnerable through lack of ability, or wealth, or of education. And we need to extend the ways we recognize the right to a different identity, to fully protect those of various sexual orientation, and of various religions.

The people who seek to deny us our individual identities - who tell us what to wear, what to believe, what language to speak - are people who are endangering the peace. War requires conformity, and war requires an enemy. It requires uniforms and scapegoats. We have to teach people to respect, honour and value the individuality of each person as a good in itself and as a good that ensures that each of us has the right to our own identity.


Voice is in part the expression of identity but voice is also the way we create community, develop ideas, and create future visions and possibilities. It is the possibility to create, and also to speculate, and also to celebrate.

In a war there is no voice; indeed, "loose lips sink ships." In war, the right to community and association is subservient, as is everything else, to the needs of the struggle and the power of the generals. In war, the only voice is the official voice.

Voice is the right to a say. Voice means not only the capacity of expression, but the expectation that this expression will have an impact that can be - and is - measured and weighed. It is not merely the right to be consulted, but also the right to constitute a part of the governance (and especially self-governance).

We think of democracy as an instance of voice. Each person gets a vote, and so each person is a part of the constitution of a government. But democracy can be a sham if only some parties are allowed to run, or if only some platforms are acceptable. There needs to be an open debate of ideas, and the possibility that people, through communication or association, can organize themselves. It's not simply about whether they have a vote (in fact, that's the least important part). It's about whether they have a voice.

The violence and the authoritarian create a climate not only of violence and fear, but also of silence. The possibility of a voice is an affront. 'Outsider' organizations are not permitted - in some cases they suppress labour unions, in other cases they suppress religions. Secret cabals, however, and conspiracies proliferate, and battle against each other. Militias and paramilitaries form, ostensibly to support the state, but in actuality to perpetuate the war.

To have voice, people must learn to have voice. They must learn to self-organize, to make decisions and resolve disputes in an open and peaceful manner, to create forums and newspapers and assemblies, to have community groups and societies and special interest groups. In Canada we see a thick network of different types of groups, but underlying that is a system of education that teaches us how to operate in this way.

The people who undermine voice - who say that some people shouldn't have a say, who seek to permit only some but not other organizations, who argue against due process, the right to be heard or have a hearing - these people are undermining peace.


We each of us what to achieve something in life. This desire may be very simple - Homer Simpson is happy if he can watch bowling on TV while eating pork rinds - while for others it may be very aspirational - help the poor, cure the sick, settle on Mars. Some of us want to earn money, some of us want to travel, some of us want to achieve inner peace. It all matters.

By opportunity what we mean is that there is a path - or the potential of a path - to get from where you are to what you aspire to achieve. It means that opportunity is not something possessed only by the rich or powerful (or the properly coloured, or the right religion, or caste, etc.) but for everyone in society. Those who do noty have opportunity are not ay peace; those who deny opportunity are waging war against them.

Opportunity is not a guarantee (and nobody pretends it is a guarantee). What we want to achieve may require an effort we cannot spend, an ability we do not have, time we cannot commit, strength we do not possess. What opportunity means is that we as a society do not impose any barriers between ourselves and our ambitions.

War takes away opportunity. Personal ambition becomes secondary to the needs of the conflict. What one will do or achieve in life is to a large degree decided. Often, in war, there are privileges awarded to some segment of society and denied to another, as a means of creating order through the creation of a ruling class. War, often, takes away opportunity through the destruction of any means to an opportunity - schools, houses, businesses, and roads are closed or destroyed.

In a society at war, in an authoritarian society, your ambitions are meaningless. It wasn't simply his business struggles that promoted Mohamed Bouazizi to set himself on fire in Tunisia to launch the Arab Spring; it was the indifference to the authoritarian state to his life and his aspirations.

Opportunity - especially for those in marginalized or vulnerable groups - requires support. It requires the protections of the state, as described above, and it requires the possibility to govern oneself and to be seen and heard by others. But it requires more, as well: it requires a commercial infrastructure that is robust and trustworthy, it requires the right to freely transport and exchange goods, and it requires the training and support to help a person plan, implement and achieve their objectives.

In a society at war, currency is scarce or valueless, bribery and corruption are common, and the means to conduct trade and commerce are allocated on a preferential basis to friends and family. A person denied opportunity is by that fact denied peace, and those who undermine opportunity undermine peace.

What Peace Means to Me

This is basically what I said in the panel, and more importantly, what I said was that I heard them say these things themselves when they described their experience in war.

I heard them say they lost their security, that they were coerced and abused, that their family members were killed, that they themselves were tortured, and that they were compelled to comply with the unthinkable. I heard them say they lost their identity, that they could not be members of indigenous groups, or even live as children or women, but they were simply used by the factions at war. I learned how they had no control over the governance of their town, of their community or their lives, how even then there were elections candidates would be killed or simply disappear. And I hear how they had no future in the war, no way to earn a living.

I told them I heard this, and that I would carry what I heard from them forward to the world, for the world to hear, and this is me keeping that promise.


In the article I mentioned above Umair Haque says,

It is poverty that drives people to despair — and poverty genuinely speaking: not just of money, as neoliberals think, but the authentic kind, in its many forms. Impoverishment of trust, of relationships, of communities, of belonging, of meaning, of purpose, of chances, of safety. When these things are taken away from people, as they have been for those abandoned and forgotten by globalization and neoliberalism, then of course they will flee to the arms of the nearest strongman.

Haque - the economist - speaks of poverty as the cause of war. But I see equally well that poverty is the result of war. All these forms of poverty are the result of warring factions, or the authoritarians that produce them, taking not only security and wealth, but also meaning, purpose and belonging.

Haque writes that "the key to defeating authoritarianism is rewriting social contracts." But simply writing contracts that will be ignored is not the key security, identity, voice or opportunity. Simply writing the contract might not do anything at all - there are many documents throughout history have proclaimed these rights - religious texts, declarations and promises, manifestos - but they have all at one time or another been used as pretexts to extinguish the very rights they proclaim.

The only path toward peace and freedom from authoritarianism is the path that leads toward the creation and maintenance of the civil society. The just society. The caring society.

Peace requires caring for and supporting each of the things that are taken from us in a time of war: a civil and social infrastructure we can trust to protect us, a respect for and celebration of each others' distinct identity, an ability for each of us to participate in governance and conflict resolution, and the right to the necessities of life and conditions enabling each of us to aspire toward achieving our goals.

I actually don't care what you call this. But if we understand these as what war and authoritarianism take away from us, we also understand what it is we are working toward. And we understand - or should understand - that we need to put down the tools of war, and take up the implements of peace - beating our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into pruning hooks.

What we can do, and what the authoritarians will never do, is not to fight, but to work, and build something that is strong and endures, and that they cannot destroy.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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