Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4
Chapter 5
Chapter 6
Chapter 7
Chapter 8
Chapter 9

Seizing Hope

by Ralph Summy

Adjunct Professor Australian Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies

University of Queensland

For the Sake of the Children offers the hope of peace — not a pie-in-the-sky peace but the realistic hope of a down-to-earth peace. The possibility for peace is rooted in a future called ‘our children’ and it draws upon a time-honoured method of the past called ‘storytelling.’

In the past ideas and values were transmitted primarily through the telling of stories on a person to person basis, an art of enchantment that has given way in the present age to the positivist’s collection of facts as somehow uncovering reality. Quantities of information and news assault our being, leaving us bereft of direction and meaning. Although the past of all cultures has abounded with storytelling and the evoking of imagination, the focus of modern life on numbers associated with market-oriented goals impoverishes the human spirit and contributes greatly to the pursuit of an escalating materialism and a mounting malaise of alienation. From this spirit-less void of constantly searching for happiness in the acquisition of ever more possessions and the domination of power over others, it is but a single step to the release of the ensuing frustration and misery in violence and ultimately war. A global collectivity of alienated individuals — comprising three tiers (the affluent, the striving to be affluent and the dispossessed) — is destined to create a world steeped in violence. To create a global community moving in the opposite direction of harmony and concord requires a cataclysmic change in our thinking, one that focuses on the interdependence of all human beings. Such a paradigm, it is refreshing to note, pervades the stories of Ann Mason’s book. As a common theme, it opens a window of hope.

There are a number of important questions the book addresses, not always directly but in more subtle and effective ways. The first tackles the dilemma: how can we have a sense of hope when we only have to observe the enormous physical, psychological, structural, environmental and cultural violence that surrounds us? Hasn’t homo sapiens since the beginning of human history been a violent creature? Congenitally we are a doomed species. Having gained the technology, the script cannot be changed. Or so it is assumed.
The stories that Ann Mason has assembled are about having a choice. And scientifically we can now say that we do. Until quite recently the study of human nature had been left mainly to the philosophers, psychologists, human ethologists and sociobiologists. Their conclusions drew heavily on the influential works of Thomas Hobbes (1651), Sigmund Freud (1929), Konrad Lorenz (1966), and Edward Wilson (1975), respectively. These men uniformly proclaimed a bio-deterministic view of humankind’s innate violence. On that foundation the rest of the world, almost universally, has unwittingly embraced the concept of innate violence as gospel truth, and thereby strongly affected our politics and human behaviour generally. A belief has created a reality.

Recently, however, findings in anthropology, archaeology and neurobiology are beginning to challenge the long-standing hypothesis that there exists a nature/nurture duality when it comes to human beings killing their fellow creatures (See Piero Giorgi [2001]. The Origins of Violence by Cultural Evolution, 2nd ed. [Brisbane: Minerva E & S]). Scholars in these fields are discovering that our behaviour can no longer be attributed to a mix of genetic information and postnatal experience. We are not imbued with an innate predilection to fratricidal violence.

Prior to homo sapiens establishing agricultural and pastoral communities some 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, humans killing humans was a rarity. Like their fellow vertebrates they abstained from inter-species killing. As hunter-gatherers (palaeolithic humans) they only killed animals and destroyed vegetation for nutrition, clothing, defence and other survival needs. The transition to aggression towards their own species came with the invention of food-producing cultures. Ever since, humans have conveyed culturally from one generation to the next the authority to kill, a fact that provides the false impression that the practice is genetically determined.

Modern anthropology confirms the essentially nonviolent culture of pre-agricultural humans with the following line of reasoning: (1) The evolutionary process selected speech, cultural transfer and cooperation as survival strategies; (2) The extensive interbreeding among palaeolithic people prevented important changes in their cerebrum (limbic system) and in the practice of cooperation; and (3) Despite their different geographical locations and economic life styles, contemporary hunter-gatherers tended to share the same quality of nonviolence to their own kind, as long as they avoided contact with food producing cultures. Modern-day desert people like the !Kung San of the Kalahari and artic nomads like the Eskimos practised nonviolence and non-fratricidal behaviour until exposed to modern civilisation. Their new-found belligerence was traced to factors like food surplus, community size and division of labour, not to a change in diet, the projection of ancient spiritual rites or the practice of male dominance. In other words, the violence ensued basically from the way their economic lives were transformed.

The ethnographic evidence of anthropology is buttressed by archaeology. Recent analyses of more than a hundred thousand items of prehistoric rock art show virtually no evidence of direct violence and engagement in war. Covering a period of about 40,000 years of cave paintings and rock engravings, researchers detected no human killings in the early and middle period drawings, but weapons and warriors did begin to appear after the domestication of plants and animals.

Leading neuroscience research has discovered, as explained by Giorgi, “that specific behaviour is mediated by specific neural connections (not brain regions), and most associative neural connections in the cerebral cortex (cognitive behaviour) are formed late after birth.” Appropriate social behaviour, which includes aggression and cooperation, does not take shape until the age range of 6-12 years, and it occurs in accordance with the information relayed by a given culture and its sub-cultures to the neural connections. Culture and experience, therefore, become the main driving force in determining whether humans are confrontational and violent or cooperative and nonviolent, not factors like instinct, genes, inheritance, or natural selection.

The second question mined in many of the book’s stories considers what message children should hear and reiterate. How should the culture they absorb be changed? Peace educator Adam Curle contends there are three social poisons to counteract (Adam Curle [1995)]. Another Way: Positive Response to Contemporary Violence [Oxford: Jon Carpenter]: 16-20). The first is that of ignorance. By ignorance he does not mean we need to know more facts or become cleverer with ideas. Instead, we need to understand our nature; discard the ignorance of separateness and recognise the common elements that bind us together. That way we remove the sense of feeling that we constantly have to be on our guard and ready to retaliate — a posture that generates tensions in ourselves and extends into the wider community.

The next poison to reject can be summed up in one word: selfishness. Its manifestations appear in yearning, longing, wanting, lusting and greed. Pursuing these qualities we strive to gain the wealth and status that will give us the control of self and dominance over others. An identity is forged, but it is very fragile. It encounters frustrations and disappointments. The need for more and more security and control is constantly demanded, yet never fully satisfied.

Our selfishness leads to the third poison. Out of envy and hatred of the other — and the self-prophecy of insecurity it generates — we compete in a race to gain greater wealth and ‘power over,’ creating an unending spiral of negativity. Thus the threat of violence is always looming, ready to erupt out of control. Ending the spiral, reversing it, is one of the major challenges of peace education. Ultimately, violence must be extirpated at its roots, people’s minds.

Curle sums up: ‘The Three poisons provide the basis of selfishness, alienation from others, acquisitive greed, competitiveness and dislike from which most violence grows.’ To his list he could add fear and humiliation. After the 9/11 strike of Islamic extremists, these two emotions were leading factors in the US decision to lodge a counter attack on a secular brutal tyrant who played no part in the initial attack and posed no military threat to the West. Since Hussein’s overthrow at enormous cost of human life and treasury, his country has been transformed into a breeding ground for Islamic Jihadists. Obviously there were other factors such as greed, but the desire to put the humiliation right (vengeance), together with the fear that gripped the American people and was shamelessly exploited by politicians, has led to a political and strategic blunder of ineffable proportions.

What I especially like about the stories told to the children and written by them is that they do not stop at the point of removing the negatives (the poisons) but also propose the antidote that will help to foster a nonviolent world. Peacemaking and peacebuilding operate from the premise that what appears to be divided and separate is actually connected. Our fate is linked together. As an individual each of us contributes to the construction of the whole. When we are violent in any form, we commit an act of destructiveness not only against others but against ourselves as well. Correspondingly, with the knowledge of our interdependency can grow a sensitivity to others and the active skill of conflict management and cooperation readily follows. Because violent aggression against another human being is learned behaviour (as has been argued), what has been learned can be unlearned and replaced with nonviolence. Breaking the violence cycle is called negative peace, but replacing it with nonviolent policies and structures so that the cycle does not recur is the goal of positive peace.

A book like For the Sake of the Children reaches out to the hope of positive peace. It concretely demonstrates to children the positive values of cooperation, sharing, caring, empathy, respecting, responsibility, self-power (as opposed to ‘power over’), and humility. Channelling these values into pro-social behaviour automatically follows once the values are learned and incorporated into their sense of being or identity. At that point the heart has been opened. Using the metaphor of another part of the body, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 1980, says it to perfection:

 “…we cannot sow seeds with clenched fists. To sow we must open our hands.”

(Christ in a Poncho).

Tellingly, with the open hands he has symbolised the peace of giving, while the reference to seeds contains the hope of a fruitful future — precisely what I see this book offering.

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