Recently (late September 2021) the Prime Minister of Australia announced a new alliance (AUKUS - Australia, U.K., US) that would see Australia acquiring a fleet of nuclear-powered submarines. I was reminded of a post I wrote many years ago about the illiteracy of peace. A high percentage of our literature is devoted to war-making and only a small percentage to peace-making.
I thought I would re-post that post now. One of the bookshops mentioned in this post has since closed down. However, another chain bookseller has arrived, so there are still two main bookshops where I live. I did a quick re-count before posting this. The total numbers have changed slightly, but the proportions have not.
Illiteracy of Nonviolence
How peacefully literate are we? Listening to a recent talk by Stuart Rees1 prompted me to ponder this question. Stuart Rees had suggested that our literacy of peace was almost non-existent, whereas in matters of war and armed conflict we are extremely literate.
I decided to check. Where I live there are just two main bookshops. One is a low-price, middle-of-the-road bookstore, the other is one of the major bookseller chains.
In the first, I counted 113 different books with the theme of war or armed conflict. There were just four (4) books that could be related to nonviolent means of conflict resolution. Three were biographies of Nelson Mandela’s life and one was by the Nobel Peace Laureate, Thich Nhat Hanh.
The other bookstore had just one book that I could find that spoke of peace or non-aggressive means of resolving conflict. Waging Peace is the memoir of a remarkable Australian journalist, social commentator and film-maker. Anne Deveson wrote the book because:
“…when I went to London in July 2000 to attend a big international conference on War and Peace and I found all the emphasis was on war, rather than peace. In the section where books and articles were on sale, 111 titles were on war, only three on peace.”2In that bookshop that stocked the one solitary copy of her book there were no less than 81 books (many that had multiple copies) dealing with war and violence.
If that is representative of what is written and what is read, then what chance is there of those leading our nations obtaining a literacy of nonviolence?
Yet, there are a number of examples of nonviolent approaches to conflict. Additional to those mentioned above we can think of: Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Te Whiti o Rongomai, Leo Tolstoy, Bertrand Russell and the anonymous “Tank Man” in Tiananmen Square. Before too long we have to do some serious thinking in order to add to the list.
These practitioners and prophets of nonviolent conflict resolution are remembered as much for the fact that there are few of them, as much as for their wisdom and compassion. They are part of the small number of candles burning in a dark cave of warfare, terrorism and violence.
Tellingly, when asked to think of those associated with warfare then many names spring to mind: Hitler, Churchill, General Patton, Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Osama bin Laden, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Reagan, Thatcher, Bush (both of them), Mugabe, Idi Amin, Milosevic, Tito, Mussolini, George Custer, Ho Chi Minh, Tony Blair….. Adding to this list does not take too much intellectual effort. There are dozens of biographies of each of these adding substantially to the literature of armed conflict.
So where do we go to find the literacy of nonviolence? I have a number of such books in my collection. Few of them, though, were found in the average bookshop. Often they have been sought from specialist bookshops or via determined Internet searches on Amazon and the like.
The other source of nonviolent literacy seems to be in the experiences, writings and learnings of parenting courses, small scale activist groups, mentoring organisations and other community based programmes and projects. The wonderful insights and learnings from these and other groups do not yet seem to be translating into the mindsets of national leaders.
1. Stuart Rees is the Director of the Sydney Peace Foundation.
2. In answer to an interview question from Stephanie Dowrick (co-host of the Universal Heart Book Club) who asked: Was there any particular moment in which you knew, "I have to write this"?