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Building Cultures of Peace

If we are to build cultures of peace we have to start talking about something that still makes many people uncomfortable: gender.

Assisi doves, photo by John Williams

Photo by John Williams

We stand at a critical point in human cultural evolution. Going back to the old normal where peace is just an interval between wars is not an option; what we need is a fundamental cultural transformation.

As Einstein said, we cannot solve problems with the same thinking that created them. If we think only in terms of the conventional cultural and economic categories—right vs. left, religious vs. secular, Eastern vs. Western, capitalist vs. socialist, and so on—we cannot move forward. What we need is to look at social systems from a new perspective that can help us build not only a nuclear-free world but also the better world we so urgently want and need. I believe we must change our underlying social configuration: We must transition from a system of domination to one of partnership.

My Passion and My Work

We’ve been taught to think of courage as the courage to go out and kill the enemy. But spiritual courage is a much more deeply human courage. It’s the courage to stand up against injustice out of love.

I was born in Europe, in Vienna, at a time of massive regression to the domination side of the partnership/domination continuum: the rise of the Nazis, first in Germany and then in my native Austria. So from one day to the next, my whole world was rent asunder. My parents and I became hunted, with license to kill. I watched with horror on Crystal Night—so called because of all the glass that was shattered in Jewish homes, businesses, synagogues—as a gang of Gestapo men broke into out home and dragged my father away. As a little girl, I witnessed brutality and violence.

But I also witnessed something else that night that made an equally profound impression on me: what I today call spiritual courage. We’ve been taught to think of courage as the courage to go out and kill the enemy. But spiritual courage is a much more deeply human courage. It’s the courage to stand up against injustice out of love. My mother could have been killed for demanding that my father be given back to her; many people were killed that night. But by a miracle she did obtain my father’s release—yes, some money eventually passed hands, but it would not have happened had she not stood up to the Nazis. So we were able to escape to Cuba, and I grew up in the industrial slums of Havana, because the Nazis confiscated everything my parents owned. And it was there that I learned that most of my family—aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents—were murdered by the Nazis.

These traumatic experiences led me to questions most of us have asked at some time in our lives: Does it have to be this way? Why is there so much injustice, cruelty, violence, and destructiveness, when we humans also have such a great capacity, as I saw in my mother, for caring, for courage, for love? Is it, as we’re often told, inevitable, just human nature? Or are there alternatives—and if so, what are they?

We Are Hard-Wired to Care and Connect David Korten: "Those of us who choose to cooperate rather than compete are not fighting human nature. We are, instead, developing the part of our humanity that gives us the best chance, not merely for survival, but for happiness."

These questions eventually led to my research. I found very early I simply could not find answers to them in terms of the old social categories (right vs. left, religious vs. secular, Eastern vs. Western, capitalist vs. socialist, and so forth). These categories just look at this or that aspect of a social system, never its fundamental configuration. None of them answer the most critical question for our future: the question of what kinds of beliefs, values, and institutions support our enormous human capacities for caring, for consciousness, for creativity, for sensitivity—the capacities that are most developed in our species, that make us uniquely human—and which promote capacities we also have for cruelty, selfishness, and violence. Neuroscience teaches us that we humans are genetically capable of many different kinds of behaviors, but our experiences profoundly affect which of those genetic possibilities are expressed.

Connecting the Dots

I look for patterns, drawing from a large set of data that cuts across cultures and periods of history. It then becomes possible to see social configurations that had not been visible looking at only a part of social systems—configurations that kept repeating themselves. There were no names for them, so I called one the Domination System and the other the Partnership System.

It is in our primary human relations—within our families and friendships, the relations that are still not taken into account in most analyses of society—that people first learn (on the most basic neural level, as we today know from neuroscience) what is considered normal or abnormal, moral or immoral, possible or impossible.

If we are to build cultures of peace we have to start talking about something that still makes many people uncomfortable: gender.

If children grow up in cultures or subcultures where violence in families is accepted as normal, even moral, what do they learn? The lesson is simple, isn’t it? It’s that it’s OK to use violence to impose one’s will on others, both in intimate relationships and international ones.

I want to illustrate this with two cultures. One is Western, the other is Eastern; one is secular, the other religious; one is technologically developed, the other isn’t: the Nazis in Germany and the Taliban in Afghanistan. From a conventional perspective, they are totally different. But if you look at these two cultures from the perspective of the partnership/domination continuum, you see a configuration. Both are extremely warlike and authoritarian. And for both, a top priority is returning to a traditional family—their code word for a rigidly male-dominated, authoritarian, highly punitive family.

Now, this is not coincidental. Nor is it coincidental that these kinds of societies idealize warfare, even consider it holy. Neither is it coincidental that in these kinds of cultures masculinity is equated with domination and violence at the same time that women and anything stereotypically considered feminine, such as caring and nonviolence, are devalued.

Shannon Hayes at homeMeet the Radical Homemakers
Shannon Hayes says home- making isn't about gender, but about making the household a unit of production rather than consumption.

I want to emphasize that this has nothing to do with anything inherent in women or men, as we can see today when more and more men are fathering in the nurturing way mothering is supposed to be done, and women are entering what were once considered strictly male preserves. But these are dominator gender stereotypes that many of us—both men and women—are trying to leave behind.

If we are to build cultures of peace, we have to start talking about something that still makes many people uncomfortable: gender. We might as well put that on the table; people don’t want to talk about gender, do they? But let’s also remember what the great sociologist Louis Wirth said: that the most important things about a society are those that people are uncomfortable talking about. We saw that with race: Only as we started to talk about it did we begin to move forward. We’re beginning to talk more about gender, and starting to move forward, but much too slowly.

This is important for many reasons, including the fact that it is through dominator norms for gender that children learn another important lesson: to equate difference (beginning with the most fundamental difference in our species between female and male) with superiority or inferiority, with dominating or being dominated, with being served or serving. And they acquire this mental and emotional map before their brains are fully developed (we know today that our brains don’t fully develop until our twenties), so they then can automatically apply it to any other difference, be it a different race, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation.

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