Below is a draft excerpt from
The Politics of Universal Compassion
by Joel Federman

One of the most pernicious presuppositions about the human potential--one so widely held it is very rarely debated--is the assumption that violence is an inevitable part of social life. As long as people believe in the inevitability of violence, they will never have faith that compassion can become the predominant ethos of social and political life. However, there is strong evidence to suggest that the prevalence of violence can be--if not decreased to zero--drastically reduced.

During the last several decades, there has been increased scientific attention given to the causes of violence and how they might be prevented. Research on the causes of violence, as reviewed by the American Psychological Association (Eron, 1994: passim) and the National Academy of Science (Reiss and Roth, 1993: passim), shows that violence is in large part a learned behavior, and is, in roughly equal measure, preventable. Though anger, frustration, and conflict are universal aspects of human experience, and aggressive impulses are in part biologically determined, by addressing the social contributors to violence, its occurrence can be dramatically reduced. Violence has begun to be understood by scientists, public policymakers, and the medical community as a public health phenomenon, with increasing attention being given to addressing the "risk factors" that contribute to its occurrence, and the way that such risk factors interact with each other to increase or decrease the resulting likelihood of aggressive behavior. (Reiss and Roth, 1993: 33-34)

To be sure, identifying those factors that increase or decrease the likelihood of violence is not a simple, one-dimensional, task. The contributors to violent attitudes and behaviors are myriad, and include socioeconomic pressures, exposure to glamorized and trivialized media violence, antisocial family and peer influences, and the easy availability of guns. Nonetheless, there is evidence that demonstrates the possibility of dramatically reducing the rate of violent behavior.

Consider, for example, that rates of homicide differ dramatically from state to state, and more dramatically from country to country. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 2.6 out of every 100,000 Americans under the age of 15 die violently each year, compared to an average of 0.51 per 100,000 in 25 other industrialized countries included in their survey; that's five times the violent death rate. U.S. child-aged deaths caused by firearms average 1.66 out of every 100,000 children; in other countries the rate is 0.14 per 100,000. These astonishing statistics do not mean that Americans are more violent by nature than people in other countries. To the contrary, they tell us that the social cues and habits that disinhibit and encourage violence differ from place to place. In turn, it can be concluded that by changing the factors that contribute to violent attitudes and behaviors, it is possible to reduce the level of violence in a society. Since there exist and have existed cultures which are much more peaceful than our own (most other industrialized nations), it is therefore possible to reform our culture to make it less violent, and potentially to reform global culture along the same lines. The short form of this argument, offered by Kenneth Boulding, is: "Anything that exists is possible."

A second set of evidence for the possibility of reducing violence exists in studies of educational efforts to affect aggressive behaviors and attitudes. For example, Grossman and colleagues found that elementary school children in Washington state exposed to lessons in anger management, impulse control and empathy training engaged in less physically aggressive behavior and more prosocial behavior in school. (Grossman, 1997: 1605) Another study found that students exposed to a long-term program aimed at reducing risky behaviors were 19 percent less likely to have committed violent acts by age 18 than their peers who did not receive the program. (Brody, 1999: 16)

International Violence

In the spheres of inter-ethnic and international politics, the question of the inevitability of violence is, of course, more complex. But, a parallel argument to the one stated above regarding intra-national violence rates can be made, namely that proof of the possibility of global peace can be found in the successful establishment of peaceful inter-ethnic and international relations of smaller scale.

More specifically, it can be found in instances of international relations which have the character of what Kenneth Boulding called "stable peace." Boulding defined stable peace as "a situation in which the probability of war is so small that it does not really enter into the calculations of any of the people involved." (Boulding, 1978: 13) An example of stable peace in the international sphere might be the current relations between the United States, Canada, Japan, or Britain. If one examines history, one finds that the areas that today enjoy stable peace did not always do so. Boulding notes, for example, that Sweden and Denmark fought each other for hundreds of years before gradually evolving a state of stable peace beginning around 1815. (Boulding, 1985: 124)

Likewise, consider the relations between the United States and Canada, understood as a near-ideal model for peaceful international relations. If all international borders were maintained as the one between the United States and Canada--completely demilitarized, with passport-free access to cross-border travel--most people would agree that world peace was close to being achieved. But the stable peace between the United States and Canada was not always a fact. As Boulding notes: (Stable peace between the U.S. and Canada) certainly did not exist in 1812, when Britain and the United States were at war on the Canadian boundary....In 1817 came the Rush-Bagot Agreement, which disarmed the Great Lakes as a frontier between the United States and Canada, at that time a British dependency.....There was a dangerous episode in the early 1840s about the Canadian-American frontier in the the British and the Canadians wanted what they called 'Cascadia,' which is now Washington and Oregon....(It was not until 1871 that) the Canadian boundary was finally settled and disarmed. (Boulding, 1985: 124-5)

The notion and practice of stable peace in limited areas of the world provides a model that allows us to imagine the creation of similar inter-ethnic and international relations on a global basis. Certainly, the creation and continuing development of the European Union among countries that in this century alone were the principal parties to two world wars can be considered a stunning indicator of the potential for the creation of stable peace among larger numbers of diverse nations and cultures. On the principle that "anything that exists is possible," it should not be that large a leap of logic to imagine extending stable peace to the planet as a whole.

All of the above is not meant to underestimate the enormous undertaking that would be required to achieve something approximating world peace or the relative elimination of violence. But, it should be recognized that a world-wide effort of this sort is possible. Consider the example of slavery, which, for most of history was considered to be "inevitable." There was an extensive global slave trade, and many moral and religious codes justified slavery--or simply assumed it to be a natural part of social life. It was only in the late 1700s to early 1800s that the institution of slavery was challenged by a significant social movement, with the establishment in 1787 of the "Society for the Abolition of the African Slavetrade" in London (Joyce, 1978: 14) and the creation in 1780 of a similar society by the Society of Friends in New England (Cooney and Michalowski, 1977: 28) It took the abolition movement almost two hundred years to eventually succeed in deligitimating slavery on a nearly global basis, as well as abolishing the legal international slave trade. Though slavery can still be found in pockets around the world, it is largely dead as a social institution. Violence, as a largely-learned and socially constructed behavior, can similarly be deligitimated, unlearned and de-institutionalized.

For some thoughts on reducing terrorist violence, click here.

As evidence has shown, violence is a largely learned behavior and nonviolent attitudes and behaviors can be learned and encouraged as well. In addition, areas of stable peace currently exist within and between many cultures. World peace, therefore, need not be created out of whole cloth. Instead, we need "only" to expand the already-existing zones of peace to encompass the planet as a whole. So, the issue is not whether it is possible to move human social experience further and further in the direction of total peace. While human conflict is inevitable, violent resolution of conflicts is not. A relatively nonviolent world is possible.

2002 Joel Federman


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