[commentary] Negative Peace and the Everyday


[commentary] Negative Peace and the Everyday

April 2017

Part I.

On the way back from Baker’s Beach, D brought up this notion of there being two types of peace, one positive and the other negative. I felt my heart jump as I have been been accumulating various phenomenon that exhibit certain common characteristics, yet I have not been able to clearly ‘convey’ their common denominator. Here at last, was the word I had been looking for.

I have been fascinated by how peaceful day to day Life can generally be despite our intellectual understanding that immense conflict continues all around. Is it not ‘strange’ that here in Berkeley we can sip on our coffees and laugh in the sun as Syria is ravaged by war, a bomb is dropped between the the third and fourth sip, and then again between the seventh and eighth sip. I sit in a cafe with a friend as rival factions in Syria at this very moment, aim metal tubes at each other that project sharp, fiery pieces of metal at each others bodies in the hopes that the target’s body will shut down once the ragged molten metal shreds the soft tissue of a vital organ. When enough of the Others bodies are cold and underground, victory has been gained and now one can live in nicer quarters closer to the city and have secure access to food and go hungry less. One can also buy more material goods because the fossil fuels under the successfully conquered land can be sold for a premium.

Perhaps this example is too distant. Maybe something a little closer is easier to think about. Between the third and fourth sip, there are 2,000,000 men of Color in jails across this country. This very moment. Prior to the politically expedient and racially unjust War on Drugs, there were only 200,000. As we sip, police officers in Oakland continue to round up low level drug offenders and place them in cages. This very moment.


Part II.

 I’ve explored this disorientation some time ago in a piece titled “Scrolling Past Tragedy on my Newsfeed”, and I came to grips with this odd experience by discussing the idea of a ‘constrained morality.’ 

I think ‘negative peace’ however, helps us to understand another yet equally vital component of the experience of scrolling past tragedy, and living our day to day ‘peacefully’ amidst societal conflict.

 In a nutshell, ‘negative peace’ captures this idea that even when oppression and social conflict are thriving, the surface of the pond can appear still and unperturbed. This typology suggests that we think of violence as a process that can be everywhere yet simultaneously strangely unseen and unfelt. This may all seem obvious and perhaps dull, but I really believe that having a word for this experiential asymmetry is profoundly helpful. It is so disorienting to tear through Michelle Alexander’s the New Jim Crow in the quiet of Moffit library, feeling powerful emotions surge through the body, and then step out onto Telegraph and walk through a farmer’s market where all the people are smiling and there is music and there is a breeze and everything just feels so normal and okay. Negative peace helps me understand that conflict rears its head in a very vivid way only in the rarest of moments. In all other times, it lays low. What did you expect oppression to look like? A smoldering dragon?


Part III.

The idea of negative peace firmly ensconced within the mind, I now want to jump to the more general topic of the young man and his vocation. Here we are as upperclassmen- looking out into the world and asking ourselves how we might contribute.

For a long time I have felt so strongly that to contribute to this world, one must have a rigorous opinion of it. When one has no opinion of the world, one has not been truly experiencing it. One has simply been breathing and eating and passing the time in what Baudrillard calls the Simulacrum. But I note that these days when I meet someone with no opinions, I am no longer unsettled. Our world has always had three types of people: the good-doer’s, the evil-doer’s, and the mere spectators. (I qualify, this is just one way of thinking about types of humans). And that is okay. Note, even the good-doer and the evil-doer often exist in the spectator mode. We take turns. We are heroic in occasional moments. We are oppressive in occasional moments.

My feeling is that individuals who do not have an opinion about what they like and what they don’t like about the world, are the same ones who find law and politics boring and don’t feel the slightest drip of emotion when one utters the word ‘Supreme Court.’ The memo may not have gotten around and for good reason, but I tell you that the lives of actual breathing human beings are being powerfully altered everyday by the decisions that are made in that building by a handful of other actual breathing human beings we call Justices. Perhaps your interest in the Supreme Court may be piqued the day you (I apologize for the crass example) get a girl pregnant (or you become pregnant) and are faced with a storm of ethical and surprisingly ‘legal’ questions. Perhaps a woman wants to have an abortion, but she finds out that it is illegal for her to do so and now her life is radically changed. (Note, this a descriptive statement, not normative.) Or perhaps you find out that American political institutions are fraying due to immense corporate influence in politics, and you learn that the only way to change the rules in regards to the amount of donations allowed by corporations, is through the Legislature and the Court. It’s in these moments that the Supreme Court becomes interesting. But on a regular Tuesday morning, abortion and corporate influence in politics and the connection these two things have to the Supreme court and our own lives are unseen and unfelt. This experience is not exactly the same as negative peace, but it is related.

I will say it again, the nature of the Everyday is that it feels normal and peaceful. This is okay. But many live in a hallicutory universe in which they feel that the peace they experience is truly a positive one. What is there to fight about?

What is there to fight for? 

What is it that people are fighting over?

What is there to fight for?

What is it that people are fighting over?

I repeat these questions because these are the questions I argue that must be at the heart of any good lawyer, politician, artist, and doctor. 

Youth should be about revel and ecstasy, yet it must also be balanced with a sincere attempt to discover the issues of our time. Franz Fanon said it best, “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

It takes a certain quality of mind to recognize negative peace. 

It means encountering the calm surface of the water and then instead of turning away, pausing to peer deeply into the boisterous currents below.