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Working for Peace in the Age of Trump

David J. Smith

January 23, 2017

This past weekend offered two contrasting views of America. President Trump’s inaugural speech was unprecedented in stressing American nationalism (some might argue jingoism). Though he addressed it to the “people of the world,” there was little in the speech that would leave them believing that America will continue to advance human rights, collective security, globalization, or peace. To say that world leaders were puzzled by his address is a major understatement. Though Vladimir Putin and his fellow autocrats were pleased (nothing like a having a new club member), most world leaders are anxious. America, the country that has played a singular role in guaranteeing world peace and advancing the aspirations of the marginalized is now abruptly out of that business.

Saturday’s worldwide marches offered a counter argument as to what the true values of Americans are. Billed as a “women’s march” because of the emphasis on protecting reproductive rights, stopping sexual assault, and promoting the fair and equal treatment of women, those participating advanced a myriad of progressive and peace-oriented themes: human rights, freedom of speech and expression, environmental protection, and LGBTQ rights. Because the rights at risk most directly affect women, it was important that they organized the march. But among the seas of pink caps, were fathers, husbands, brothers, and male partners. The presence of men who recognized that their own futures are inextricably linked to that of their female sisters sent a powerful message.

Peace has many interpretations. It requires that we first think about what is meant by “peace.” Few words invoke such a range of visions, emotions, and views. One way of understanding peace is in terms of “ends” versus “means.” For many, peace is aligned with one’s political or social views: the absence of war, equal rights for all, the protection of human dignity, or the end of community violence. These are important objectives that require thoughtful and deliberate means to realization. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized the importance “means” over “ends.” “As the means, so the end,” Gandhi famously remarked.

The events on Saturday provided hope and reassurance that there is global support to continue to advance notions of equality and human dignity in the U.S. even in the face of a president who seems to reject both. But to be successful in assuring the ends that were promoted, attention must be paid to the vehicles for change. We need to focus less on the destination and more on the road we take. We also need to be intentional about our work. Too often, the process by which we go about doing something relies on habit or instinctive behavior. The “means” to which Gandhi speaks requires actions that are thoughtful, requiring one to consider the consequences of the act (including the risk of failure), and whether those engaged in the activity have sufficient training and resolve.

In August 2014 I visited a college in Ferguson, Missouri. I was there a few weeks after the unrest to meet with students, faculty, and staff to help the college reflect on the current state of things and consider strategies moving forward. The college, a community college, was well position to be a catalyst for positive action. And as a community college, it was a place of hope and new opportunities for struggling students.

I talked with an older black student who was a veteran of the civil rights movement. He shared with me that several younger black males had approached him during the period of unrest and ask about what they should do. He urged nonviolent action, restraint, and dialogue. But, he felt in many ways that they were unprepared for engagement and believed it was essential that they be trained in civil disobedience. His sentiments would be shared with anyone who has spent time engaged in nonviolent action. We know that Rosa Parks before she was arrested on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama was trained in civil nonviolence.

I participated in the Saturday march in Washington, DC with my wife, daughter, and many friends. I was glad to engage in mass protest to support causes I felt strongly about. The numbers at the march, as we now know, exceeded the original projection of 200,000: three times that number attended. The march had to be rerouted because of the large number. But apparently few of the marchers were aware of that. The larger number was not anticipated and adjustments in the moment had to be made. This often happens; it can be a “happy problem” for organizers. Just the same, mass protest, an important form of nonviolent action, is not without its risks including violence, sometimes by those planted with the protesters, by law enforcement, or by counter-protesters. But the cause can also be activists who, though well intended, are unschooled in peaceful confrontation. For organizers, this is the greatest fear of a mass gathering. Thankfully, there were no instances of violence in DC on Saturday.

Training and preparation are essential. For nonviolent action to be successful, participants must be ready for all possible outcomes. They must be mindful of their own actions, as well as those of their fellow activists (often stopping those who engage in destructive behavior). If civil action of this nature is to continue during the Trump presidency, organizers will need to take seriously the need to prepare activists.

Nonviolent protest is one of many “means” to peace. Engagement with the objective of making change, sometimes incrementally, requires that those participating in the action be knowledgeable in the best methods. There are many strategies that can be used and a good starting point is Gene Sharp’s seminal work 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.

Besides mass protest, dialogue as a “means” to understanding those of difference is valuable. Today, Americans are often resistant to discourse with those holding opposing views. Our notion of conversation with others often looks like a debate and even a shouting match. Few minds are changed here. Rather, dialogic methods that emphasize deep listening and the need to reach understanding can accomplish much in raising levels of trust and revealing commonalities between foes.

In addition to dialogue, skills based aptitudes such as negotiation, mediation, and problem solving can be employed, sometimes with the help of a third party, to help those at loggerheads reach agreement and promote community healing. Today, these skills are recognized as essential skills in professional settings. Unfortunately, they are not always used when social and political change is at stake.

Finally, the need to promote broad civic education is important. An educated populace recognizes when and how to promote change to advance peace. Most recently, there has been a national emphasis on STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – education. What hasn’t been emphasized is civic education. Coming mostly through the social sciences and humanities, civics is designed to improve appreciation of democracy, representative government, and civil discourse. In a globalized world, it ensures that young people recognize that we share a planet with many others, and must work in concert to face the challenges of climate change, pandemics, economic deprivation, and violence, often stemming from the suppression of human rights. An educated population recognizes the importance of taking community action, being well informed, and participating in the electoral process. As such, civic education is the most basic “means” to peaceful and just outcomes. The actions of well-informed citizens favor nonviolence and self-determination, over violence and oppression.

Peace and social justice results can be achieved during a period when our national leaders are promoting the opposite. But to succeed what is needed is not only the energy and spirit of those willing to make change, but preparing them for the field.

David J. Smith is an educational consultant working with higher education to promote peacebuilding. He is the author of Peace Jobs: A Student’s Guide to Starting a Career Working for Peace (Information Age Publishing 2016). He is adjunct faculty at the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution at George Mason University. He can be reached at https://davidjsmithconsulting.com/.

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