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A holistic approach to peace

Guest Column/Brian F. Aull

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Today President Reagan and Soviet leader Gorbachev will meet for summit talks in Geneva. Their topic will be ending the arms race. A casual glance at the state of the world does not engender very much optimism about their chances of success, let alone about the possibility of peace in a broader sense of the word. But perhaps this statement reflects an attempt to put the cart before the horse. Might there not be a more holistic approach to international peacemaking which would produce disarmament as a natural byproduct? I would like to share some personal reflections on what elements such an approach might encompass, in the hope that it will stimulate optimistic and constructive thinking, and more importantly, action.

First, the approach to this problem depends crucially on one's view of human nature, and therefore, one's view of history. If man is regarded as merely a very cerebral beast, smart enough to invent weapons, but too selfish and aggressive to construct a pluralistic yet harmonious society, the rest of my opinions can be discarded. But the urgency of our problems forces us to seriously question such a cynical view, because it paralyzes our will to act constructively. I propose that we consider the implications of the opposite view: that humans have a "higher" nature, and that they seek communion with the ultimate Essence (though, as National Lampoon joked, perceptions of that Essence range from "hairy thunderer" to "cosmic muffin.") This is important because it inspires love, motivates people to make sacrifices for their fellow humans, and provides a focus of purpose which transcends the self-centered vested interests which divide us. (I am also assuming that truly communing with the Essence precludes fighting over perceptions of it.)

The view of history which accompanies this is also positive. Humanity has achieved progressively larger cohesive social units during the course of history. Families have merged into tribes, tribes into city-states, and city-states into nations. The fact that conquest or violent upheaval played a role in many of these transitions does not negate the fact that, at some point, larger social units stabilized in which the unity was genuine and voluntary, not maintained by fear and domination. Human beings can construct a pluralistic and harmonious planetary civilization. Not only is this a reasonable extrapolation from history, it is the unavoidable next step in the cultural evolution of our species. But that does not mean it is trivial; like the previous transitions, it will involve (and is already involving) tremendous upheavals and growing pains.

Many concrete developments in the 20th century should give us hope. The emergence of the first organizations resembling world governments, the League of Nations, the United Nations, and the World Court, should be regarded as historic steps in the right direction. Despite their imperfections, these bodies might be compared to the first clumsy steps a baby takes when it learns to walk. The ties of transportation, communication, and commerce have shrunk the planet into a spherical village. This is not an idealistic notion; it is a reality right now. Worldwide peace movements and international projects in the fields of education, science, and socio-economic development which would have been inconceivable a century ago are now commonplace. The American outcry against apartheid, an internal policy of a country on the other side of the globe, is a clear example of our growing awareness of the planet as a whole.

I have presented the view that humans are capable of both spiritual and cultural advancement, and that hopeful signs exist that the next phase, a planetary civilization, is achievable. But there are many barriers still to be overcome which deserve special attention. Generally, world peace is not solely the spontaneous product of certain individuals cementing a relationship with the Essence and achieving inner peace; nor is it solely the outcome of political action, legislation, and treaties. A balanced approach encompassing both of these elements is required at all levels of society from the grass roots on up to presidents and kings. The inner peace is a necessary building block because it motivates altruistic behavior. But mutual consultation is also necessary in order to channel and coordinate the efforts of individuals to solve social problems which create a climate of war. In addition, a value system appropriate for a planetary civilization must become ingrained. This includes several elements:

1. The curtailment of unlimited national sovereignty and fanatical patriotism. People must be taught to think of themselves primarily as world citizens, and secondarily as Americans, Japanese, or Ugandans. Nations must submit to a world body like the UN, but one which has binding authority as a federated world government. Just as 13 British colonies had an enlightened self-interest in giving up unlimited autonomy to create a federal government, the countries of the world now have a similar self-interest. We can create this world government by choice, or it can be forced on us by the fear of self-destruction. The United States might start setting a good example right now by abiding by the decisions of the World Court.

2. Increased interfaith collaboration. Religious fanaticism causes war. Members of different faiths would do well to regard the religions of man as stages in a progressive civilizing process, in which the Essence is manifested in different ways at different times. If this sort of synthesis is not possible, religionists should at least drop their theological differences and work together for peace and understanding. Better mutual understanding between Judeo-Christian peoples and Muslims is particularly crucial. Americans can work toward this goal right now by studying the history and teachings of Islam, rather than relying on prejudices and shallow stereotypes. A few fanatics no more reflect the true nature of Islam than the Spanish inquisition reflected the true nature of Christianity.

3. The elimination of racism. Children should be exposed to other children of diverse ethnic backgrounds from an early age, and thereby immunized against racial bigotry. Racism not only causes social injustices that lead to violence, but it also fosters the "us vs. them" attitude, which is incompatible with the spirit of world citizenship.

4. The equality of the sexes. The oppression of women not only creates an injustice and denies society the full benefits of the talents of women; it also hurts men. It promotes in men immature, selfish, and conquest-oriented attitudes, which in turn are reflected in governmental policies and in international relations. Again, education from the cradle on can have a practical impact.

5. The elimination of extreme poverty and wealth. Economic injustice causes war. The creation of a world currency, and elimination of trade barriers would help to equalize the disparity between the "haves" and "have nots." The interdependence of capital and labor must be recognized, and businesses and industries should be based on a cooperative rather than an adversarial relationship between workers and management. Many American and Japanese firms have already moved in this direction.

6. Universal education. Ignorance is the foundation of prejudice, and I have already mentioned the crucial role of education in combating racism, sexism, and jingoism. As a part of the education of children, a universal auxiliary language should be taught in addition to the native tongue. This would facilitate universal communication and understanding. This training would be one element in a program to teach children skills and values which are necessary to live in a planetary society.

I do not wish to deny the importance of disarmament as a technical issue. The destructive power of our arsenals gives disarmament an urgency of its own. But we must also realize that the broader issues associated with peace will assert their urgency too. The ills and problems of our day are symptomatic of our own attempt to cling to outmoded values; these ills will worsen until we adapt our values to the reality of Village Earth. There is no going back to the secure, isolationist status quo. I submit that we must think of peace as a necessity, not a dream. Its achievement requires a commitment to deal with many different personal and social issues, some of which are not customarily associated with peace. I would urge individuals to think about these issues and then find practical ways of getting involved and helping out. No one person can save the world, but each person can take responsibility for a tiny piece of it. The MIT community is an international community, and presents many opportunities for constructive involvement.

How about suggestions on how MIT could make a difference?