The purpose for this study is to refute popular beliefs by which selfishness, greed, conflict, aggression, and violence define human nature, and to show that they are no more than options that have become predominant in certain cultures, especially in the Western world that has imposed itself on today’s world. It proposes that the roots of this cultural stock are to be found in medieval Europe, which has gained control of a large part of the world through conquest, colonization and cultural hegemony throughout the past five centuries. We will see how the arguments that justify and legitimize this culture have been built –through science, philosophy, religion, and the arts– a full-blown myth and belief system regarding the naturalness and inevitability of contest, struggle and hostility among humans, and how this myth has been institutionalized to form our modern social structures.
Let’s define our terms
Today’s predominant situation, characterized by divisionism and discrimination, conflict and competition, struggle and strife, aggression and violence, wars and adversarial relations, can be described as ‘agonic’ or ‘agonistic’, which the dictionary defines as “characterized by struggle or conflict.” These words come from the Greek ‘agon’ (αγων), which means contest, combat, struggle, or fight, which gives way to ‘agōnistēs’ (αγωνιστής): fighter, contestant or rival. It is the root of other words in English such as agora (a place for public debate) y antagonism (a relationship of opposition or hostility).
In other disciplines, this term has different meanings. For example, in biochemistry, an ‘agonist’ is a chemical contestant or contender: a substance that binds itself to a receptor of a cell and causes a response in that cell. In ethology, it is a set of responses to danger in animals, which include attacking and fleeing. In politics, ‘agonism’ is a tendency that considers division, conflict and struggle––whether among classes or other interest groups––as inevitable, and an ‘agonist’ is one who believes in this.
Since this term is not very common and is often confused with ‘agonize’, many prefer to use terms such as culture of conflict, of contest, of violence, of war, of adversarialism, etc. For the purposes of this study, therefore, we will prefer to use the term ‘adversarial culture’ or ‘culture of adversarialism’ to refer to the psycho-cultural predisposition to see the world in terms of conflict and competition, along with socio-structural configurations based on win-lose or zero-sum relations.
The opposite of adversarialism is a society of mutualism, cooperation and mutual aid, which we will call a ‘Culture of Peace’, as this is also a widely acknowledged and accepted term. UNESCO  has said that ‘Culture of Peace’ is a complex concept that continues to evolve and develop as the outcome of practice, but describes it tentatively as a growing body of shared values, attitudes, behaviors, and lifestyles based on non-violence and the respect for fundamental rights and freedoms, on understanding, tolerance and solidarity, on co-participation and the free circulation of information, and on full involvement and strengthening of women, the creation of which is a vast project of multidimensional, world-wide scope.1
In February 1994, the Director General created the Culture of Peace Program Unit directly under his supervision, and assigned it the following duties and powers:
- To coordinate the fine-tuning of a methodology to strengthen a Culture of Peace through reflection, research and assessment;
- To develop national and sub-regional programs for a Culture of Peace;
- To offer an integrated approach for the activities of the different regional units and offices of UNESCO to contribute to promoting a Culture of Peace;
- To coordinate these activities with those of the United Nations system and of inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations.
Contents of the Study
Achieving a Culture of Peace requires major reforms in all spheres of our collective life. However, when faced with proposals for socio-cultural change, we often hear words such as these: “Don’t be foolish. The world is the way it is. Don’t waste your time trying to change it. Be more realistic." If you insist in your conviction that it is possible to achieve a positive change, this is often countered with arguments based on assumptions regarding the human nature, and that it is utopian to consider the possibility of a substantial, profound, radical change in human beings, much more in society as a whole.
Often these arguments, along with the tremendous difficulties and frustrations encountered along the path to socio-cultural change, end up discouraging potential agents of change and tempting them to desist in their efforts to help build a better world, above and beyond their daily jobs in service to the status quo. The purpose for this study is to question the beliefs that cause such a tragedy, in order to revive the hope and will needed to sustain the work towards a Culture of Peace at all levels of society. It consists of six chapters, distributed as follows:
The first section, “Defining the Problem” addresses some of the social dilemmas that currently affect humanity on a global scale. It shows how game theory has provided tools to study them scientifically, and how cooperation theory is looking for a way out of them. Cooperation theory research and proposals are grouped into three major areas: strategic, institutional and motivational. We spend some time reviewing the global dilemmas to understand their inner dynamics, what would have to be done to correct them, and what obstacles there are to achieving this. Further on in this study we will look at ways to overcome these obstacles.
The second section, “Adversarial Theories Regarding Human Nature,” critically reviews several theories and beliefs according to which human nature is selfish and aggressive, and show the fallacies and mistakes that demonstrate their falsity. These include some historical ‘epistemological loans’ from physics, biology, genetics, and logic, which have served to strengthen the myth of violence and conflict as endemic to human beings and their society. It ends with the implications of some of their more recent developments as supportive of a culture of peace.
The third section, “Adversarial Theories of Social Order,” deconstructs certain social theories that have served to naturalize and essentialize an adversarial culture from the perspective of the nature of social order as such. This include such notions as the ‘law of the jungle,' competition as endemic, power and domination, unity versus diversity, and war as inevitable. It looks at some alternative proposals and reviews the role of science in justifying, legitimizing and reinforcing cultural hegemonies. Finally, it explores the possibility of peace activism among scientists in diverse fields.
The fourth section, “Adversarialism as a Cultural Construct”, postulates that violence and competition are no more natural to human beings and their society than compassion and cooperation, and that their apparent ‘naturalness’ is because they are part of a cultural construct that is prevalent in today’s world. It proposes that this view of humanity came to be put forward as part of the myth developed to justify the European conquest and colonization of the rest of the world. It analyzes the institutionalization of its governing principles, its reproduction as a hegemonic imaginary, who stands to gain and lose from it, how it is propagated, and whether or not one could speak of a conspiracy. Finally, it explores a number of mechanisms to exchange that culture of conflict and ‘adversarialism’ for a culture of peace and mutualism.
The fifth section, “Alternative Referents of a Culture of Peace,” answers the question “Where is there any society based on mutualism and cooperation?” This is done from a perspective of pre–industrial cultures, modern nations, intentional communities, alternative institutions, social movements, parallel subcultures, and everyday anonymous heroism. It reviews in some detail certain samples of these different types of referents, emphasizing that they need not be perfect to serve as alternative models. It ends by asking whether or not conflict and competition would have any appropriate place in a culture of peace.
The sixth section, “Promoting Socio-Cultural Change” considers different intervention options available to agents of social change who wish to work towards a culture of peace. The world was not always as adversarial as it is now, and will not always be. Achieving the world we want requires coordinated psycho-cultural and socio-structural transformations, and action alternatives are suggested that consider these two dimensions. Finally, we will look at the role of utopia in building a new world.
We also include a rich bibliography, which is an important part of the research project, as it is meant as a guide to those wishing to deepen further in these topics. The references are separated by section and in some cases by subsection in order to facilitate research, although some sources could be cited in more than one section. Quotes taken from works cited in Spanish were translated extra-officially into English by this author, and vice-versa.
Thesis and Objectives
The basic proposal of this study is that the root causes of aggression and violence, selfishness and greed, conflict and competition, strife and war, are more cultural than biological, and that therefore they can be overcome and replaced with a culture of caring, commitment, cooperation, mutualism, and peace. The hope is that readers will come away understanding and agreeing with the following theses:
- That social dilemmas are currently proliferating because our society was built upon competition (win-lose), and can only be solved by restructuring society in terms of cooperation (win-win).
- That our ‘human nature’ makes us just as able to cooperate as to compete, to express aggression as tenderness, by be greedy as to be generous;
- That our expression of one or the other is strongly influenced by the culture within which we were raised, but is not determined by it; rather, it can be changed if we so choose;
- That the current world situation of division and strife, dispute and conflict, violence and war, is a fruit of our collective, historical choices, which have been greatly influenced by Western cultural hegemony over the past 500 years;
- That there is no inherent obstacle in human nature to exchanging the current culture of division, conflict and violence for a culture of peace, mutualism and cooperation, and to building a society of justice, unity and peace.
After having studied this material, the hope is that readers will be capable of critically analyzing aspects of the current culture of adversarialism through one or more of the following:
- Establish that aggression and struggle are no more natural to human beings and their society than friendship and cooperation.
- Explain how the notion of an aggressive, conflictive human nature evolved as a justification for the European conquest and colonization, and its current reproduction as a hegemonic imaginary.
- Critically analyze some of the epistemological borrowings by social sciences from natural sciences, psychology, etc. in support of social theories that seek to justify the culture of adversarialism.
- Critically analyze psycho-cultural and socio-structural configurations that give expression to the dominant culture of adversarialism and reproduce it from one generation to another.
- Narrate the historical process that lead from the utopophilia of the 19th Century to the ‘utopophobia’ of the 20th Century.
It is also hoped that readers will be able to propose and defend elements of a culture of peace, mutualism and cooperation, in the following ways:
- Explain alternative proposals from within social sciences and others that admit the possibility and probability of a culture of peace, cooperation and mutualism.
- Explain alternative psycho-cultural and socio-structural configurations that could move us towards building a more mutualistic culture.
- Describe a few alternative referents of mutualism and cooperation, and discuss their implications for socio-cultural change.
- Defend the vital function of building alternative futures in the task of empowering socio-cultural change.
- Analyze various alternative utopias en the search for a future scenario that meets the criteria for a ‘corporate vision’ of planetary scope.
A few disclaimers
A few clarifications for the skeptics are in order. When speaking of justice, unity and peace, we are not referring to the ‘harmony models’ that put compromise before justice, or the ‘organicism’ that sought to defend the status quo as the ‘natural order’ while ignoring human diversity and divergence, or the ‘consensus rhetoric’ that avoided all matters of plurality. Although this study assumes and sustains that there can be no peace without unity, this does not imply uniformity, but rather a linking and articulating of the rich diversity that characterizes the human race. Such a unity is not possible without justice, in the broadest sense of the word, including respect for the human rights of all. Karlberg says:
…many people assert that conflict is more desirable than a false or imposed consensus and that adversarial practices are therefore essential if an oppressive social order is to be reformed. However …this argument embodies a false choice because it obscures other alternatives…. Indeed, humanity’s reluctance to recognize its organic interdependence and pattern its collective life accordingly can be interpreted as a root cause of social injustice.2
This study makes no pretense of being an entirely original work. There is really no such thing as “thinking for oneself”, since the generation of knowledge is by definition a social activity par excellence. Each individual (as Peter Russell says in “The Global Brain”) is like a neuron in the brain of a planetary society. Just as a single neuron cannot function alone but as part of a whole, so human beings cannot produce science alone; only as a society are we truly able to think. Its purpose, rather, is to bring together in one place the thought of hundreds of people –researchers, teachers, intellectuals, writers, activists, spiritual leaders, etc.– regarding the subject under study. If there is any original contribution to speak of, it is having compiled, organized, translated, synthesized, and interpreted this information in hopefully is a logical, understandable fashion. If any new light is thrown on the matter, it will have been an extra, unexpected benefit.
Neither does this study seek to supply solutions, aside from being offered as one more tool for the work of socio-cultural change agents. In this era of instant gratification, we too often seek quick fixes to problems before they have been well studied and understood. One result of this is that we often apply excellent solutions to the wrong problems, or bad solutions to the real problems. Another is that the prescribed remedies tend to address immediate, superficial symptoms, instead of the deeper causes of the disease on the longer term. Furthermore, such proposals tend to be linear and limited, and ignore linkages between identified problems and other factors in their systemic surroundings.
The purpose of this study, then, is to seek a better understanding of the root problems that are keeping us from achieving the socio-cultural change that we aspire to. If in the course of this analysis any alternatives are described, they are meant to be merely illustrative, in order to contrast them with the current undesirable situation and strengthen the certitude that change is possible and feasible. Actual solutions are being and will continue to be developed by the multitude of experts in the different fields of knowledge and practice, who are already working feverishly –alone and in inter-disciplinary groups– to come up with short, medium and long-term answers.
Likewise, this study is not meant to be exhaustive, but only to trace a rough sketch of a broad field of inquiry that until now has been explored by a painfully small number of people, especially in Latin America. It resists the temptation of trying to complete all of the details here, as this task will be left to other scholars in many disciplines who have more time, energy and ability than this author does. This study seeks to throw some light on the true nature of the problem, so that the efforts of those anonymous heroes might be better oriented.
Finally, the reader is advised to approach the contents of this study with an open mind, although, as Carl Sagan once said, “not so open that your brains fall out!”. Those of us who seek truth must be willing to renounce –if necessary– everything we were taught throughout our lives and to restart our education. This process can be quite difficult, as it can shatter our comfortable preconceptions and shake the foundations upon which we have built our sense of meaning in the world. Many of the assumptions that are questioned below are so deeply rooted in today’s society that they may seem entirely natural to us. As Bertrand Russell says,
If a man is offered a fact which goes against his instincts [or worldview], he will scrutinize it closely, and unless [and at times even when] the evidence is overwhelming, he will refuse to believe it. If, on the other hand, he is offered something which affords a reason for acting in accordance with his instincts [or worldview], he will accept it even on the slenderest evidence.3
After reading the text, answer the following questions in your own words:
- What is the Adversarial Culture or Culture of Adversarialism?
- What does Culture of Peace mean?
- In your own words, what is the main purpose of this study?
1. UNESCO, “Towards a Global Culture of Peace,”, working paper prepared by the Culture of Peace Program (CPP) for the Second International Forum on the Culture of Peace, Manila, Philipines, November 1995.
2. Karlberg, Michael: “Beyond the Culture of Contest – From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence”. Oxford: George Ronald Publisher, 2004, p.185.
3. Russell, Bertrand. “Proposed Roads to Freedom – Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism”. Cornwall NY: Cornwall Press, Inc., 1918, p.147.