Domingo, 19 Julio 2009 00:00

F. Is Peace a Utopian Dream?

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Once upon a time, a young couple was taking a romantic stroll along a lovely river bank near their village, when suddenly they heard a plaintive cry. Looking out across the water, to their horror they saw a small child being swept away by the current. Disregarding their own comfort and safety, they dove in and dragged the child ashore. Panting heavily from the effort, they again heard a desperate call for help from the river and saw another youngster fighting not to drown. Again they risked their lives to swim out and rescue the little one. The couple lay in exhaustion on the shore, remarking such an awful coincidence, when they heard the shrieks of a third victim from the river. With their remaining strength they braved the current to save this youth.

“This is more than a coincidence!” they exclaimed as they flopped down, utterly fatigued, on the bank. Peering curiously upstream, they saw schoolchildren crossing the bridge to the neighboring village, and a madman trying to push them off into the water. The enormity of the situation injected them with new vigor, and they rushed to the bridge, subdued the madman, and saved the remaining children.

Often, agents of social change are faced with a similar dilemma. Do we direct our limited energy and resources to solving the many pressing crises of today? Or do we try to figure out what social dynamics are causing those crises and work to correct them? So far in this study we have seen that today’s social structures and institutions are built upon the assumption of win-lose relations, which eventually decay into lose-lose relations and consequent collapse. The ubiquity of the resulting social dilemmas makes it imperative to “reboot all the old models, approaches and structures of society, or risk paralysis or collapse.”1

We have also seen that culture of peace efforts seek to fill the gap between ending the arms race, at one extreme, and achieving inner peace, at the other, by addressing such issues as education for peace, sustainable development, respect for human rights, equality of women and men, democratic participation, tolerance and solidarity, the free flow of information, and international security. We saw that all of this requires deep-seated transformations, not only in the way we think, act and interact as individuals, but also in the very structures of our society and institutional organization.

However, we also saw that many still doubt whether a culture of peace is possible, due to the assumption that human beings are inherently competitive and conflictive, selfish and greedy, aggressive and violent by nature. Finally, we saw a brief summary of some of the many multidisciplinary findings that suggest that there is nothing in our essential nature as human beings that would preclude the possibility of a culture of peace, but quite the contrary: that we are superbly endowed with the talents and faculties needed to achieve this noble goal.

When speaking of the social changes needed to build a culture of peace and the scientific evidence that we are humanly capable of achieving them, many respond that this is Utopian, pie-in-the-sky, an impossible dream. We are so used to the tragic, hopeless view of the world that the media feed us every day, that we tend to recoil automatically from any suggestion that things could be quite different. The most that we allow ourselves to accept is that tried and true approaches are being used to solve specific problems, but even these we often doubt will be very successful. Any proposals to go beyond immediate responses to present situations—to build something new and different—are often met with anything from incredulous cynicism to scornful derision.

This tendency is addressed in the business world by distinguishing between problem-centered management and goal-centered management. As the name implies, problem-centered management consists of reacting to existing problems. Its agenda is established by prioritizing the issues to be addressed, studying their underlying dynamics, and designing measures to solve them. This backward-looking approach centers on events that have already occurred in the past. Although this is a necessary task that cannot be neglected, no corporation has ever become a market leader merely by ‘putting out fires’ (unless that was its business, of course). Up-scaling the same insight to a global level, it is obvious that the world we hope for will never be built merely by reactive measures such as conflict resolution, no matter how essential they may be. The rising tide of conflicts that demand resolution may well be a result of not having addressed more long-term changes that could avoid their occurrence.

What is needed to break new ground in any field of endeavor is goal-centered management, a proactive, forward-looking approach. Its agenda is set by drawing up a shared vision of a desired future, designing strategies to achieve it, and taking effective steps to make it a reality. This is not a new idea, but is actually much more common than one might imagine. Before building, architects will prepare drawings and models to show customers and engineers what they have in mind. Actors envisage their performance before going on stage. Athletes visualize their movements before stepping onto the arena. Successful companies develop a shared vision to which all staff members can commit themselves.

And as agents of socio-cultural change, we need to have a clear mental picture of the world we are building, to guide our interventions. This mental picture has often taken the form of a Utopia, defined not as a hopelessly impossible situation, but rather as a literary or graphic depiction of an ideal world. Traditionally, this device has been used not only as a temporary escape or catharsis, but also to foster a sense of identity, purpose and inspiration, to criticize contemporary society or illustrate proposals for social change, as a training approach using social ‘laboratories’ or ‘experiments’, and even for exploring philosophical hypotheses.

Up through the 19th century, the Western world still believed in the value of Utopias, the possibility of a better future, an inexorable upward trend in sociopolitical evolution, and human perfectibility. Then came the 20th Century, with the atrocity of two world wars and other armed conflicts, the excesses of cruel dictatorships, various holocausts, genocides and mass fatalities due to faults of commission and omission, economic crises, recessions and depressions, and other horrors, many of which originated in––and/or struck at––the very heart of a continent that had formerly called itself the epitome of civilization and evolution.

Suddenly, utopophilia—our love affair with visions of a better world—turned to utopophobia—a flat rejection of any and all proposals for world justice, unity and peace, and total skepticism regarding human potential to achieve those goals. ‘Utopia’ was no longer an inspiring and galvanizing vision, but rather an impossible dream, pie-in-the-sky, Pollyannic delusion. The new view of the future was dark dystopia, social entropy, relentless downward curves in all human affairs, economic collapse, ecologic disaster, nuclear holocaust, in brief the Apocalypse, the end of the world.

This was a serious setback in our ability to form a positive vision of the world and work towards that vision. It is one of the greatest obstacles we are now facing in answering the pressing needs of the time. Significantly, American Indians hold that before launching any endeavor, it is necessary to dream it first, while the wise King Solomon is quoted as having said, “Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18). One basic requirement to achieve the necessary social transformations, then, is a positive vision of the future, the starting point for proactive, goal-centered management. In order to be effective, however, this vision should be based on shared principles, ideals and values, be feasible but challenging, and be a source of inspiration that touches our noble essence.

One of our aims as agents of socio-cultural change, therefore, could be to help people recover the capacity for “responsible Utopia”. We need to get back our ability to dream and create a collective vision for the future of the world. We need to encourage each other in the adventure of imagining the processes by which a world of justice, unity and peace can be attained. We need to disseminate the empowering message that modern science has found nothing in our inherent makeup that might condemn us to a life of greed and conflict, aggression and violence. At the same time, we need to foster the search for and application of concrete, feasible measures to advance along that road, no matter how long, winding and rocky it may be. To the extent that we do these things, history will remember our generation as the one that enabled the people regain their faith in humanity and work towards its revitalization. If we do not, we will forever be counted among those who turned their backs on the rising tide of human suffering and left it to others to respond as we should have.

Perhaps what is seen as impossible is not the Utopia itself, but the strategies proposed for implementing it. So it would be good to identify a few general principles that might guide our efforts to design a common vision. For example, a world-wide culture of peace could not limit itself to an isolated community––an island of tranquility in a sea of tribulation––as some Utopian authors and practitioners have imagined. Rather, it must grow from within contemporary society to transform its structures and practices from heart to heart, from town to town, from country to country. As E.G. Wells said, “No less than a planet will suffice to serve the purposes of a modern Utopia.2

In a responsible Utopia, the unity that is sought cannot take the form of imposed uniformity; just as our treasured diversity must not lead to divisionism. These two common aspects of the culture of adversarialism––uniformity and divisionism––should give way to unity in diversity, which preserves and cultivates the wealth inherent in plurality while integrating and coordinating the different elements of humanity as a whole. The human body illustrates this possibility perfectly. Although it is a complex biological organism, nevertheless it maintains complete harmony among its diverse cells, organs and specialized systems, without which its great feats in the fields of science, technology, art, and sports would be impossible.

Furthermore, proposals centering solely on personal transformation, in the hope that its cumulative effect will transform society, have not produced the anticipated outcomes. Neither have movements been successful that concentrated solely on changing the structures of society, under the assumption that this would transform its individual members. This false dichotomy between social and individual determinism should give way to a recognition of the inseparable dynamics between the two. As the historian Shoghi Effendi explains,

“We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.”3

The kind of world we want will not appear suddenly out of thin air, but must necessarily follow a more or less prolonged historical process, with periods of slow gestation punctuated by abrupt turning points. Although talk of sociopolitical evolution may evoke thoughts of inevitability, a responsible Utopian knows that no being’s potential can be realized without a comparable effort. A tiny seed does not become a mature, fruitful tree without the continual care of an expert, committed gardener. We need to be patient with processes, realizing that if this planet’s life were equal to 24 hours, humans would have appeared the last minute of the day, and let that historical perspective bolster our long-term commitment. Furthermore, no vision will be successful if it only considers the people’s material well-being. Rather, it should see human development as an integral whole, including our physical, intellectual, social, emotional, and spiritual aspects.

Neither can the long-awaited culture of peace ever be deemed a finished product –the final achievement of an ideal society–, but rather an on-going process in which there will always be some new problem to solve, some further horizon to strive after. Some will object that achieving a world of justice, unity and peace would be undesirable, because in a perfect society there would be no more problems to solve. This, they say, would deprive human life of its meaning, as we need challenges to feel complete. This might be an issue under problem-centered management, for once all fires are put out, the firemen go home to rest. But with goal-centered management, even if you could solve all of the world’s contemporary problems, which is highly unlikely, there will always be a new vision to build.

Despite everything we have seen here, there may still remain the cynical, those who insist in believing that human beings are inherently selfish, greedy, conflictual, aggressive and violent, those who deny that anyone ever does anything with selfless motives out of a sense of justice, love or empathy, those who doubt that a positive social transformation is possible, those who would carry away from this meeting only pity for those of us who dare to believe in a better world and work to make it happen.

I would like to invite you to take a long, honest look within your own heart and ask yourself whether such an attitude is not born of some past hurt, of frustration, of exhaustion. Might it not be a defense mechanism against feeling the responsibility to do something more, to move out of your comfort zone, to get your hands dirty, to risk being wrong? Might it not be a way of justifying the selfishness, greed, conflict, and aggression that you see within yourself and legitimizing it as an inherent fault, common too all?

It is time now to accept the fact that the only impossible Utopian dream, the only pie-in-the-sky, the only Pollyannic delusion, is to believe that somehow humanity will be able to continue in the same direction for any substantial length of time, that the current situation is somehow sustainable on the long term, and that we are not currently heading down paths of unimaginable, self-inflicted horrors. As Michael Karlberg said in a recent TED Talk,

“What we urgently need to do is… to take a sober look at the conditions of the world we actually live in, and how we got here. And when we do that, I believe we can see that the truly naïve and unrealistic view is that the culture of contest can continue indefinitely. Because the culture of contest is causing us to liquidate the ecological capital of the earth that sustains us, in a frenzy of consumption and capital accumulation, even as it locks us into these perpetual cycles of conflict, instability, and crisis that prevent us from addressing the mounting and increasingly complex problems that face us in this interdependent age. That is naïve and unrealistic – to think that we can do that much longer!”4

So how did the story of the children and the river end? The people changed their reactive vision of “a river free of drowning children” to the proactive vision of “a world in which children can cross the bridge in safety.” They sought psychological help for the madman, put railings on the bridge, and hired a responsible adult to escort the children home from school. The couple were awarded as heroes, they married and lived happily ever after!

I would like to close this discussion of the need for more proactive approaches to social change towards a –culture of peace with the following words of encouragement by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who spent most of his life promoting a culture of peace from behind the prison bars of ideological persecution and, once released as a frail old man, travelled to the West to speak to the most diverse congregations 100 years ago this year:

“Do not think the peace of the world an ideal impossible to attain! Nothing is impossible... Do not despair! Work steadily... How many seemingly impossible events are coming to pass in these days! ... Take courage! … Let your hearts be filled with the strenuous desire that tranquility & harmony may encircle all this warring world. So will success crown your efforts...

“Many a cause which past ages have regarded as purely visionary, in this day has become easy and practicable. Why should this most great Cause––the daystar of the firmament of true civilization and the cause of the glory, advancement, well-being and success of all humanity––be regarded impossible to achieve? Surely the day will come when its beauteous light shall shed illumination on the assemblage of man.”5

 

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Notes:

1. Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams. “Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World”. New York: The Penguin Group, 2010.

2. H.G. Wells, “A Modern Utopia”, 1905.

3. Shoghi Effendi, from a letter to an individual dated February 17, 1933, cited in “Compilation of Compilations”, Vol. I, p. 84.

4. TEDxInnsbruck - Michael Karlberg - Beyond the Culture of Contest: A Critical Juncture of Human History. URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=J0ZCAbYrQ7Q.

5. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 11th ed. 1972, pp. 29-30.

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