In this paper, I will explore an ethical dilemma facing researchers, policy makers and practitioners in the field of peace & conflict studies: how can advocates of conflict resolution ethically promote peace processes when certain strategies used to pursue peace are perceived by some as threatening?
The dilemma I refer to is known within the field as a tension between negative peace and positive peace, terms developed by sociologist Johan Galtung, a founder of peace and conflict studies as a discipline, in the 1960s. Negative peace refers to the absence of violence or threat, and the threat-mitigation strategies used to achieve it, in contexts of armed conflict, include military victory, ceasefires and peace treaties. In everyday, nonviolent conflicts, negative peace strategies include developing safe spaces, protesting perceived injustices or maintaining one’s relational boundaries. Positive peace, on the other hand, refers to the resolution of the underlying causes of a given threat or outbreak of violence, often through prolonged, long-term engagement. Strategies used to achieve it include engaging with threatening groups to find out their side of the story, addressing the socio-economic issues underlying threatening phenomena or preserving the right for all parties to dialogue with each other and preserve their own voice.
While these two types of peace are not mutually exclusive, some practitioners prioritize one over the other – practitioners emphasizing the need for engagement often emphasize positive peace strategies, while practitioners emphasizing the need for protection, especially of vulnerable or marginalized populations, often emphasize negative peace. These differing priorities can lead to misunderstanding or overt rivalry.
In this paper I will contend that, while there are many documented benefits to promoting positive peace, which is typically the stance of peace and conflict scholars, doing so at the expense of negative peace undermines the safety of vulnerable or marginalized groups and thus poses considerable ethical problems that may damage or delegitimize even well-intended peacebuilding interventions. I will explore three points that support this thesis: a) positive peace interventions that do not sufficiently take into account the perceived level of threat among vulnerable populations are likely to further increase said perception of threat, b) the existence of unequal power structures may render certain positive peace interventions premature, and c) since perceptions of danger can be associated with trauma, especially within the context of conflict, positive peace interventions that are not sensitive to complex psychological factors may in fact make a situation worse.
This paper will explore the typical contexts where this dilemma emerges (ie, armed conflict), but it will also take as a case study Trump-era North American contexts of “culture war,” with its debates on free speech, social justice and safe spaces. I contend that this paper is appropriate for an ethics-based conference on “the good life” as peacemaking is often the means by which we produce “the good life” in divided societies, and so how we advocate for peace (and at what ethical cost) becomes a central issue.