Professor Kit Christensen of Bemidji State University in Minnesota holds a doctorate in philosophy from Purdue University. His main academic focus has been political philosophy and philosophy of peace. Prof. Christensen recently taught a seminar in the philosophy department of the University of Iceland on the philosophy of non-violent actions. The Grapevine sat down with Prof. Christensen to learn a little more on war and peace.
/// Perhaps you could describe the contents of the course you are teaching in a few words?
– Well this is actually a concentrated version of a full-semester course I teach at my university back home. It is an attempt to take a philosophical look at peacemaking activities. There have been many organised institutional efforts to look at means of conflict resolution and to minimise violence in the world. I try to take a step back from that concern with peacemaking, and look at some of the underlying values at work. The course is really about non-violence and its relationship to peacemaking and how that relates to social justice. People are always linking peace and justice, and I look at how all those terms are interconnected, but again, from a philosophical standpoint. We look mostly at moral concerns. It is kind of like a course in applied ethics.
/// So it is a course on war and peace?
– We do talk about war quite a bit of course, and how peace can be a better alternative and what is wrong with war and how people justify war and how that is not convincing most often. But we also talk about interpersonal violence, and institutional or structural violence, which is sort of an odd concept. Basically it refers to stratified social systems where some people are more vulnerable to other kinds of violence because of where they are in the social hierarchy, so basically, poor people are more likely to be victims of violent crimes, but also they are likely to have greater health problems. This is directly related to where they are in the social hierarchy and they are being made vulnerable to injury, to harm, just by their place in a stratified social system, and that is to be victimised by violence too in its own right.
/// So this would link back to the justice factor?
– Yes, very much so. The critique of unjust social systems tends to point to what is often called institutional violence.
/// You mentioned different definitions of peace, maybe you could explain that a bit better, are there many definitions of peace?
– People often make a distinction between negative peace and positive peace. Negative peace is merely the absence of war or violence, which is a good thing, but for sustainable peace, you want to create positive peace, which is a situation of social justice. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. talks about negative peace as simply putting a lid on the problem, but of course, when you use that image, like putting a lid on a pot of boiling water, it will eventually boil over. So negative peace is to just avoid tension and confrontation, but positive peace is to change society so that people can live in mutual respect, and equal opportunity to exercise their potential. Positive peace is always the real goal.
/// So social justice is really the goal?
– Well you may have heard the slogan ‘No Justice, No Peace’. It is meant as a kind of warning by the exploited or the oppressed. Until there is justice, in some meaningful way, there can be no peace. It is a precondition. But if you think about it there are a number of mutually re-enforcing phenomena here. Non-violent conflict resolution sets up a situation where you can have a peaceful environment, which enhances the opportunities for the growth of social justice, which then re-enforces non-violent approaches to future conflict resolution, which then makes for more peace or establishes the conditions of peace more firmly, which enhances social justice, so really, you can start anywhere with that circle and work towards the other end.
/// How do you answer people like professor Ward Churchill, who has taken a very critical stance of the pacifist doctrine, labelling it as ineffective, and has said that all the major victories of pacifism could have been achieved much earlier in an armed struggle?
– Well it can be difficult to answer. Frantz Fanon is another one, in his book The Wretched of the Earth, he makes a compelling case for a pacifist. He was originally from the Caribbean, and ended up living in Algeria during the liberation from France where the French systematically… well, there were of course such massive atrocities on both sides. Anyway, he was a psychiatrist and ended up interviewing a lot of Algerian torture victims and he concluded that at some point, you need to take up the gun. There is no other way. It is really a compelling case that he makes and it is tough for pacifists to deal with. I struggled with that myself.
I must admit, I do not take an absolute view on pacifism by any means. I am still trying to decide for myself, and I am constantly evolving in my thinking regarding when you get to a point when some sort of organised armed response to oppression or violence – it would have to be a defence action of some sort – can be justified. But I do not take an absolute view that would say that all organised group violence is always wrong. But I think the burden of proof should always be on those who argue for violent means, not the other way around.
If we know one thing about any kind of war, it is that it will involve carnage, it will involve flying body parts, people screaming and death and destruction, not just for military personnel, but for innocent civilians as well. So, assuming that this is a bad thing that should be avoided whenever possible, if it is to be used, there better be a very good reason. Now, that may seem obvious, but the way the policymaking and public pronouncement works in the modern world, the burden of proof is always on the pacifist. The burden of proof has been shipped back to those who are against war, and those who argue for war seem have a sort of priority consideration. That seems perverse to me.
/// What would be a justified war?
– That is the tough question. Many people point to World War II as really the only example of a justified war in modern times. The war against fascism(s). If anything was a good war, that one was. But at the same time, if you only look at that period, from 1939-1945, then you really ignore what led to WWII, which is World War I, an unjustified war by most standards.
In a sense, the German response was a response to the defeat of WWI and the awful economy during the depression that followed. If other things would have happened during the 1920s and 1930s, the Nazis would never have come to power and it would not have been an issue. Italy was not going to try to take over the world on its own, and there was a good chance the U.S. and Japan did not have to go to war. The Pacific war was less justified in some sense, the fact that Japan bombed a colony of the U.S. and killed a lot of Americans, that was seen as the pretext for retaliation, but again, according to just war theory, revenge and retaliation is never a good reason to go to war. Ever.
/// What you are saying is that WWII was created by an institutional violence on a global scale?
– Yes, I would say so.
/// I wonder if you could draw the analogy between how the institutional violence in Germany pushed them into the WWII and how things are developing in the Middle East at the moment? Are we creating a similar situation?
– Well, of course now we are predicting the future, but I think you are right. It is certainly possible. Recently a report came out of the U.S., by the combined intelligence services of the U.S., which basically said what many critics of the war in Iraq had said all along, that basically, the Iraq war has not diminished the threat of terrorism, but has in fact increased it, creating more terrorists and jihadists. So, it has made the problem worse. So certainly, there is evidence that would point in that direction. You would think that people who study history and end up in politics or the military would learn their lesson.
But then again, maybe that is not the whole point, to bring about peace. There is always that possibility. I mean, war making is very profitable for some. In a number of European countries, as well as the U.S. and Canada, there are corporations that make a lot of money not only by providing materials for the so-called Weapons of Mass Destruction, but more importantly for the basic conventional weapons, plus all these little creative things like Napalm and Daisy Clusters, who mostly end civilian lives. Private entrepreneurs, good capitalists, sell them all over the world.
We can think about institutional violence in a global sense, there are populations that are predictably low down on the economic ladder, and often there is racial divide or an ethnic divide as well. And they seem to be predictably more vulnerable to these kinds of violence than the more affluent peoples, who also tend to be white, in the northern part of the world. So there is kind of a global stratified society where this concept also applies that makes for an unjust world.