THE BLOG
12/07/2015 05:54 pm ET Updated Dec 07, 2016

A Vision of Peace for America

America is at war. Here are the facts:

• Today in America, there is a mass shooting where four or more people are shot almost every day. Since January 1, 2014, there have been 1052 mass shootings, killing 1347, injuring 3817, and traumatizing countless others.
• As of today, the total number of gun violence incidents in the U.S. in 2015 is 48,746, with 12,340 deaths and 24,929 injured.
• The number of violent crimes in the U.S. was 1,165,382 in 2014 , and the murder rate is rising in over 30 US cities this year.
• Black Friday this year, 2015, was the biggest day in gun sales in U.S. history. Gun and ammunition sales in the U.S. today top $11 Billion a year. With 3.5 million new guns made every year, the number of guns in the US today is estimated at 380 million (larger than the population).
• This is happening in a year when tensions between the police and communities of color in the U.S are extremely high due to police shootings of unarmed Black youth, and the number of police officers charged with murder or manslaughter for on-duty shootings tripling.
• The US also has the highest prison population of any nation in the world (the U.S. has 5% of the world's population and 25% of the world's prison population) with approximately 2.4 million prisoners (1 in 3 Americans have a criminal record). The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States - GEO and Corrections Corporation of America - make a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenues.
• Of ethnic groups, African Americans, Puerto Rican Americans, and American Indian Natives have some of the highest rates of incarceration. Muslims currently comprise 15% of our prison population, even though they comprise less than 1% of the U.S. population. Not coincidentally, the number of U.S. citizens joining ISIL has doubled in one year.
• The general American population is more fundamentalist today than the average European population. Fifty-seven percent of the general American population believes that "right and wrong in U.S. law should be based on God's laws". Levels of religious fundamentalism among Muslims and Christians in the U.S. are nearly identical.
• After over a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq costing the lives of 6800 American troops (and injuring over a million ), 6900 contractors, and 43,000 uniformed Afghans, Iraqis and other allies, - and somewhere between 4-6 trillion dollars - current U.S. troop levels are today at 3500 in Iraq and 9800 in Afghanistan with little chance of changing soon.
• Military expenditures in the U. S. today are over 598.5 Billion dollars, roughly the size of the next nine largest national military budgets around the world combined, and constituting 54% of the total U. S. budget.

These current facts and figures characterize the state of the United States of America, the most prosperous and promising of nations, in a near-constant state of war, internally and abroad, against THEM (the outgroup, fill in the blank). We are well armed, frightened, highly suspicious, increasingly factional, punitive, disparaging of our opponents, and drowning in violence.

This begs the question, "Could America ever imagine itself at peace?"

In the anthropologist Doug Fry's important new book, War, Peace and Human Nature, he summarizes the findings of decades of research on peaceful societies around the world and argues that assumptions about the war-like nature of humans and the inevitability of war are both erroneous (according to sound archaeological and anthropological data) and deeply ingrained in our culture -- and thus need to be countered with a clear alternative vision of a peaceful society. He writes,

The importance of developing an alternative vision is overlooked in many discussions of peace and security. A common assumption is that a dramatic social transformation away from war is not possible. Such an attitude easily becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Having a vision of a new sociopolitical system without war is the first step toward bringing change to a flawed existing system.

Fry's research suggests that nations are much more likely to evolve in peaceful directions if they have a clearly specified sense of what this entails. Such visions include an ethic of inter-ethnic unity, and care and nurturance of others, that is at least as strong as the view of peace as something that needs be secured and defended. Research has also found that when societies define themselves as peaceful, they are much more likely to behave and organize themselves in a consistent manner. Today, Iceland, Denmark, Canada and Norway provide good examples. Fry finds this vision - where peaceful relations are "the norm, the typical, the behavioral default" - to be an essential condition of peaceful societies.

What does such a vision look like?

Peace systems, defined by Fry as groups of neighboring societies that do not make war on each other, can be found on all continents and evidence six basic features thought to be important in the creation and maintenance of inter-societal peace: (1) an overarching social identity, (2) interconnections among subgroups, (3) interdependence (ecological, economic, and/or defensive), (4) non-warring values, (5) symbolism and ceremonies that reinforce peace, and (6) superordinate institutions for conflict management.

What could this mean for peace in America? The answers are not easy and would require a radical shift in our thinking, action and organizing. This includes:

1. Fostering more complex overarching social identities with our children. Shared, meaningful identities between members of different groups and nations set the stage for mutual problem solving and increased compassion. Humans would do well to recognize that we are but one species in a highly interconnected ecological system that seems to fare best when we live in harmony with (as opposed to in mastery over) the various other species on our planet and in our solar system. This entails increasing what Gregory Bateson termed our systemic wisdom: our awareness of the natural world, the seasons, the tides, the symbiotic nature of our existence, and the consequences of treating them as mere commodities.

Americans would also be served by applying this same interconnected sense of identity to their view of the international community, the United Nations, the developing world, and global human security (recalling that the nation state is a relatively new man-made invention and that our reliance on it as our primary organizational structure is highly problematic). This would involve reorienting our priorities from national to global (and only then national). At the local level, this means each of us coming to terms with the hard fact that our fate, and the fates of our family, our neighbors, our community, our profession, our religion and our country, are all ultimately determined by the fate of our planet, and of the well being of our brothers and sisters living across it.

But the U.S. must also come to terms with the fact that it is no longer a melting pot where minorities and immigrants are willing to assimilate to White America's identity. A multicultural society as increasingly complex as the U.S. will require the forging of a new American identity, which genuinely embraces and celebrates difference, pluralism and contradiction. We must live up to the motto on the Seal of the United States, E Pluribus Unum: out of many, one. The good news is that research has shown that people with more diversified, complex social networks have been found to be more tolerant of out-groups and more supportive of policies helpful to them. They tend to have more positive out-group experiences, share more interests with people outside their own groups, and learn more about the contributions of outgroup members and the problems they face.

We must all learn to teach and model for our children how to, in Fry's terms, "expand the us" - to be Humans-on-Earth first, Globalists second, and New Americans third. The European Union, despite its challenges, is attempting to lead the way on this.

2. Creating more robust interconnections among our subgroups. Neuroscience research suggests that humans are hard-wired to move toward similar others and away from or against those who are dissimilar. However, one of the most important findings from neuroscience, psychology and ethnographic research on violent versus peaceful communities is the value of cross-cutting structures (multi-ethnic workplaces, schools, sports teams, labor unions, political parties, etc.) for connecting members of different ethnic groups, building relationships and mitigating escalation of conflict when it occurs. When societies are organized in nested groups, where members of distinct ethnic communities tend to work, play, study, and socialize with members of their own group; they have little opportunity for collaborative contact and social bonding with members of other groups. Thus, when conflict sparks between members of different ethnic groups, it can much more readily escalate to Us vs. Them violence. When societies are organized primarily in crosscutting structures, including ethnically integrated business associations, trade unions, and social groups, their members develop social bonds across groups, which mitigates outgroup hostilities and violence. This has been identified as one of the most effective ways of making intergroup conflict manageable and nonviolent.

A large, ambitious, and increasingly multicultural society such as America must have strong cross-cutting structures across all major ethnic groups if it is to move away from the types of factionalism and violence seen in our more segregated and ghettoized communities. Given our neurological predisposition to separate into ingroups, we will need bold leaders and policies to help us become and remain better interconnected across our differences.

3. Promoting cooperative interdependence in our most individualistic and competitive society. America prides itself on its fierce legacy of independence and extraordinary ability to compete to win. We see this reflected repeatedly in our American myths, history books and Hollywood heroes. Nevertheless, decades of research from disciplines as diverse as primatology, anthropology, neuroscience, social psychology, and political science converge on showing the vital importance of strong forms of cooperative interdependence for ameliorating intergroup tensions and promoting peaceful societies. This research has consistently demonstrated the fundamental importance of joint super-ordinate goals and attitudes and perceptions of positive interdependence between people (we sink or swim together) on constructive conflict and group dynamics at the interpersonal, intergroup, and international levels. These attitudes and skills are typically induced, developed, and maintained by various task, goal, and reward structures that incentivize working and interacting together.

American families, schools, work organizations and communities would benefit greatly from balancing our needs and tendencies for individualism and competition with solid incentives for coming together. This can be realized in ways big (bold joint-initiatives for communications, trade, and cultural and civilian exchanges between all nations) and small (cooperative decision-making in families and learning groups in schools). Such incentives simply bolster the affects of cross-cutting structures and reinforce the value of overarching identities, the basic building blocks of peaceful societies.

4. Inculcating non-warring values early on. This is a critical step in a country where children are increasingly raised on violent television, movies, advertising, sports, interactive video games and song lyrics. Anthropological research has found a significant positive relationship between warm and caring norms in families that value and nurture children and environments replete with more constructive and respectful adult interactions. In addition, schools that model and support nurturance, cooperation and teamwork among students help to shape the skills and attitudes conducive to more harmonious adult relations. When schools and communities provide early exposure to tolerant attitudes and effective conflict management skills, the effects trickle up, eventually impacting emergent social norms and more peaceful climates. In addition, communities which evidence social taboos against corporal punishment and other forms of violence in the home, schools, workplace, and public spaces have been found to be more peaceful internally among their own members and externally with members of different communities. Finally, the rise of an American elite (particularly popular leaders of business, government, celebrities and professional athletes) with shared norms of tolerance, cooperation, and creative problem-solving, can model for all the efficacy and value of constructive, non-violent action. This signals to the broader population the utility and importance of behaving in a compassionate and self-transcendent manner.

5. Creating symbols and ceremonies that recognize and reinforce peace. The United States is good at memorializing and celebrating war (albeit not at caring for its veterans). One simply need visit the Mall in Washington DC or The Smithsonian Institution to find a wide array of monuments, rituals and exhibits commemorating our many wars (today is Pearl Harbor Day). Almost every town in America holds a Veteran's Day parade, and the vast majority of mainstream Hollywood movies honor the bravery of the men and women who gave their lives for our country. This is as it should be.

However, in contrast, we rarely honor peace. There are no monuments to peace in Washington (although there is something called the Peace Monument which commemorates the naval deaths at sea during the American Civil War). There are no parades for peacemakers or even peacekeepers. In fact, we used to put "conscientious objectors," citizens who refused to go to war when drafted, in jail.

But as Doug Fry has observed, symbols and ceremonies can serve to reinforce unity and a commitment to peace in communities. In a paper published in Science in 2012, he described how the Upper Xingu tribes of Brazil participate in ceremonies to mourn the deaths of deceased chiefs and to inaugurate new ones, which help to unify the tribes and reinforce their expanded shared identity as members of the same broader peaceful society. One Xinguano said: "We don't make war; we have festivals for the chiefs to which all of the villages come. We sing, dance, trade and wrestle."

This begs the simple question, what symbols or ceremonies could Americans develop to recognize, celebrate, and help perpetuate a vision of peace? This cannot be something we out-source to the Norwegians or the UN. We must be proactive in recognizing and celebrating the tenacious commitment and hard work behind peaceful societies if we are ever to realize it here at home.

6. Enhancing our competencies and institutions for constructive conflict management. This is something we have studied extensively at Columbia University and have considerable expertise in. The data from decades of research on the effects of bolstering attitudes, skills and structures for constructive conflict management in a multitude of domains shows unequivocally that when implemented effectively, they can lead to higher levels of satisfaction, well being, improved social relations, creative solutions, innovation, and breakthroughs in mutual problems, thus increasing positivity in social systems and in turn reinforcing the utility of constructive conflict management. Programs and workshops in constructive conflict resolution and creative problem-solving for children, parents, adults, and leaders of schools, businesses, politics and nations can provide our citizens with functional and accessible methods for constructive, non-violent action to seek recourse and address perceived injustices and other harms. In addition, superordinate conflict management structures, such as the courts, institutional ombudsman, community mediation centers and town hall meetings, and well-functioning global organizations such as the United Nations and the International Criminal Courts, despite their flaws, can provide critical support when needed and signal the commitment of our leaders to fair and just processes.

Fortunately, the U.S. has been at the forefront of developing conflict resolution processes and centers locally in schools, communities, business, and as an alternative to litigation for the courts for decades. Unfortunately, the U.S. has been a major obstacle to the efficacy of multinational organizations like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court, viewing their authority as a threat to American sovereignty. These policies and practices must be reconsidered in light of our increasingly interconnected planet.

To be clear, America's extreme levels of violence, crime, gun sales, imprisonment, and threats from terrorists and other anti-American groups will not vanish overnight from developing an alternative vision of a peaceful future. Many sound security policies and actions are necessary and need to be in place to help fight these challenges. However, America's transition from a violent, war-like country will only come about if a compelling vision for peace is articulated and communicated widely, and results in a new social movement for peace.