Some Common Myths

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes”.

Marcel Proust

Any discussion of the potential for creating peaceful and nonviolent societies quickly confronts some widely-held assumptions about violence:

  • Violence is natural and inevitable
  • Violence can be an effective response to conflict
  • Nonviolence rarely works

These ideas play a significant role in legitimizing violence and dismissing critics as well-meaning but naive. Ultimately, to construct a more peaceful future, we need to be convinced that this goal is possible. We need, therefore, to question our deepest assumptions about violence and confront our rather contradictory attitudes on this issue. Most of us do want peace, but we don’t necessarily want to give up violence. We may hate their violence, but ours is far harder to reject. While we need not commit to the idea that violence should never be used, we should consider whether our acceptance of violence rests, as Gene Sharp once put it, more on conviction than evidence (1973: 73) and on whether their motives for using violence are really so different from ours.

Violence is natural and inevitable.

This idea has deep roots and feeds our cynicism. It rests on the view that our violence is rooted in human, or possibly male biology, and, for many, is a trait that is rooted in human evolution and shared by other species. Aggression and struggles for dominance can certainly be found among other species and some, including chimpanzees, do engage in intra-species killing. However, if one looks deeper, one finds far more diversity in non-human relationships and many that are characterized by communitarianism, egalitarianism and cooperative child-rearing (Sapolsky in The Compassionate Instinct, 2010). Indeed researchers have been discovering over the last few decades that empathy is a deeply-rooted trait in mammals, one that is essential for evolutionary survival by making necessary parental care and effective cooperation possible (de Waal in The Compassionate Instinct, 2010). Moreover, even among those species that are highly aggressive, researchers have discovered startling evidence of a capacity among primates to learn more peaceful behaviors.

Read about the peaceful transformation of a baboon troop in Kenya


watch this fascinating video of primatologist Franz de Waal examining empathy, cooperation, fairness and reciprocity among animals.

Click here to watch at full size.

We find much diversity within and between human societies as well; for example, in terms of rates of homicide and assault, as well as war, there is much variation. Consider that Sweden has not gone to war for over 170 years, Switzerland for almost 200 years and Iceland has been at peace for over 700 years. Anthropologists have also identified some 80 “peaceful societies” which have little internal violence and rarely engage in war. While most are small communities with egalitarian social structures, some societies, like Iceland and Norway, are not so small (Fry 2006). Nonviolent cultures are not devoid of all violence, but they are cultures where violence does not occur often, where violence is considered deviant and is openly discouraged, and where people react non-violently in situations which often foster violence (the web site provides a list of 25 well-researched peaceful societies).

While biology has given humans a capacity for aggression, our responses to conflict are not fixed. It also is important to keep in mind that humans normally respond negatively to scenes of extreme violence. Witnessing, let alone participating in, real violence is typically traumatic for the human psyche, and resorting to it is far from as common as we tend to assume. Militaries, for example, frequently lose more soldiers during wartime to psychiatric problems than enemy fire, while much evidence exists to suggest that human beings have a strong inhibition to taking human lives. Indeed, this militaries have long recognized and they resort to a well-planned training process to break it down, one that conditions soldiers to repeatedly practice shooting at human targets within a culture that seeks to normalize and frequently glorify killing and death (watch a provocative interview with Lt. Col Grossman on this site).

None of this would be necessary if violence was as natural and inevitable as we so often assume. Anthropologist Carolyn Nordstrom has spent decades in the war zones of our world, among them Angola, Mozambique and Sri Lanka, collecting the stories of war and peace. In her powerful and provocative book, Shadows of War, she writes about peace, suggesting that peace begins not with the initiatives of government leaders, but with the efforts of ordinary peope in war zones, who sick of war, begin to create peace. “What do people do when they have lost everything that defines home, hearth and community? Few turn to armed vengeance, I have found. In my experience, most try to find safe farmlands, open trade paths with other needy communities, set up health care centers treating both physical and psychic wounds, and open schools for children” (2004: 179). In a particularly poignant part, she talks of a group of street kids in Luanda, Angola, orphaned by war and living in the storm drains under the city streets. Invited to come and see their “home”, she speaks of having her “view of the human condition, in its most profound sense, expanded”:

In this drain the children had created a home and a community. It was spotlessly clean….The children had lined the walls with pictures from magazines, no small feat for children with no money for food and clothing, much less glue. An old inner tube from a tire served as a chair….Some meters down the drain they had fashioned a wall, and at the end they had constructed shelves that held the few possessions they had managed to acquire. On one shelf stood a battered old vase that held a bouquet of paper flowers the children had made. Little bits of art, collected here and there from what the rest of humanity throws away, decorated the shelves and tiny tables…. (176)

And, perhaps, most remarkably of all, the children had created a peaceful community. They had instituted a strong code of conduct. They share everything, stealing is not allowed and they have a governing council in which everyone takes part if the code is violated. They assign chores and even have a security system: “if one is taken by the police, all the others go out to find odd jobs like washing cars or shining shoes, or maybe stealing, to scrape together the money to take to the jail and get their friend out”. As Nordstrom concludes, “in a world of violence, they have sought to create stability and accord” (176-7).

Violence can be an effective response to conflict

There is little question that most of us have a lot of faith in violence. Indeed, as one looks at the vast military arsenals around the world, it is difficult to see them as instruments that ultimately can build little. Destroy quickly, of course, but we seek so much more from our weapons of war — to build democracy, create stability and even peace, and recently defend women’s rights, or, at the very least, prevent war and provide security. Over and over in the last century and beginning of the 21st, we have had vivid reminders of the limits to military power — Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, to name just a few. Wars start and, ultimately, as the conflict continues and costs, both human and financial, mount, we begin to hear our top military and government officials talk of the need for a political solution. It is difficult, though, for us to get over, what pathbreaking feminist peace scholar Betty Reardon once coined, our “addiction” to weapons.

Indeed, an addiction suggests a psychological attachment to weaponry, and indeed, any effort at peace needs to reflect on the extent to which we link weaponry to such powerful values as power, respect, security, and independence. Whether they really meet these needs is certainly worthy of discussion. While weaponry is usually defended on rational grounds, powerful emotions are at work: consider this quote from an American Cold War strategist. who admitted that there was no real need to match the Soviet Union missile for missile, but added, ‘I don’t know. I just feel better that way…I just do’ (Kull 1988: 224).

Few of us would reject the use of violence as a true last resport and accept that there may be situations where violence is necessary to protect human life. General Dallaire’s call in 1994 to the international community for several thousand more soldiers to prevent a genocide in Rwanda comes to mind. However, such situations are not that common and violence is rarely used as a last resort. Moreover, violence comes with huge costs, has very unpredictable consequences, and typically engenders more violence. Philosopher Hannah Arendt once remarked: “The practice of violence changes the world, but the most probable change is a more violent world” (1970: 80).

Violence, thus, rarely does what we want it to do. Even the more mimimal goals of providing security and preventing war are far less attainable through a reliance on violence than most of us assume. Consider that global military spending reached in 2011 a massive $1.7 trillion dollars (SIPRI), while the UN has suggested that for a sum of $250 billion dollars a year most of the world’s global health, economic and environmental problems could be solved. If one considers the impact of unmet human needs on causing violence, which option would create real security? (Visit the website for many examples of the world’s unmet needs).

While large weapons can scare an opponent into backing down, just as the bully in the schoolyard can shift his focus to a weaker target when threatened by someone stronger, the opposite is also very true. Political scientists have long recognized the existence of a security dilemma where governments’ attempts to find security through military buildups often backfire as opponents respond by expanding their own weaponry, thereby creating more insecurity for both sides. Similarly, backing a bully into a corner often leads to the bully responding violently as a way to save face in front of his buddies. Thus, violence may on occasion work, at least in the short term, but it comes with a huge price and often fails; it is hardly that effective. But are there any alternatives?

Nonviolence rarely works.

Experts in conflict resolution have found that societies have come up with many innovative and effective methods to deal nonviolently with conflict. In Douglas Fry’s interesting work, The Human Potential for Peace, the anthropologist examines the varied ways in which societies through history have found to solve conflict, and, in doing so, provides a strong critique of our most common assumptions about war and violence. Moreover, a real commitment to addressing the unmet human needs that typically lie at the root of violence would also do much to create a more peaceful world.

But, conflicts are inevitable and it would be naiive to ignore the possibility that we might at times confront an opponent willing to use violence. Thus, an effective means of struggle is arguably needed, and many in such situations have turned to nonviolent resistance. While nonviolent resistance became a method of mass struggle in the 20th century, it is not a modern idea; in ancient Rome in 494 BC, for example, the plebians protested their grievances by withdrawing to a hill, refusing to make their usual contributions to the city until the rulers accepted, after some days, significant improvements (Sharp 1973: 75-76). Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and the popular uprisings last summer in the Middle East have certainly drawn our attention to this approach, but does it really work against an opponent who is willing to show little mercy?

Gene Sharp, a scholar whose life has been devoted to examining nonviolent struggles through history and whose ideas have shaped many of the nonviolent struggles of the last decades, offers us much to think about. Sharp tells us that we need to compare violence and nonviolence fairly. This, he says, is rarely the case: when nonviolence fails, it is “condemned as a whole”, but when violence fails, “specific inadequacies or factors are frequently blamed — not the technique itself” (74). Moreover, he argues that nonviolence is actually far more effective than violence, noting that opponents feel constrained in using violence against nonviolent opponents, but, when violence is used, it is immediately legitimized and the struggle quickly becomes a question of who has more force at hand — not that the stronger opponent always prevails. For more discussion of the potential of nonviolence, visit the website, A Force More Powerful, or Sharp’s own organization, the Albert Einstein Institution.

Political scientist Erika Chenoweth compared the success of violent and nonviolent struggles between 1900 and 2006; her results offer  powerful evidence for the potential of nonviolence. 


For an example of how problematic ideas about violence permeate our culture, read this interesting critique of the book, The Hunger Games, by clicking here. As author Paul Chappell states, the fact that we so rarely assess the accuracy of our societal depictions of violence is an expression of how normalized violence has become.


For an interesting examination of the myths that sustain violence and their role in our justice system, see this short video of Dr. Elizabeth Elliott, author of Security with Care: Restorative Justice and Healthy Societies, talk about the three big lies gangs tell.

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