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Essays


Read the words of students, artists, faculty, and staff on the meaning of peace in their lives--their thoughts, ideas, hopes, and wishes. Sometimes, others’ thoughts open new doors for our own insights and understanding. Here we can “talk” to each other and share meaning.

Consider submitting an essay on where you have seen peace “breaking out” in your world or how you have experienced or conceptualize peace for this portion of the Semester on Peace website to
jtunney@cidcm.umd.edu.







Robin Holder about peace for her upcoming exhibition:
"An American Consciousness: Robin Holder's Mid-Career Retrospective"
David C. Driskell Center

"Inner and global peace will be when i can walk out of my New York City apartment to go to an event or participate in an activity without my house and car keys, wallet, cell phone, GPS, laptop or appointment book and know that i am safe and completely without stress."

robin holder, 2009

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Learn a language, have peace?


One of the best hidden and most important benefits of the experience of learning a language – which begins on the very first day one opens one’s mouth to utter, or even to stop and listen to, a new sound – can, and perhaps should be, thought of as groundwork for an engagement with peace. To make the effort to learn the communication system of another group of people is implicitly to recognize the value of that system and those people, to move outside of one’s own natural centeredness and take a humble step into an unknown (and vastly complex) territory, and to open oneself to being changed through work. Recognition of the value of something that is not-you, humility, the courage to incorporate some of that thing that is not-you – are all sine qua non of a peaceful stance. It is not surprising that those who remain in that stance come to speak in terms of love, the tough kind though it may be.

Learning a language is a process that in the end leads not only to knowledge of something outside oneself – which then becomes incorporated into oneself in a much more literal sense than in the case of many other kinds of knowledge – but also to a development of one’s own culture and language. No one loses, everyone gains.

Language study is always also culture study, sometimes more overtly, sometimes less. Given time, it can lead to a de-centered attitude toward understanding and problem-solving in general. An absorbed willingness to give up habits of singularity – one way, one kind, one good – and to live well with and continue to seek the multiple.

Lauretta C. Clough
Acting Associate Director for Academic Affairs
School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures

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The Calculus of Non-Violence

If you cannot understand a conflict, then you cannot solve it. All the peacemakers and problem-solvers of the planet should be familiar with this maxim, and it does not take more than a moment of contemplation to realize its truth. Understanding the nature of conflict is helpful, if not essential, in the peacemaking process. And if you ask me, there is no better way to understand the world than through mathematical model.

I imagine a lot of readers will be tempted to stop reading at the mention of the phrase “mathematical model.” And there are some who may wonder what kind of imbecile would suggest that math has anything to do with human relations. But these readers should try to appreciate the following fact: Math seems to be the
only language that the human race possesses to predict and understand natural processes. Ever since the revolutionary findings of Galileo and Newton, mathematics has been the foundation of physics. Its method of inquiry has since been used to understand the processes that govern astronomy, chemistry, economics, social sciences, computer programming, and many other distinct disciplines. The game is simple. The first step is to make observations about the world. The next step is to come up with an abstract representation for your observations—or borrow one that someone else has already used. Finally, you test your representation against reality, and compare the results. Repeat if necessary. This so-called “Scientific Method” has been the bedrock of mankind’s grasp of Nature for the last four centuries.
To connect scientific principles with violent conflict, here are some questions to consider. If every human yearns for peace, why do people (or groups of people) resort to violence as a response to conflict? How can a person justify violence against his neighbor and expect kindness and respect in return? Most of us witness and sometimes participate in violent conflict—for instance, you must be familiar with the fight that shakes up a party, or the rioting that occurs after Maryland-Duke games, or the quiet ongoing battles within our circle of friends and family. Yet they are antithetical to what Noam Chomsky calls “the most elementary of moral truisms.” You may know it as “the Golden Rule,” and it commands us to treat others the way we want to be treated. This moral statement appears as the core value in most religions and cultures, and it is what a mathematician would call an
axiom—a truth so fundamental and basic that it does not need proof. Yet our observations show that almost everyone violates this fundamental law. Obviously, I am begging the question.

To resolve this moral paradox, I would argue that human emotion interferes with reason. Most people have at least a few irrational beliefs, but we don’t take them seriously enough to fight a war or justify violence. It seems like feelings such as hatred, fear, and resentment can lead to violence when they are sufficiently intense. How do they become strong enough to justify, say, gang violence? What about religious wars? Or cultural genocide? My conjecture is that emotions are fueled in a self-sustaining manner known in jargon as
positive feedback loop.

Since human relationships are riddled with complex nuances, I am going to restrict my description to the
zeroth order. Scientists use the same attempt to attack problems that are too complicated to make a complete picture. Simplifications lead to a description that is less precise, but a more relevant and manageable. Consider an idealized conflict, which consists of two systems (where “system” means either a person or group of people) that are equal and opposite. Note that our model so far mimics the human tendency to divide the world into an “us” and “them” in the face of conflict. The systems are coupled, meaning they interact in such a way that either system can influence the other. It takes an initial shove to start a conflict; any old disagreement or prejudice will do. These are known as the initial conditions—the state of the systems when the conflict begins. The conflict escalates when both sides mutually seek to destroy or degrade the other. The more one side aggresses, the more the other side retaliates…and the more one side retaliates, the more the other side aggresses. Can you see why this is called a feedback loop?

So far, no one has successfully developed a method for reliably measuring human emotion. But if we did own such a device, we could describe our systems with some simple differential equations. This is an acceptable approach for a qualitative analysis. Let
t represent time, the independent variable, and let H(t) represent the intensity of emotion (with higher numbers corresponding to more intense feelings), which depends on time. I propose that the function H(t) obeys the following differential equation:

Calculus

In a sentence, this equation says, “The rate of increase in H is proportional to H itself.” What function behaves in such a way? It turns out that this one of the most basic differential equations, and its solution is exponential or J-shaped in character. Exponential increase shows up whenever the rate of increase of a quantity is proportional to quantity itself, and there are bountiful examples in Nature. Cell reproduction is exponential, because the more cells that you have, the greater the rate of increase. The human population exhibits similar behavior for the same reasons. Other examples are the snowball effect (the faster it rolls, the bigger it gets), compound interest (the more money you have, the more interest you earn), and the jarring feedback produced by placing a microphone within range of its speaker.

One property of exponential growth is that as time goes on, even small initial values can climb to astounding heights. This explains how small disagreements seem to “blow up” when both parties are irrational. After a sufficient amount of time has passed, it seems like neither party is primarily concerned with the actual conflict. Rather, they have exhausted so much energy in justifying their own beliefs and making their opposition suffer. A particularly well-known example of this is the ongoing conflict in the Middle East between Israeli and Palestinian forces. It would seem as though both sides quarrel over land, so why can’t they seem to find a reasonable compromise? The answer is because they are fueling one another’s hatred, and with each military or terrorist offensive, one drives the other to further extremes.

The resulting conclusions give some valuable insight on the role of the peacemaker. If we are all to become peacemakers, we first must learn to manage our conflicts before they feed back and amplify. The decision to turn the other cheek and love your enemies decouples the two parties, breaking the chain of positive feedback and retaliation. Additionally, there is a benefit to the realization that engagement in violent conflict is inherently irrational. The analysis I have presented here is merely speculative, so I leave it to you, the reader, to verify the results by putting them into practice—to become what Mahatma Gandhi called a “moral experimenter.”

Mark Strother
Physics Student, UMD

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