The Problem of Peaceful Societies for the Belief in the Necessity of War

By David Swanson, World BEYOND War, June 11, 2023

For any given war, one can examine the months or years or decades during which one or both sides worked diligently to make it happen, and both sides conspicuously failed to develop peaceful alternatives. Even in the moment of greatest violence, one can consider the unarmed-resistance alternatives that are carefully kept out of consideration.

But even if you can explain away all justification for every side of every particular war — yes, even that one, there remains the false claim that war is somehow simply part of “humanity.” If ants were to stop waging wars, nobody would bat an eye, but such a feat is deemed simply beyond the intelligence of homo sapiens.

There is a problem for this nonsense. It is the problem of peaceful human societies. We know that many, if not most, hunter-gatherer groups of humans engaged for the vast bulk of human existence in nothing resembling low-tech war. Even in recent millennia, much of Australia, the Arctic, Northeast Mexico, the Great Basin of North America, and even Europe before the rise of patriarchic warrior cultures, did largely or entirely without war. Recent examples abound. In 1614 Japan cut itself off from the West and from major warfare until 1853 when the U.S. Navy forced its way in. During such periods of peace, culture flourishes. The colony of Pennsylvania for a time chose to respect the native peoples, at least in comparison with other colonies, and it knew peace and prospered. The notion held by celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that because 17th century Europe invested in science by investing in warfare therefore only through militarism can any culture advance, and therefore — conveniently enough — astrophysicists are 100% justified in working for the Pentagon, is a view based on an absurd level of blinkered prejudice that few liberals would accept if duplicated in explicitly racist or sexist terms.

But simply to assert, or even indisputably prove, that various societies have lived without war will neither persuade the believer in the inevitability of war, nor provide any guidance in how the dominant global societies could shift to a war-free existence. What’s needed is an examination of how various societies have lived for long periods with neither external warfare nor internal violence. A new book might help. It’s called Peaceful Societies: Alternatives to Violence and War by Bruce D. Bonta. On a website, Bonta has posted information on numerous peaceful societies that are still around. In this book, he’s examined 10 of them. The 10 are scattered around the globe and extremely diverse. They have different beliefs, languages, attitudes, and sensibilities. Some of them we know to have a history of having been violent and changed to nonviolence. They are all in danger of being overrun by dominant culture (or climate change or deforestation). What humanity (and many other species) need is a bit of the opposite process — of the dominant global cultures learning from these societies instead of imposing their values on them.

If anger and violence were universally condemned and mocked as infantile, as worthy of only small children, then national foreign policy designed around such ideas wouldn’t be cheered for or even tolerated. Large groups of people with damn near the same DNA as Joe Biden’s or Vladimir Putin’s live and have lived in cultures just like that. They exist within worldviews that find war and even murder utterly unthinkable. So, just as it’s not good enough to say that hyper-militarization is required by “human nature” because the 4 percent of humanity misgoverned by the rotten U.S. government has it, it’s also not good enough to say that some level of acceptance of violence is required just because the vast majority of humans now alive are stuck with it.

When you show ordinary Hollywood movies to people in some cultures, they are horrified and wish never to see such violence again. Children who grow up in societies without violence do not have it to imitate. Children who grow up in societies that condemn anger learn not to be angry. These facts are as endlessly proven as the reappearance of the sun each day. A culture that shrieks “follow the science!” cannot pretend that these facts are not real, or marginalize them by pretending they’re a fantasy, or avoid them by overdosing on Pinkerism. The notion of “man the warrior” dates from an era in which Western scientists presented animal tooth marks on human bones as evidence of war. They were not. “Man the dinner” was more like it. The notion of violent urges building up when suppressed — and bursting out if not given some release — date from an even earlier era during which the latest technology was the steam engine, and the human sciences (in imitation of the physical sciences) believed they needed to make everything work in the manner of a steam engine.

Bonta’s book, and others like it, describe how cultures model and teach the absence, not the suppression, of anger — cultures that still exist. You can look at these people’s homes on Google Earth. You can read about them. You can visit them — though I hope you can do so with a level of respect for others that may be difficult until after you’ve studied them.

Chapter one is about the Lepchas, a minority group in Sikkim that does not know violence. Their culture avoids aggression and competition almost completely. They disapprove of quarreling as strongly as U.S. culture disapproves of failing to stand up to a bully. They are as tolerant of adultery as U.S. culture is of divorce. They have no tolerance, however, for lying — a crime that can damage a family’s reputation for generations. They don’t manage this radically different existence because the rest of the world leaves them alone. Hello? Have you met the rest of the world? Since 2007, they have prevented the construction of massive hydropower dams — and the military forces backing that construction — through nonviolent action.

Chapter two is about the Ifaluk, who live on an atoll of the same name in Micronesia. They exhibit no signs of anger or violence. The bizarre ways in which they care for babies and toddlers, and the weird stories of ghosts they teach to children, might seem difficult or undesirable to adapt. But what these people have in common with other peaceful societies is the unacceptance of tantrums — whether in toddlers or presidents. Bonta writes of them:

“On several occasions since World War II, U.S. Navy vessels have stopped at the island and have shown American films for the islanders. But the violence displayed in those movies—people being beaten and shot—panicked the islanders, terrifying some into illnesses that lasted for days. Many subsequently refused to watch American films. They constantly reviewed and talked about the violent scenarios, reinforcing in their communities their safety from such horrors.”

Does this mean they will find the will and the ability to keep the U.S. from turning what remains of Pacific islands, before they go under, into staging grounds for a war on China? Who knows! But it does mean that human beings, including human beings in the United States, are capable of a different way of existing. If a world beyond war requires a world without Hollywood, so be it. Surely you are not going to argue that Hollywood is required by your genes or your central essence or human nature or immutable soul or anything of the sort. Eliminating or completely altering Hollywood is not an easy task, but it’s also not one barred by laws of physics, right?

Chapter three is about the Semai in Malaysia. While the Ifaluk value calmness, the Semai go in for panic and hysteria. But they shun violence just the same. And they resolve conflicts when they arise, rather than passing judgment or seeking vengeance. Bonta worries that his readers may reject the Semai as valuing cowardice, but he writes:

“[A]rguably it requires more strength to hold onto one’s temper during a confrontation than it does to let things escalate into violence. The latter, the resort to fists or knives or guns or nuclear bombs during a confrontation, is perhaps the easy approach, the way of weakness, while approaching a conflict with a quiet determination to resolve it peacefully is often the more difficult choice.”

We also learn about the Batek in Malaysia, who may be denounced as fearful by some readers. They uproot and move a whole village on an hour’s notice to avoid one dangerous person, rather than sending out a lynch mob. But their central values are cooperation, sharing, and equality — including gender equality. They out-progressive Western progressives in a number of ways worth learning from, even if you cannot uproot Fort Lauderdale and move it into the jungle each time Trump is spotted nearby.

We learn about the Piaroa in Venezuela and Colombia. At least until recent years, they have been almost totally free of violence and also of competition.

Then it’s off to the Buid in the Philippines, and on around the globe, with descriptions of societies that are very different from one another but in agreement on shunning violence — within families, within villages, and with the outside world. These cases are not analogous to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning European Union, dealing weapons and wars around the world. These people are not just peaceful among themselves and vicious as crazed wolves toward others. They have taught their children that violence is shameful. They would be more ashamed to use it than to die — just as many members of militaries would be more ashamed to not use it than to die.

“Fully understanding a peaceful society,” Bonta writes, “requires at least a brief description of the culture and beliefs that foster it. Similarly, understanding a relatively violent society such as that of the United States would require an examination of such rituals as the annual Super Bowl Sunday, the culture of gun ownership, and beliefs in the benevolence of American power and control over the rest of the world.”

The trouble, of course, is that the belief that there can be something worse than war, even nuclear war — a belief widely on display on both sides of a war in Ukraine right now — may get us all killed, and numerous other species with us. The belief that there can be nothing worse than war is a very challenging one for Westerners to wrap their brains around — even when they understand what nuclear winter is. But it might help them to walk a few virtual steps in the moccasins of peaceful peoples.

There’s no evidence that, in order to be peaceful, a society need believe any particular magical nonsense, or any at all, or tell children scary stories, or dress a particular way. The 10 examples in this book differ from each other in all of these things. Of course they also have some things in common. In comparison with the United States, they are more egalitarian, care more about nature, are less competitive, and so on. But we actually need each of those changes as well, if the world is to maintain life.

Could I easily become a person who never gets angry? Hell fucking no! But what if I had been brought up in such a culture? And what if by studying such cultures, I can re-enforce my commitment to being a person who works to dismantle organized mass-killing? Even if I encourage righteous anger as a means toward that end?

The fact is that human beings are extremely complex — far more than any philosophy comprehends — far more than any artificial “intelligence” yet approaches. And I resent the idiocy of supposing that we cannot create a nonviolent culture unless we can prove that others have already done so. Sartre was right. Apologists for the status quo are always liars. But it doesn’t matter, because it is proven that human societies have existed and still exist without violence or war. The question is whether we will collectively choose that well-trodden path.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.