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Johan Galtung and the “P” Word

Caroline Jaine's picture

On a cold January evening, shortly after watching President Obama take office from a crowded bar in central London, I dashed across town to the Palace of Westminster to listen to the wise words of Johan Galtung who was talking at the All Party Parliamentary Group for Conflict Issues.

In the field I work in, Galtung is a legend.  The 78 year-old Norwegian socialist is the grandfather of peace studies and has mediated in over 40 conflicts around the world.  He has been a peace activist most of his life – in his teens he was sent to prison for insisting that he be engaged in peace-making activities rather than serving in the military.  

It is his use of the “p” word that I am most interested in.  Peace.  For me peace is an abstract notion, an absence of violence – something I have blogged about more than once before.  Because it lacks tangible form, peace can also be a very difficult concept to communicate.  Those in the grip of violence, seem sometimes unable to be persuaded simply by the “p” word to stop. 

In fact, so off-putting was the “p” word that the All Party Group decided “Conflict Issues” would attract more interest – and they were right.  If you look at the very people engaged in promoting peace you will find their expertise lies in “conflict resolution, cohesion, post-conflict reconstruction” and the “p” word is avoided for fear the association makes them somehow less dynamic and effective.

I did it too, when I told Galtung what I did for a living.  “Keep up the good work”, he sparkled as he handed me a copy of one of his publications.

I wrapped my coat tightly around me for the short walk away from Westminster to another bar, this time frequented by government employees and lobby journalists, where I leafed through Galtung’s pages.  This book was about religion, and I arrogantly didn’t think I needed to be persuaded or would learn much from it.  Galtung had earlier uttered “inside every religion beats a gentle heart”.  I nodded; this rang very true for me - I consider myself tolerant to the core.  Then I opened a section entitled “a mini-theory of peace”, not far away from where the great man had shakily signed his name.  I was engrossed – here Galtung intellectualised peace, normalised it and wrote about it without stigma.  He used words that made sense to me like integration and reciprocity, words like inclusion and holism.  But most of all for me, Galtung wrote as if his project to create “an immune system against violence” were utterly possible.  

A former colleague from the Foreign Office was at the bar.  Tom grinned and asked me what I was doing with my life these days.  “Conflict resolution”, I stammered, “And peace building”.  Well it’s a start.  I can’t recommend Galtung’s work enough.

Photo Credit: Flickr user .bullish

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