The Peace Problem

ESSAY

Just as I began writing this some days ago, a bomb was discovered at the offices of CNN in midtown Manhattan. The following day, another was discovered at Robert Deniro’s Tribeca restaurant, just blocks away from where I was working. More bombs were collected on their way to the homes of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. I already knew what would happen next.

Those who identify with the Democratic Party will highlight the targets as a clear indicator of who is responsible. Not what person specifically, but what ‘side’. That is, the other side. Donald Trump will be accused of stoking the flames of violence and blamed for what could have been a historical tragedy, and his supporters will further be defined as ‘deplorable’, as Hillary Clinton once characterized, for seeking such criminal tactics for political gain.

Those who identify with the Republican Party will disavow and deflect. Of course, only one person (or perhaps a few) are directly responsible for these attempted attacks, so it is unfair to blame the millions of non-bomb-building Republicans. Free speech allows anyone, even the president, to bellow fiery rhetoric against ‘the other side’. To blame the Republican Party then, they’ll say, will be to demand censorship, a clear anti-constitutional stance and further proof that the Democratic Party is composed of an anarchic mob.

One day, pending a complete breakdown of our government, Donald Trump will not be in office. It will be someone else. I don’t know what party that person will affiliate with, but I am again certain of the protocol that follows.

One party will vilify him or her. The other will embrace. You will be among one group or the other. We might like to believe that when the time comes we will make a concerted choice, based on thoughtful debates, analysis, and million-dollar ad campaigns. But as it stands, the choice has been made. You subscribe to a side already. You don’t need a menu to know whether you want Coke or Pepsi. And we’re all frustrated that no restaurant serves both.

It’s a question that is so at the core of our everyday that it has in real time become cliché: how will we ever unite as a country? This question begs another, one which despite the cliché of it’s predecessor seems never to be mentioned in any public discourse. What I’d really love to know is…what does peace even look like?

In full disclosure, I’ve never voted for a Republican candidate, because I generally disagree with most of their stated platform. But today I find myself trying very hard to understand this ‘other side’. I don’t mean that sarcastically. I am trying to understand.

I want to understand because I want to believe there is a reason we feel the way we do. To believe that we didn’t all just wake up one day with the lines drawn around us, our pajamas painted blue or red while we slept. If we find the reasons beneath the rhetoric, perhaps an understanding will follow.

It is for many a difficult proposition to understand a diametrically opposed viewpoint. But I believe if each of us doesn’t make an attempt, then we have no basis for asking for understanding in return.

For instance, I’m of the ‘side’ that believes gay marriage should be embraced. I am firm in my knowledge that being gay or straight is not a polar choice but an innate spectral part of us, and in a world where love is no guarantee, to deny it when gloriously found is akin to denying free water on a hot day.

But what if I attempted to reconcile the other side? How could one believe homosexuality is a choice and devote so much time toward stonewalling other people’s happiness?

There’s at least one explanation. Someone who believes sexual identity is a choice might presumably do so in order to deny their own instincts. Only if it’s a choice can one then choose not to be it. If you are closeted for one reason or another, the worst would be if you had no choice to change that feeling. Then that would mean you just have to be gay.

There are of course answers to why someone would be ashamed of that. Professional pressure. Dogmatic religionists. Corporal punishment. Whatever the reason, perhaps there’s value at least in knowing there is one. And if that reason is tragic, perhaps you could find sympathy for someone you disagree with.

If your entire life is an exercise in suppressing urges, imagine how callous you might become. I can understand how someone like that might expel a gross amount of energy to shield from this lurking truth. This person might grow up to campaign against gay rights, either to ease his ‘choice’ through diminishing the other option, or simply to punish others who don’t share the burden of his upbringing.

Republican Ohio state representative Wes Goodman stepped down last year after being caught having sex in his office with a man who is not his wife. Mr. Goodman was until that point a staunch conservative, promoting anti-LGBT legislation and ‘natural marriage’ as he defined it between a man and a woman. He resigned for ‘inappropriate conduct,’ by which we can presume he means that he cheated on his wife, and not the fact that he is to some degree gay.

Now, I don’t know the reasons why this man did what he did. In 2015, he was accused of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old man, shortly before being elected, so it is possible that he has a history of salacious behavior that was either encouraged or ignored. If true, it’s a difficult thing to forgive. But if he were a man who has bottled a feeling for so long, lived a lie every day of his life, can you understand, despite disagreeing? Can you reason someone’s actions while despising them? 

The more I consider it, the more I believe that peace necessitates our ability to do this.

Because all of us were raised in some fashion against our will. Even if a man like Goodman compresses his desires for reasons less sympathetic, let’s say for power and prestige, there must surely be an underlying reason for that which we might understand. A need to impress his father or some never-defined inferiority complex. Whatever the case, at the root of such hypocritical iniquity has to lie some understandable reason.

I can understand, it turns out, the position of at least someone who opposes gay rights. I understand it, despite my strongly disagreeing. I would also disagree with the reasons that led to that position. I disagree all the way down the line to whatever the hell made someone afraid to be himself. And if that ends up at a kid with scars on his back the shape of his father’s buckle, I wonder if anyone from the other side would be willing to understand that.

But you won’t ever see that kid. You’ll only see the politician he became. You see the state legislator asking for privacy from his electorate, a man shielding his eyes from those who paid for his office. A difficult time for sympathy. But if you disagree vehemently, it is still possible to understand. After all, it’s what you’re asking the other side to do.

We’d like to imagine peace as a natural phenomenon, like some pervasive air, that if people like Goodman would only stop spewing hate then we’d all have enough to breath.

Peace, however, seems more elusive than that. The U.S. has been in conflict for far more years than not. Since its inception, the United States has only witnessed 21 total years of peace. If anything, conflict is our constant nature. And that idea fits into daily life too. You fight for a promotion. To get that date. Beat that light. You fight with yourself over your own body and what it should look like. Maybe you’re living in a rough neighborhood where every day is real survival. Maybe you carry a gun all the time.

Peace in the modern age is an image of ineffectuality. And image counts for a lot. Just like campaigning as an Ohio state representative. You must look tough, and say tough things. And soon enough, you’ll be doing tough things too.

We envision peace as the lack of fight. That’s the problem.

Peace is boring. It has no shape. It’s quiet. Where we used to have the satisfaction of winning, with peace, there’s no winning or losing. No satisfaction. Life just is.

How can any of us viably fight for something we can’t even define? Instead, one side will target the other, suggesting that if we just fight to the death and win then we will finally achieve lasting peace, despite the fact that we’ve never witnessed that even once in the course of human history.

In fact, we tried this. This country, which fought so hard to successfully excise itself from tyranny, couldn’t last even a hundred years before ripping itself apart at the seams. We had every opportunity for peace, but it wasn’t our goal.

We got caught up in states vs federal rights, who owns slavery and should slavery be a thing at all. There is no logical middle ground between the North and the South, no due center where slavery was only sort of acceptable. Because peace has no inherent meaning, it meant something different for each side.

We can fight for our freedom and win it, but that’s where it always seems to end. Freedom at some point replaced peace as a goal.

Freedom in its raw unpolished form looks a lot like anarchy. Laws are after all make-believe, so anarchy dictates you do what you want. The belief is that people do not need the government to tell them how to co-exist. I have no idea if that’s true, but if only for traffic and food safety laws, I’m personally happy we don’t live in total anarchy.

Freedom is not necessarily counter to peace, but it requires understanding. The inevitable byproduct of freedom is disagreement. Someone’s free choice will upset you at some point. That disagreement can lead to conflict, and that’s why our centuries of freedom have lead to centuries of war.

If you take that modicum of effort to understand though, the disagreement loses its teeth, the war is preempted. Accept that the person you disagree with exists, as inexplicably as you do, and believe that person is sincere. You don’t have to change their mind to find peace, but you have to understand.

As we enter a highly contentious midterm election, I am yearning for a candidate that I have never seen. I don’t want one side or the other to win, because that will always produce a loser, which will beget more anger. 

I want the peace candidate. Someone who accepts the reality that this country will never fully agree on anything. We are on many issues looking at each other as the problem. But if someone could dissolve the ‘sides’ and center around the root problems that foment into violent discontent, then I would campaign for that person all day long.

Here’s another social impasse. I believe that women should have the right to abort a pregnancy.

I don’t know if science will ever allow men to know what it’s like to be pregnant, but if we could get pregnant, I’m fairly certain we’d all be pro-choice. Nevertheless, the disagreement on this issue feels insurmountable.

As I view it with my man eyes, the issue boils to its essence with personal agency, control of your own body. Stripping control of another’s body has many names, none of them good, such as kidnapping, prison, and aforementioned slavery.

Where your body is concerned, you expect freedom. Get a tattoo. Lose weight. Shave your back. You can take hormones to change multiple facilities in your body. If it were possible to chop off your body altogether and keep your head running in a jar, the government would have no particular opposition to this because it is your personal freedom. The problem only arises from creating another person inside your own body.

If you conceive another tiny body inside of your body, is it your body? If you take away the politics for a moment, it’s kind of an awesome thought. It makes me wonder, when do we exist?

Does physical attachment define a single body, or does consciousness? Can two consciousnesses reside in the same body, legally speaking? If a life is unaware of itself, does it exist at all? Does that mean I didn’t really exist till I was about three? And does that mean your reality isn’t shared with others because in their reality you’ve already existed for three years and in your reality you just came about?

I wish political discourse was more like this. Partly because it’s interesting, and partly because we’d so quickly realize that we will never have a definitive answer on any of this. Both sides argue with complete certainty over something we must all admit eludes us.

If you believe life begins at conception, and have additionally imbued that with a higher cosmic meaning, then why not believe in an equally strict law governing when and how men can have sex? After all, we’re talking about the very creation of precious life. This is nothing to trifle with. I would also expect an eighteen-year plan until the new life is capable of self-governance. If you wouldn’t allow harm at a point when the proper synapses required to feel harm have even developed, then I would expect more personal devastation when a child goes hungry.

And if you believe in legal abortion, well, you might believe in that for different reasons. Perhaps you don’t believe consciousness begins at conception. Or perhaps you do but see abortion as a difficult but necessary part of the modern world. 

Or maybe you just believe a woman’s body and everything inside it is her own, despite that biologically this new life is made of two different people. Genetically, a baby is as much the father’s as the mother’s. Ownership of one’s body then becomes a complicated matter, because there is a third body that isn’t entirely the mother’s. It isn’t entirely anyone’s.

In some countries, the spouse is required to give approval for an abortion. These particular laws are of course cruelly flawed, because in solving one problem you create another, which is removing personal control from women over their own body.

This particular issue seems binary. If you make it right for one side, the other necessarily loses. It is on an issue like this that I wonder how peace is possible.

But what if we didn’t take sides at all? We may never find an answer to the nature of life or pinpoint the moment we exist. So instead of facing each other at a line in the hopes one side just gives in, we could together circle the actual problem.

The truth of the abortion debate is that the problem is the same for everyone: nobody wants an abortion. The decision to abort a pregnancy is not made flippantly. It is a traumatic experience, sometimes a shameful one. It is not a good day in any woman’s life. Perhaps—all sides might humbly agree that no one wants to need an abortion.

A circle has formed around a problem. How do we foster the scenario where abortions are less common?

The quick and heartless option is to close down clinics and plug our ears when someone explains how back alley abortions work. That is not even close to peace.

If we dug through our disagreement, we might find something we understand. For instance, I don’t see a reverence for human life as a bad thing. But that reverence alone is not enough to stop the scenarios that lead to an abortion. And neither is firebombing clinics.

We could instead promote more educational programs to discuss sexual maturity, because in the post-internet age our kids are learning the wrong lessons all on their own. We could advise safe sex with contraceptives, which prove effective at reducing teen pregnancy rates. If we wanted to get deep, we could develop accessible mental health programs for men who fit a profile to commit rape and perhaps discourage that from happening in the first place.

Even with all that, at some point, someone might still find themselves needing an abortion. But by then, perhaps the anti-abortionist side will have joined the pro-choice side enough to feel like some exceptions can be made. They worked together toward a common problem, any slips through the cracks are theirs to own together. They might be inclined to have sympathy for each other.

If both sides looked at the central problem, they’ll see that the problem isn’t sex, it’s unwanted pregnancy. It’s not unholy women, it’s sexual behavior and rape. Agreeing on the root problem is a step toward understanding, and understanding is critical to peace. If I can fight to understand an anti-LGBT adulterer, then I expect it is at least possible for an anti-abortionist to understand a decent woman on the worst day of her life.

Peace is messy. You can’t expect peace to always feel good. They say that a good deal is when both sides are mutually uncomfortable, and I think there’s some wisdom in that. Because so long as we insist on finding the true winner, we will continually fight not to be the loser. Only if we remove the red and the blue altogether can we begin to define peace.

Twice a year in Siena, Italy, a famous centuries-old horse race known as the Palio di Siena takes place. Siena is comprised of seventeen wards, known as contrade, and each ward has a horse and jockey in the race. In any given race, only ten of the seventeen contrade will participate, the last seven racing in the next Palio.

The race is only 90 seconds or so, but the whole event lasts about a week. And during the week, each contrada’s pride is on full display. In fact, these factions are so old, some living within the same ward for centuries, that it becomes far more than a horse race. It’s personal.

Friends and family alike will feel this divide throughout the week. When I studied in Italy, locals would share stories of wives and husbands living in separate quarters during this week, if their respective families originally came from different contrades. If you come from generations of Sienese, you will indeed be forced (willingly) into jeering the opposing contrade, some of which assuredly hold your friends and loved ones.

The race itself is highly controversial for its historic lack of safety measures. Jockeys have been severely injured, horses have been killed. But when the 90 seconds are up, if your contrada won, you’re not worrying about that. You’re celebrating.

Why is this race so important? The original Palio was a replacement for bullfighting, which was outlawed in 1590. It was originally raced with buffalo, then donkeys, and eventually horses in 1633.

I’m sorry, you wanted to know why the race is so important. It’s not. It’s really really not. Friends and family forget their love in favor of flag loyalty. Animals have literally died. Sure you might get to toast champagne, but it’s far more likely you’ll lick your literal wounds. Nevertheless, they’ve been doing it for centuries. And even new countries like the U.S. have a hard time breaking tradition.

Like the World Series, the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup…every emotion is centered around being the sole winner. Because somewhere in the neolithic parts of our DNA, we know that winning means survival, and losing means death. Losing means your family ends forever.

Peace, it would be easy to say, would follow the dissolution of the Palio. The race would be nought. There would be no contrades, only one city. Friends and family could remain so without the obligatory week of vitriol. People would come to realize the contrade, much like our district lines, have been adjusted and rejoined over the years, affirming that all of it is fabricated to begin with.

Here lies the problem that worries me. We could become so enlightened as to dissolve all sides, whether political party or neighborhood or sports teams. We might then become closer to that vision of circling a problem as a single group.

But what if peace itself is the problem?

I have a guess as to why they continue the Palio after all these years. It’s the same reason we watch the Super Bowl despite the almost guaranteed cognitive trauma it encourages. It’s the same reason a hockey fan like me can argue in 2018 for bare knuckle fist fighting to occur at any point in a match.

We’re built to fight. Sports, competition of any kind, allows us to release that valve. Like your sweetheart pug disemboweling a goose down pillow, we bring that ancient anger with us into everything from daily life to politics. Maybe you’re not competing against a person, maybe you just need to get a project done by store close and you’re fighting the clock. Whatever the enemy, it seems we are always inclined to find one.

Peace removes that valve release. Deep down, we’re addicted to competition. We haven’t evolved for peace. Not only that, but peace makes us vulnerable. And nature itself pits the fittest against the weakest to survive. After all, it’s the reason we homo sapiens are still here to argue with each other.

But just as we’ve evolved into our love-of-winning selves now, it is possible to evolve further.

Peace needs rebranding. It needs to be taken out of abstract fantasy and given dimension. Because peace does not come from winning, and certainly not from losing. We pass peace by every time we oscillate along this history of conflict.

I hope at some point we can enter a non-accusatory tone as a country, and work together against what I see as overlapping problems rather than each other.

Fighting is really easy. It appears to be the most natural part of ourselves. It’s the part that makes someone build bombs and put them in the mail when they’re angry.

Peace is way more impressive. Because you must fight yourself, your own instincts and beliefs. You must fight the urge to label those who protest against you an enemy. You don’t have to agree, but you must try to understand. 

I’m inclined to believe that rhetoric from our president did encourage a man to put bombs in the mail. But I also believe there are other reasons that go far back, that this man was once a boy, and somewhere in between he became very lost. Perhaps an understanding back then would have prevented this altogether.

None of this is to say don’t vote. No need to be extremist. Voting is one of the most pure and beautiful parts of our growing country. Please vote your heart out and do your best with the system that’s in place. Hey, maybe we will all agree some day that fair, accurate, and inclusive elections are the perfect example of a mutual problem that we can all solve together!

This is not an overnight change. Just nurture that seed of empathy, spread some around. You will at some point again feel that sharp pang of anger when you hear an opponent argue against you. It makes you want to shout back, to label the other. But if you can try instead to understand, you will have accomplished something that entire empires have failed to do. You will have inadvertently built peace.

© C G 2018