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Everyday Peace

January 19, 2022

Book review: Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict (OUP, 2021). By Roger Mac Ginty.

I once wrote in a poem that ‘every violence is intimate’. I was taken to task at the time by a fellow poet who’d been a bomb loader in the RAF as a teenager during the Second World War. But I still think I was right.

I was reminded of this when reading Roger Mac Ginty’s new book, Everyday Peace: How So-called Ordinary People Can Disrupt Violent Conflict (OUP, 2021). Because in making a case for what he calls Everyday Peace, Mac Ginty seems to be saying that much of what constitutes and enables peace in a given context is the collection of many, many small-scale ‘hyperlocal’ acts of intentional omission and commission done by people as they go about their day. Intimate peace, perhaps.

To be clear, he is not saying that all peace is local, simply that in understanding peace, we need to consider the everyday as well as looking on a wider scope and scale at grander, more obviously political actions: peace processes, political deals, government policies, international negotiations, and the like.

Everyday peace, he points out, includes acts of tolerance and kindness between neighbours – perhaps neighbours from ‘opposing’ communities. It includes routine actions such as greeting neighbours civilly or shopping in the same market; one-off actions such as helping out a person or a family in trouble; and rarer actions that require us to stand up against societal norms, even when these are brutally enforced, such as when young Germans stood up against the Nazis, or Sudanese soldiers more recently acted to protect, rather than fire upon civilian demonstrators in Khartoum. The book reminds us that when asked what constitutes peace for them, people across the world almost always include commonplace issues such as the freedom to hang out with others, send their children to school, conduct business affairs safely, and so on.

The book draws on many years of research, and also on Mac Ginty’s personal experience of growing up in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. He brings both an academic and a very human approach to the work.

The book is a helpful reminder that while formal, political peace processes and peacebuilding remain essential, so as to create the space in which Everyday Peace can flourish, they will also fail in the absence of Everyday Peace. Both are therefore part of the rich ecology of peace and peacefulness.

The continuum of Everyday Peace

Mac Ginty introduces a simple continuum of Everyday Peace, characterised by three overlapping categories of norms and behaviour:

Sociality <-> Reciprocity <-> Solidarity

… with Solidarity representing the strongest and most effective form of Everyday Peace, and Sociality being weaker but still better than no peace at all.

An example of Sociality might be when a business woman purposefully employs members of another ethnic group, driven perhaps by a sense of empathy and an appreciation of the need to use her influence to help build bridges for the greater good. Reciprocity, as the name implies, includes when people from antagonistic communities reach out in collaboration because they understand they ‘need each other’. And Solidarity is when the ‘circuits’ of people from different groups are genuinely entangled in a way that supports a sense of common identity. The book provides real examples of these three types of Everyday Peace from various contexts.

Circuits, power, families and courage

Everyday Peace as a concept highlights the importance of overlapping, entangled, ‘circuits’ that contribute to our sense of identity and motivation, driving and enabling our choices and actions. Each of us is part of several different circuits, for example a state security operative may also be a church member and part of a peer group that attended university together, and is subject to the different motivations and norms, and can avail himself of the different opportunities each circuit entails.

The concept also rightly emphasises the importance of power or agency in permitting and enabling individuals to behave in the way they do. It’s welcome that in considering the scalability of Everyday Peace, the book acknowledges the importance of the family – i.e. almost the smallest scale – in fomenting values and behaviour; and acknowledges too that the family is a unit of society in which, if it is itself ‘everyday peaceful’, thus contributes as a peaceful component, to a peaceful society more widely.

It’s also welcome that Mac Ginty highlights the importance of courage, bravery and leadership to peace, as this is often forgotten. For example, in a context where two communities live side by side but with a history of unresolved enmity – an all-too-common scenario – it can require a great deal of courage to reach out across the inter-community divide. If doing so goes against community norms, this can lead to ostracization or worse by members of one’s own in-group. And of course the Sudanese soldiers mentioned earlier may well have put themselves at risk of their own lives, by protecting the protestors.

In praise of negative peace

The book is also welcome in its acknowledgement of the importance of negative peace. Negative peace – put simply, when armed violence has stopped, but its causes remain unresolved – has a bad press in peacebuilding circles. Quite rightly, peacebuilders decry negative peace as unsustainable, citing the risk of a return to violence because of unresolved grievances. But sometimes a form of negative peace is as much as can be achieved for now: or in better circumstances, it provides a platform of short-term stability that can be built upon and converted to ‘positive peace’ – i.e. the capacity to anticipate, manage and resolve tensions and conflicts without resort to violence, and promote fairness.

Mac Ginty provides examples of the small things people do in conflict-prone societies to avoid the tripwires they see around them: to avoid exacerbating tensions or triggering incidents. In one of his Northern Ireland examples, he cites his own attempt to minimise potential problems with people from ‘the other’ community in Northern Ireland by making sure his hire car radio is not tuned to ‘the wrong station’ when he returns it to the airport. That he feels the need to do so is an indication of the negative peace that still persists there. But that he does so as an act of Everyday Peace is an example of how individuals learn how to behave in ways that maintain stability and avoid inflaming tensions, as part of their everyday.

Language

Mac Ginty takes great care over his choice of words, recognising their importance in creating or perpetuating the lens through which we regard any given context. This matters, and his choice of metaphors is careful and helpful. He talks about ‘scaling out’, rather than just ‘scaling up’ – acknowledging that everyday peace acts may transfer more effectively on the horizontal, than the vertical plane. And he borrows Jean Paul Lederach’s idea of ‘critical yeast’, to replace ‘critical mass’, as a way to describe the organic processes through which Everyday Peace ideas and behaviours can trabsfer, grow and evolve within and between communities and societies.

I would however take issue with way he describes the difference between local and other dimensions: frequently characterising them in terms of levels. This is a common problem in peace (and other) studies. It’s true that one can helpfully differentiate between ‘levels’ of government and administration: from national/state downwards to county, to municipality, for example. This ‘vertical’ trope can be helpful in analysing power and subsidiarity. But it seems to me that to talk of everyday peace actions as happening at a ‘local level’ is to undermine his core idea somewhat, and could perhaps lead to wrong-headed policy responses (since ‘the essential character of metaphor is prophetic‘ as Denis Donoghue has written). Surely it is a more three-dimensional issue of scope and scale, than of level?


But that’s a small criticism. Mac Ginty ends by asking four questions of his own analysis. Is Everyday Peace really peace, or is it just tolerance and an unsustainable status quo? How significant is it, in the scheme of things? Given its small scale, by definition, and often somewhat hidden nature, how can researchers or peace promoters see, measure or harness it? And finally, to what extent does it connect up and out to, and nourish, other peace dynamics on a larger scale?

Rightly I think, he finds that Everyday Peace does matter – even if in some cases it is ‘merely tolerance’ – as it provides the basis for non-violent co-existence and creates the potential for more. He recommends that researchers – and, I would add, policy makers and peacebuilders – train their eyes and ears so they are better attuned to the subtleties of Everyday Peace. (Though they also need to take care not to mess with peace capacities they understand poorly, and potentially undermine them through ignorance.) And he makes a good case that Everyday Peace is indeed part of the interconnected ecology that enables peaceful co-existence, at least partly through the interaction of the complex ‘circuitry’ that helps describe and explain relationships and people’s motivation.

I recommend this book. It’s easy to read, even for this non-academic reader. It flows well and although it presents a somewhat original concept, it does so with relative humility. Despite suggesting plausibly that Everyday Peace is the ‘first and last’ peace (representing the first peaceful acts as violence diminishes, and the last peaceful acts as violence takes hold), this is stated quietly: he doesn’t call it the Alpha and Omega of peace!

Perhaps, returning to poetry where I began, Mac Ginty is a fan of Keats’s idea of Negative Capability: that we don’t need to claim or even aim for certainty, and that exploring an important idea is already a good step made.

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