Question: I have watched children many times pushing and shoving one another at play or in the school lunch line. Isn’t such aggressiveness an innate tendency among human beings?
Answer: Aggressiveness may appear, to members of most societies, to be an inherent trait of humanity. A vast amount of scholarship and popular writings certainly describe such tendencies, though a lot of research has also been done on the pro-social tendencies of humanity. Some of the literature about the peaceful societies describes the processes whereby children learn, at a very young age, to overcome or ignore whatever aggressive feelings they may have and to seek to resolve conflicts without violence. The critical issue, really, is not innate aggressiveness in humanity but societies that successfully find ways to overcome it if it arises.
Q: Could any of the peaceful societies serve as effective models for a contemporary society that wanted to form a more peaceful nation state?
A: Probably not. Most societies have their own unique ways of patterning social interactions; adopting the ways of other societies probably would not work. But having said that, the peaceful societies can provide inspiration and ideas for people who believe that peace between nations is possible and that more nonviolent contemporary societies can be achieved. Studying peaceful societies is more valuable for the inspiration and ideas of what might be possible than for concrete prescriptions that will quickly heal our problems.
Q: Even if peaceful societies do exist, and do demonstrate that nonviolence is really possible, can present day societies become less violent? Have any of the peaceful societies—or any others for that matter—demonstrated this point by transforming themselves from patterns of violence into cultures of peacefulness?
A: Yes, indeed. The Fipa, a complex society of over 100,000 farming people in southwestern Tanzania, apparently endured quite a lot of violence and warfare until the mid-nineteenth century, shortly before Western contact, when they formed a much more peaceful social system. When they eliminated their interstate warfare, they also developed new beliefs and social patterns that fostered interpersonal nonviolence. A more familiar example of change would be the violent Viking sea rovers who laid waste the coastal areas of Europe a thousand years ago. Now, after a millennium of gradual change, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year in Norway, a society famed for its lack of violence compared to most other countries.
Q: Could the U.S. ever become a peaceful society?
A: Why not? Americans could become more peaceful if they wished. But as long as the American media glorifies aggressiveness and violence, and national leaders promote war as the solution to international problems, change will be slow and difficult. The lesson of the peaceful societies is to highlight what may not be obvious: that nonviolence for an entire society is possible.
Q: The peaceful societies are all small-scale. Surely the vast-scale societies cannot adopt the close-knit ways of the peaceful societies in order to become nonviolent?
A: Of course a vast, contemporary nation could not adopt a lot of the close-knit ways of a small-scale, peaceful society. But some of the beliefs and practices of these small groups of peoples should challenge the established values of the contemporary world. For example:
- Raising Children. Most people in the peaceful societies raise their children to avoid violence. Shouldn’t citizens of the contemporary world question the way so many people raise children to accept, even turn to, aggression to solve problems?
- Systems of Beliefs. Many of the peaceful societies hold their nonviolence at the centers of their belief systems. In contrast, many people in contemporary societies tend to minimize the peace elements in their faith traditions in order to foster social agendas that depend on continued violence. If contemporary societies were to also cherish the peaceful elements in their systems of beliefs and accept nonviolence as the foundation of their worldviews, might that not have a profound impact on their levels of violence?
Q: The central values of society that I hear a lot about are competition, ego-centrism, and satisfying the needs of number one. How do the peaceful societies fit in with those modes of thinking?
A: Many of them have very different ways of thinking. Since peacefulness is a central value, many of them believe that the harmony of the whole society is a higher goal than the satisfaction of self-centered individual needs.
Q: How could peaceful societies stand up to a brutal dictator like Hitler?
A: The presumption of this question is that the aggressors, the Hitlers of the world, set the agenda that others must follow: the only way to survive is to fight. On the contrary, the social science literature about the peaceful societies describes many ways these peoples overcome violence and oppression. The historical literature also describes several hundred examples of nonviolent resistance to oppression, including at least one against the Nazis. Read the peaceful societies literature and Gene Sharp if you are skeptical.
Q: Are there any anthropologists who disagree with the evidence about peaceful societies? What do they say?
A: Yes indeed, some disagree strongly. Betzig and Wichimai (1991), for instance, attempt to discredit the peacefulness of the Ifaluk islanders. Robarchek and Dentan (1987) and Dentan (1988) respond to published criticisms of Semai peacefulness. Readers should carefully study the challenges as well as the literature that describes the peacefulness of the Ifaluk and the Semai and form their own conclusions. Please see the Encyclopedia of Selected Peaceful Societies for leads into the literature.