Friday, June 01, 2007

Canada Ranked Eighth in Peace: What Does It Really Mean?


Sounds nice, eh?

It's tricky, though. Even within the broad popular grouping who would have no hesitation identifying with the label "anti-war" it is a hotly contested idea, and a very slippery one.

The Economist Intelligence Unit -- some sort of research outfit associated with the magazine The Economist, whose predelictions you can probably get an idea of from its name even if you are not familiar with it -- and some academics from the field of Peace Studies, with the endorsement of notables like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Amnesty International, and Dr. Helen Caldicott, have declared that Canada is the eighth most peaceful country on the planet. What exactly should we make of this?

My first reaction, much in tune with one of the underlying themes of a lot of writing on this site over the years, was to sigh at the boost this announcement might give to smug Canadian liberals, particularly given that our neighbour to the south -- the "we are not" that gives meaning to the "we" embraced by so many English-speaking liberals and left nationalists in this country -- was ranked 96th.

I quickly took this initial reaction in check, however, because it bumped up against another one of my political pet peeves: the ways in which "peace" gets treated by the broad spectrum we might label "progressive." My objection is that most people who are anti-war refuse to critically engage with the notion of "peace." Both words in that phrase are important: Some people engage with it but not critically, while others are critical but don't really engage, and very few do both.

On the one hand, you have a group who embrace the idea of "peace" but have little analysis of how that idea can actually function in the real world and are generally resistant to developing such an analysis. The problem is that often "peace" is defined as an absence of acute conflict, which leaves structural violence -- that is, harm and suffering that is the result of domination of one group by another that has been sufficiently successful as to make itself appear normal and just part of "how things are" -- largely invisible. Or, if not invisible, then treated as being less of a problem than acute conflict arising from actions by the oppressed to try and change their circumstances. This reflexive valuing of relative costs and benefits by people who need experience neither can be explicit and near total or it can be heatedly denied and clothed in a more substantive analysis. Often this is accompanied by an insistence that the oppressed use processes of change that have been set up by their oppressor and that are stacked against them, such as involvement in strictly electoral politics. (And I should add that direct action that is explicitly nonviolent can be rhetorically mobilized in a similar fashion as well but, in contrast with some others, I do not believe that action that is explicitly nonviolent inevitably serves this function, but I'm not going to get into that here.)

This leads into the other extreme, the folks who dismiss "peace" but without seriously engaging with it. Often, they make arguments similar to the ones that I have made in the paragraph above. They value resistance, which I think is important. At the same time, they often refuse to see that even though "peace" can be mobilized as an ideology to delegitimize resistance of various sorts, that is not the sum total of what it is and how it works; it is much more complex than that. Even using a fairly conventional understanding of the term, "peace" is a component of what we struggle for and its absence can cause significant harm to ordinary people. The fact is, lots of ordinary people who struggle daily in everyday ways place a high premium on peace for very valid and important reasons, and if we fail to recognize that then we are at risk of disconnecting struggle from real people's real lives. I certainly believe that the path to a better world leads through intensified collective social conflict, but the best direction for struggle in any given moment cannot simply be assumed to be the one that wratchets things up. Social conflict is a complicated thing and its results always contain some ambivalence, and how to act in any particular moment must be determined based on what is actually happening, not on a kind of abstract millenarian desire for that perfect moment of perfectly polarized conflict after which everything will be better. (This can also show up at a tactical level, as with some people who hold this view who sometimes fetishize a particular approach to struggle and end up approaching questions about how to act in ways that are more about a very atomized kind of self-expression than about what is actually most likely to create change.)

I would also add that for me an additional reason to give respect to ideas of "peace" is as part of giving respect to people who use that vocabulary and those ideas in ways that recognize the complexity of what is going on and who struggle against the term's ideological and oppressive mainstream usage. In particular, there are definitely important things to be learned from some of the more left leaning proponents of Peace Studies as a discipline. And perhaps more important is the place that "peace" holds in some strands of indigenous North American thought, in particular among the Iroquois nations, whose traditional social relations were (and, to the extent that colonization allows, still are) centred on a complex and wholistic notion of peace far more comprehensive and (when contrasted with dominant social relations in North America) radical than the connotations that word usually holds in English.

So. Peace: be skeptical, but listen.

That means that to understand what this study and this ranking means, we have to examine it in a little bit more detail -- as the post from which I heard of this observed, it is worth wondering whether certain aspects of Canadian state and state-sanctioned behaviour have really been taken account of.

At the heart of this study is a single composite indicator, the "global peace index", which is based on scores established in twenty-four specific indicators.

I have mixed feelings about approaches which produce a single, quantiative readout to describe complex and often very qualitative aspects of the world. On the one hand, I can see how, in certain limited circumstances, within the context of a grouping or community or collective that has worked towards shared political values, it might be useful as one tool among many to get a handle on complicated situations. However, that is not generally how such indexes get used. The ways in which the single, composite indicators get constructed are very, very political, but because it is the sort of work usually done by "experts", the inherently political nature of the task is often disguised. "Experts" mostly ground themselves within ruling relations, and that standpoint usually gets embedded in the indicator, but in ways disguised by the fig leaf of technical professionalism. As well, reducing complex realities to a single number cannot help but be homogenizing. Even without looking at the indicators that went into the composite, you have to ask whether this high rating for peace reflects the experiences of indigenous youth living in Six Nations or Kashechewan or Black youth in Toronto or women in the sex trade in Vancouver, say, or does it reflect the experiences of heteronormative middle-class white 905ers? Because it is hard to see how it could possibly reflect both in any meaningful way.

Still, it is important to look at what the study actually considers. On the face of it, there is some reason for optimism (the involvement of a major mouthpiece of the capitalist establishment notwithstanding.) The study's introduction recognizes some of the complexities of the issue:

The concept of peace is notoriously difficult to define. The simplest way of approaching it is in terms of harmony achieved by the absence of war or conflict. Applied to nations, this would suggest that those not involved in violent conflicts with neighbouring states or suffering internal wars would have achieved a state of peacefulness. While this is in a sense true, it is clearly a limited definition, or what Galtung described as a “negative peace”. A country that is not at war may be governed by oppressive institutions that restrict the rights of individuals and engender feelings of suspicion and mistrust. Indeed, it has been suggested that policies based on the ideas of negative peace do not deal with the causes of violence, only its manifestations, and may be insufficient to bring lasting conditions of peace.

The majority of peace studies in recent years have turned their attention to the concept of “positive peace”, arguing that a more complete evaluation of peacefulness should also account for the conditions which are favourable to the emergence of peace. One obvious drawback of this approach is the difficulty of defining the determinants of a positive peace — although the trend amongst peace researchers has been to include elements such as freedom, human rights and justice. This echoes views such as those of Albert Einstein: “Peace is not merely the absence of war but the presence of justice, of law, of order--in short, of government.” [references in original]

My inner anarchist did, in fact, roll his eyes at the Einstein quote -- seems to me that positive peace, in the sense of social relations that do not depend on massive violence and oppression, would actually be indicated by the lack of need for government. But I don't want to be dismissive, and there is still some potentially good stuff in there.

Unfortunately, I don't think that the nuts and bolts of how the study was done reflect "positive peace" in any way that I would consider to be meaningful. Take a look at the twenty-four indicators and the methodology. The indicators measure important things, for sure. Most, however, seem to deal with the involvement of the state in acute conflict, internal or external; the measures taken by the state to prepare for such conflict; or the level of acute ambient societal violence, like murder rate. There are some indicators that relate to social justice -- rate of incarceration, for example, and level of internally displaced people. There is only one indicator that explicitly considers respect for human rights, and when you look at the details of what that means, it becomes clear that they are considering only political rights in a particular, conventional sense.

Don't get me wrong, I think it is important to understand the level of militarism in a society, the level of acute social violence, the level of direct political repression. But this model is very clearly based on an ideal represented by smoothly functioning liberal-democracy, and the things that liberal-democracy always refuses to take seriously are ommitted or downplayed in this measurement.

Would this scale capture the difference between structural violence against members of a society that is not currently resulting in acute political unrest and resistance -- in other words, successful oppression and repression -- and actual positive peace? I don't think so. Structural violence would only register during periods when it sparked acute resistance, and only then indirectly, with the resistance marked more directly as the "bad thing". The direct political repression with which that resistance would inevitably be met would also register as a "bad thing", but not the oppressive and/or exploitative social relations sparking the resistance to begin with.

Would anything in this index reflect how many or how few people on social assistance in Canada were suffering long term health impacts due to inadequate rates, unless that inadequacy resulted in disruptive resistance? I don't think so.

Would anything in this index reflect the structural violence of, say, deaths due to contaminated water that would be preventable if resources were used more justly, whether that happened in a First Nations community in Canada or in a village in subsaharan Africa? Nope.

Would anything in this index reflect specifically gendered violence, like rape and sexual assault? It would be subsumed under the general rates for violent crime and murder.

Would anything in this index reflect the prevalence of the violence that African American legal scholar Patricia Williams describes as the "spirit-murder" of everyday racism? I don't think so.

Would anything in this index reflect how much of the wealth produced in a given territory by working people is stolen from them by those people whose right to own capital is enforced by state violence? Not at all, unless it is so bad that there is acute uprising.

Would this index reflect in any meaningful way an unequal and unjust distribution of the benefits of positive peace within a society? Again, only if those deprived of those benefits were in a stage of active and militant resistance.

Even taking each nation-state as a self-contained unit, itself a liberal-democratic fiction with significant political consequences, it seems to me there are far too many forms of violence omitted for this to claim to be at all a meaningful measure of positive peace. Certainly, it measures important things, but not "peace" in the sense that I think it is politically crucial to understand it.

And it only becomes worse when you consider not just social relations within a state but global social relations.

Take the example above of a person dying from contaminate water in subsaharan Africa. In terms of the technical resources and wealth existing on the planet today, the vast majority of such deaths are entirely preventable. I would therefore understand them as a form of structural violence, and therefore as a lack of positive peace, if that term is to have any meaning at all. As observed above, this violence does not really register in this index, or if it does it is only indirectly, and only if it has sparked acute resistance and consequent direct repression. Otherwise, this structural violence is understood as "peace."

It gets worse, though, when you really think of what is causing that structural violence. If it registers at all, it is a negative mark against the country in which it occurs. It has no chance of registering as violence related to the rich countries whose diplomats have aggressively pursused particular global regimes of finance, trade, and economics that have forced countries in the Global South to cut social spending -- in other words, have impeded their already very limited ability to mobilize resources to address structural violence like contaminated water. And let's not forget that these diplomats also engage quite casually in very blatant neocolonial interference in the internal affairs of countries in subsaharan Africa. And all of this is in the context of global relations of production that have formed over the course of centuries, so that the people of an extremely resource-rich continent like Africa suffer disproportionate levels of structural violence of all sorts. And countries like Canada and the United States actively resist, in ways large and small, the sorts of changes that would be required to address these centuries of cumulative murder and robbery, thereby ensuring that they continue (a certain level of high profile "aid" that is inadequate and based on a dependency-reinforcing charity model rather than a justice model notwithstanding.)

I do not dismiss the significance of the state that I live in coming 8th in the Global Peace Index. It indicates things about the society in which I live that make me, relatively speaking, happy to be raising a child here. I'm glad that indicators of things like levels of militarism, levels of incarceration, rates of murder, and so on provide this relatively positive outcome.

But the understanding of "peace" built into the index is a very incomplete and unhealthy one. It reflects only part of the peace we need to struggle to achieve. And presenting an understanding of violence and peace in this form, and ranking Canada in this way, gives a woefully inadequate picture of the relationship between the various entities subsumed under the label "Canada" and violence experienced here and around the world -- a woefully inadequate picture that will only serve to reinforce certain systemic blindnesses experienced by many in the broad progressive spectrum in Canada.


Red Jenny said...

Nice in-depth analysis. I remember when I read the study, noticing a complete absence of gendered violence. Maybe I've been unlucky, but a very large proportion of the women I know have experienced violence in their lives. This is important because I would argue that a feeling of safety is pretty important to "peace" and a big part of gendered violence is that feeling of never being safe, whether or not one is currently experiencing the violence. I use that as an example because it is something personal to me, but there's no shortage of other examples. Gay-bashing is one. Bullying in schools yet another.

What about environmental destruction like what Barrick Gold is perpetrating, which causes misery and suffering to people in non-Canadian countries?

Of course, it's an index, meaning relative scores anyways. If you ranked 100 brutal oppressive violent dictatorships, one of them would still come out #1. To me, this is relevant, because I think there's a certain amount of violence inherent in the liberal-democratic nation-state system itself.

Scott said...

Hi RJ, and thanks!

Yeah, I don't think it's that you are just unlucky...the vast majority of the women that I know well enough to know this about them have also experienced gendered violence of one form or another. I would imagine that some people might argue that the indicator talking about distrust of fellow citizens and the one about violent crime would capture those ideas even if those indicators are not explicitly gendered, but I don't buy that...the distrust indicator is basically just a guess by the Economist Intelligence Unit staff, as far as I could tell, and there is no guarantee that "fear generated by pervasive gender violence" would register in their deliberations. And even if it did, does it really do justice to what's going on to present an average of the (and I know I'm simplifying here) half the population that mostly doesn't feel that fear and the half that has to navigate it everyday? I don't think so.

And your mention of gay-bashing makes me think of another sort of violence that would not be captured: certain kinds of suicide. In particular, I'm thinking of the elevated suicide rates among queer youth and among indigenous youth living on reserve. Seems to me that has to be understood as socially produced, however much it might be an individual act.

Good point about the relative scores...I hadn't quite thought of it that way. And I think a point related to that and to some of the stuff I say in the post is that by putting all 120 countries together on the same list with no further comment, the study is implying the nature of the relations among if it makes sense to treat as equivalent sorts of entities the U.S. state and the Nigerian state, for example. The equality implied by judging them on the same unilinear scale just doesn't exist in the real world.

(On a completely unrelated note, I thought I would add a point of clarifcation for readers outside of Ontario: I refer to "905ers" at one point above. That refers to the area code that covers the territory around Toronto but not the urban part of the city...though it does include poorer areas too, like downtown Hamilton, it is often understood as a heartland of middle-class Ontario.)