Swords into plowshares | An interview with Paul K. Chappell, Part 3

Reposted from The MOON Magazine, June 26, 2017.

Chappell: Aggression is like heat from a fire; it’s a symptom of a deeper underlying emotion. The same with anger, which is basically a synonym for aggression. Underlying emotions that can result in anger or aggression include fear, humiliation, betrayal, frustration, guilt, or feeling disrespected. Aggression is always caused by pain or discomfort. People don’t become aggressive because they feel good. Trauma often results in aggression. Adults can become aggressive today over something that happened when they were five years old.

Peace literacy involves recognizing aggression as a distress response. When we see someone behaving aggressively, we recognize instantly that “This person must be in some kind of pain.” Then we ask ourselves questions like, “Why is this person distressed?” “What can I do to alleviate their discomfort?” We have a more practical framework for interacting with someone.

Similarly, when I become aggressive, I’m trained to ask myself, “What’s going on? Why am I feeling this way? Is something triggering my traumatic tangles of shame, mistrust, or alienation?”

Without this discipline, people just tend to lash out. They have a bad day at work so they take it out on their partner. They get in an argument with their spouse, so they take it out on the person behind the check-out counter. But with self-awareness, we can remind ourselves to look to the underlying cause.

The training also gives people techniques to calm themselves down. For example, if you get into a conflict with someone you can give them the benefit of the doubt. Recognizing that most human conflict is caused by people feeling disrespected, and that most disrespect is caused by misunderstanding or miscommunication, giving someone the benefit of the doubt means seeking clarification of their intent and not jumping to conclusions or reacting out of ignorance.

Another tool to calm oneself down is to not take the situation personally. Whatever conflict you’re having with someone else is probably just a fraction of whatever is going on with them. You can let yourselves both off the hook by realizing that simple fact.

A third technique is to counter a momentary conflict with thoughts of the qualities you appreciate in this person. Conflict can easily blow things out of proportion, but if you have trained your mind to instantly begin to appreciate someone the moment a conflict arises, it will help you keep the conflict in perspective. People will destroy friendships, workplace relationships, and family and intimate relationships as a result of conflict that gets blown out of proportion. Years later, people might not even remember what it was they argued about. Like any skill, this takes practice.

A fourth technique is simply to remind yourself that the other person must be in some kind of discomfort or pain. I might not know what it is; they might not even know what it is; but if I can give them the benefit of the doubt, realize they must be in pain, not take their actions personally, and remind myself of all the things I appreciate about them, I won’t be as likely to return their aggression and I will be more likely to turn the conflict into a positive outcome for both of us.

The MOON: The fifth aspect of peace literacy might be the most ambitious of all: Literacy in the nature of reality. Is there even any agreement on the nature of reality?

Chappell: I talk about it from several angles. One is that humans are unique among species in the amount they have to learn to be fully human. Many other creatures have to learn various skills for survival, but no other species requires as much training as humans to simply become who we are. Training can involve things like mentors, role models, culture, and formal education, but we need training in order to maximize our capacities. This is an aspect of the nature of reality no matter what culture you’re born into: humans require training to unlock their full capacities.

In the military there’s a saying, “When things go wrong, examine the training.” When we examine the training most people receive in our society, it’s a wonder things aren’t less peaceful than they are.

Understanding the nature of reality helps us come to terms with complexity: human brains are complex; human problems are complex; human solutions are likely to be complex. That’s just the nature of reality. We don’t expect it to be any different.

Another aspect of reality is that all progress requires struggle. Civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights, human rights, environmental rights—making progress means embracing struggle. Many people, though, try to avoid struggle. They’re afraid of it, or they prefer to think that progress is inevitable, or they believe a fallacy, such as “time heals all wounds.” Time doesn’t heal all wounds! Time can further healing or infection. What we do with time determines whether it heals. There are people who become more compassionate with time, and there are people who become more hateful.

Many people don’t want to do the work that struggle requires. They’d rather say, “The young people will have to solve it.” But a 65-year-old could live another 30 years; what are they going to do with that time? Wait for the Millennials to do all the work? Older people could play a critical role in creating the change our world needs, and I know many who inspire me with the work they are doing.

There’s no example of great progress, great achievement, or great victory without struggle. So peace activists have to embrace the reality that struggle is inevitable if we want progress; and they also have to embrace the reality that it will require skills that must be developed.

I think some peace activists fear struggle because they don’t have the necessary skill set to make the most of struggle, in which case, struggle can be very frightening. Just as you wouldn’t want to go into battle without training, you might not want to engage in peace activism without training. But training is available.

The MOON: In our previous interview, you asked us to “Imagine if America’s reputation around the world were strictly for providing humanitarian aid; if, whenever there was a disaster, the Americans came, helped, and left.” Are we in a position to begin envisioning this role for the military?

Chappell:  I think that the underlying ways of thinking haven’t changed enough for us to transform our military into a strictly humanitarian force. Our thinking has to shift first. There is still an overwhelming belief in the use of military force to solve problems. It’s a tragedy because the American people—and of course people in other parts of the world, as well—would be better off if we abolished war and put that money into healthcare, education, clean energy, rebuilding infrastructure, and all kinds of peacetime research. But the underlying attitudes haven’t changed enough to see that yet.

Even progressives who profess belief in “one humanity,” often can’t talk to a Trump supporter without getting angry. Peace literacy is a far more comprehensive understanding than a clichéd belief that “we’re all one.” Peace literacy enables you to talk to anyone and understand the root causes of people’s suffering, which allows us to heal those root causes. That requires a deep level of empathy. The only way I know to get it is through a lot of personal work. There are many people who recognize our shared humanity on a conscious level, but who haven’t fully internalized it. We’ve got to give people sustained guidance and instruction to make that shift. Otherwise, it’s like reading “Love your enemy” in the Bible. You need a lot of skills and practice to actually do it. That’s what peace literacy is.

The MOON: What if we repurposed the military to teach peace literacy?

Chappell: Actually, I did learn most of my peace literacy skills at West Point, which shows you how bad the peace literacy training is in our country. [Laughs] For example, West Point taught me, “Praise in public, punish in private.” They knew it was counter-productive to publicly humiliate someone. The military also taught the importance of leading by example and of leading from a foundation of respect.

The MOON: What about “Cooperate and graduate”?

Chappell: [Laughs] Yeah, cooperate and graduate! That was like a mantra at West Point: we were all held responsible for our classmates’ success. That’s not something you hear at most American schools. “One team, one fight,” was another West Point saying. At the end of the day, despite our disagreements, we’re all on the same team.

The MOON: I was surprised by—but grateful for—the last two aspects of peace literacy: literacy in our responsibility to animals and to creation. Will you say more about why these are important to peace literacy?

Chappell: Humans have the capacity to destroy the biosphere and most life on Earth. The only way to counterbalance that immense power is with an equally profound sense of responsibility—which is a kind of literacy. Animals are basically powerless against humans. They can’t organize any kind of rebellion or resistance; we can basically do whatever we want with them. This means that we have a moral obligation to them.

A lot of cultures judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable. Orphans and widows are the classic case in the Old Testament; prisoners are another vulnerable class used to measure the morality of a people. Animals are the most vulnerable group of all. Caring for them is a form of peace literacy because our immense destructive power also puts humans at risk. This is where peace literacy becomes survival literacy. If we destroy the biosphere we jeopardize our own survival. Humans must become peace literate to survive as a species.

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