Still more peaceful peoples

Here’s one more sampling of excerpts from the Encyclopedia of Peaceful Societies at the new website Peaceful Societies: Alternatives to Violence and War. See Thursday’s post for more details.

Comments and reactions should prove very helpful in helping my father and his collaborators decide what additional materials to put on the site. Judging from the few comments received here yesterday, I’d say it sounds as if putting up some more general, theoretical essays and papers ought to be a high priority.

I should perhaps have made it clear from the outset that none of these societies are intended to serve as models for some ideal utopia. Personally, I think there are always trade-offs, and that some qualities we tend to value positively, such as bravery and personal ambition, may not be all that compatible with true social harmony. In any case, folks interested in attempts by secular Westerners to build peaceful and environmentally responsible communities might want to check out the book Gaviotas, for starters. The Tristan Islanders, one of the peoples included on the Peaceful Societies website, are the descendents of another such successful effort, inspired originally by 19th-century socialist ideals. And on a much larger scale, countries such as Iceland and Finland might now also satisfy the website’s definitions of a peaceful society.

I haven’t done a fraction of the research on these societies that my father has, so my own generalizations should be taken with a grain of salt. But I will say this: while the absence of physical conflict may seem like a very minimal definition of peace, I would submit that having such a minimal definition is precisely what makes this survey so inclusive and interesting. It admits of an immense variation in worldviews and approaches to practical concerns such as childrearing and marital arrangements, allowing one to see that there is far from one way for human beings to be civilized.

Because really, peacefulness, so defined, is not an end but a beginning – a threshold. I would argue that another, closely related first step toward a more civilized society would be to accept limits to our desires – to learn and inculcate the values of self-control and self-denial. No – as in no violence, no self-indulgence – is an extremely powerful word. I know this goes against the grain of the American emphasis on positive thinking. Love, we like to think, is all we really need to make everything wonderful. Some days, I believe that myself. But as I see it, what we call love is often just another word for the pathology that is killing the planet. And I suspect that many people in places like Central America and the Middle East might have a lot more to say about what it means to be on the receiving end of American benevolence and charity.

The bottom line, for me, is that until human beings in the societies that now dominate the planet can learn to get along without resorting to violence against each other and against the earth, we are, quite simply, fucked.

The Mbuti view their forest as a sacred, peaceful place to live–they constantly refer to it with not only reverence but adoration. They sing songs to it, in appreciation for the care and goodness they feel they get from it. If something goes wrong in their camp at night, such as an invasion of army ants, the problem is that the forest is sleeping, so they sing to awaken it. Their songs of rejoicing, devotion, and praise serve to make the forest happy. They do not believe in evil spirits or sorcery from the forest as the nearby villagers do–their forest world is kinder than that….

Normally the Mbuti settle conflicts with quick actions. One of their major strategies is laughter, jokes, and ridicule. The camp clown, an individual who assumes the responsibility of trying to end conflicts through ridicule, uses mime and antics to re-focus the conflict on himself, to get everyone laughing and ridiculing, in order to divert attention from the issue of the moment.


The Nubians place a high value on resolving village disputes right within the community. When minor disputes arise, such as a fight between two unrelated children that brings the mothers and their kin out onto the street to support their own, neutral bystanders will normally rush in to end the conflict. When more serious conflicts threaten, third parties who may be respected by both parties to a dispute will intervene. Serious conflicts are discussed after the Friday prayers in the mosque by the men of the congregation. Networks of reciprocal relationships that bind people to others outside their own families also help militate against factional conflicts.


The Paliyans extend their injunction against violence to a prohibition of competition, which arises, they feel, from rivalries and desires for superiority or control. They feel competition leads to social disharmony and threatens self-reliance and egalitarianism. Since they expect to be self-sufficient, individualistic, and socially anarchistic, they also don’t cooperate much. They disapprove of any behavior that appears, to them, to hamper the autonomy of an individual, such as cooperation or competition. Such behavior is disrespectful–or, in their terms, it appears to lower someone’s status.


The Piaroa believe in a violently creative mythic past when their gods achieved material and technological prosperity only through competition, violence, greed, arrogance, and lust, traits that, they believe, poisoned peaceful relations within and between communities. Their present society fosters its creativity by controlling that mythic period and by focusing on individuals who live peacefully together–the antidote to those past excesses of wanton wildness. Their communities, in fact, are almost completely peaceful, but they still face the threatened violence of their mythic past. In order to control that violence, the shaman chants every night and blows his words into water and honey which, consumed the next morning by adults and children, will keep them safe for another day.


The high degree of politeness that the Thai villagers show toward one another at all times has both positive and negative aspects. It contributes to their toleration of deviant behavior, nonconformity, and failures by some people to not abide by the social standards. The shortcomings of villagers who have serious faults are their own business and should not be ridiculed–they are accepted for what they are. On the negative side, however, the requirement for total politeness tends to dampen spontaneity and genuineness. Politeness enhances positive qualities at the same time it hides them.


Despite the fact that they have a highly nonviolent society, when some Semai men were recruited in the early 1950s to help the British army fight a communist guerrilla insurgency, some became aggressive fighters, though when they returned to their own settlements they returned to their peaceful, nonviolent ways. While violent homicides are abhorrent to the Semai, there have been a few recorded instances of murders. Undoubtedly, the introduction of firearms and alcohol is becoming a problem that threatens Semai peacefulness. Furthermore, while some Semai maintain that they will die before fighting against outsiders who are taking away their lands, others feel their nonviolence cannot last forever against outside aggression and alcohol.


Tahitians do not believe they have any control over nature or the behavior of other people; in fact, they believe that trying to change the nature of reality inevitably causes a rebound that destroys the initiator. People are optimistic but passive, a condition produced by their socialization practices and reinforced by other values in their society. Their universe is less frustrating cognitively than one where individuals believe they are able to change things….

The Tahitian word for love, here, has an emphasis on action and active belief in the relationship. It implies that, for heterosexual couples, they want to be together, both with their bodies and their minds. The man who only has physical desire for a woman, even if he lives with her, does not properly have a feeling of here unless the totality of his thinking is focused on her. The word also is used for parent-child, sibling, and friendship relations–it relates not so much to intentions as it does to actions and actual behavior.


One of [the Tristan Islanders’] primary strategies for avoiding violence and conflict is nonviolent resistance. A good example of this strategy occurred in the 1930s when they had to cope with an imperious, dictatorial minister who tried to run their lives. They could never confront him; they would always buckle under to his will with a meek “yes, Father,” out of respect for his power and high office. But they did perfect the practice of nonviolent resistance by accepting his orders as much as necessary to placate him–and ignoring everything else that they could get away with. They felt that his actions were simply part of the fun he enjoyed in being among them. Besides, in a few years another minister with different ideas would probably replace him.


If [Yanadi] parents were to punish children, or even make them do something against their will, a god might punish the children by making them ill. Parents therefore must tolerate cranky children and put up with their misdeeds, but they must never spank them. They even hesitate to yell at them. Parents cannot even force their children to attend school–the children make their own choices since they have the freedom to do as they wish. Parents do sometimes discipline children with the threat of bogeys–ghosts, devils, police, or non-Yanadi may get them.


Three Zapotec illness concepts in La Paz serve as mechanisms for diffusing deeply-felt emotions such as hostility that might lead to violence. Muina is a mild illness or indisposition that people may feel when they are angry toward others; the cure is to get rid of the anger. People rarely make distinctions about whether or not the anger is justifiable. Coraje, courage or passion, is a more advanced stage of illness where the expression of muina has advanced to verbal abuse or even blows. Bilis, bile, is an organic imbalance in the gall bladder brought on by frustration, abuse, or mistreatment by another. This condition is produced by someone’s inability to dissipate anger. People afflicted with these illnesses need sympathy and treatment, not condemnation and punishment.

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