The United Nations has officially declared this a decade for promoting a “culture of peace.”
All right, I’ll go for that. But how can I do such a thing? Culture is not something to manage in a planned way — unless you’re Mao Tse Tung and you’re running a “cultural revolution” which is not exactly what the United Nations intended. A culture, after all, consists of the ideas and customs of a whole society. Is there any way of influencing them without resorting to totalitarian measures?
Sure. Advertising agencies do it every day. In fact, every mass media producer is certain to influence the wider culture, whether or not she intends to do so. And the most powerful means of cultural change is through popular drama, either in films or (better yet) television series. To build a “culture of peace” we just need to demonstrate what peace looks like with plots shown on small screens around the world. That’s advertising, and it works.
But there’s one hitch: peace is boring. If you just show “peace,” many viewers (especially men) will immediately switch channels. (Maybe it’s the testosterone but, whatever the cause, men more often than women are attracted to “action” films.) Actually, conflict holds everyone’s attention better than harmony. In every good drama, there has to be a character who wants something, and there has to be some obstacle that makes that wish hard to fulfill. Often that obstacle is another person with contradictory wishes of his own. The ensuing struggle is the basis for an engrossing story. Therefore, if we want a culture of peace, we need scriptwriters who can invent struggles to be waged passionately but nonviolently, with results that benefit everyone involved. Viewers may not regards such plots as “peace,” since they include conflict, but the United Nations General Assembly will approve of them, for they end with the participants unharmed.
Some individuals enjoy watching such stories — but not everyone. Individual preferences always differ. Some people (but I am not one of them) even have a particular gene that makes them crave excitement. Their sympathetic nervous systems do not respond readily to ordinary levels of risk or novelty, so they seek thrills that would make other people intensely anxious. These thrill-seekers are the kind of people who race cars, skydive, or join the marines. Life around them tends not to be very peaceful, nor do they want it to be. They are attracted to situations of strife where, instead of feeling bored, they feel alive and fully engaged in a meaningful collective effort.
War is the most extreme example of such a situation, and it actually attracts thrill-seekers. As the thrill-seeking former war correspondent Chris Hedges (see photo) has acknowledged, during a war everyone becomes polarized and considers the adversaries as sub-human. Their heightened involvement is contagious. It is almost impossible, even for non-thrill-seekers, to be in a war setting without getting caught up in this collective zeal and commitment. Balance, neutrality, or objectivity are unsustainable.
Is there any way to create a gripping drama that demonstrates peace, yet satisfies thrill-seekers the way a war does? Can any other plot be as compelling as a war story? If so, what kind of struggle would turn a dull situation into high drama?
Of course, such plots are possible. For example, instead of portraying a conflict between a good person and an evil one, it is equally easy to pit two good persons against each other in a dispute over how to solve the same problem. Think of the last dinner party you attended where an argument broke out among nice people? I can immediately recall one about the depletion of the world’s oil reserves. One woman guest argued that we are facing catastrophe, whereas her host declared that energy will never be used up so long as the economy is run on the basis of a market system. There are definite policies that follow, as corollaries, from each of these positions. One could make an exciting drama about two neighbors who work in different organizations, each one promoting policies that run counter to the other’s. These are the kinds of real conflict we see in everyday life between good people who want the best outcome for the world but who disagree about how to get there. Such plots dispay a culture of peace, so long as both sides refrain from harming each other. The civilized waging of conflict is peace.
The plot need not even include any opponent. The conflict can take place within the person instead of between persons. It shows a character experiencing an inner conflict about what she should do. This is a trickier basis for a thrilling story, however, since it requires the character to express both sides of his ambivalence aloud. Nevertheless, an inner struggle can make for a powerful story about, for example, Galileo having to decide whether to recant his scientific discoveries to avoid the Church’s punishment for his heretical views.
The quick-and-easy way of writing a screenplay today is simply to demonize one’s enemies. The typical crime story illustrates what I mean. Instead of a culture of peace, it demonstrates the opposite: a culture of blame. The whole point of such a show is to identify a culprit and destroy or punish him. Viewers are not supposed to question the assumption that the cops are saving society by their thrilling chases after wrongdoers. In fact, however, punishing culprits solves nothing. The really dramatic challenge occurs only later, when they are released from prison and have to seek reintegration into society. War and conflict exclude and punish without solving problem or demonstrating redemption. A culture of peace emphasizes restorative justice instead — rehabilitation rather than retribution. It is perfectly possible to write stories about conflicts between good persons acting in a context of uncertainty but with both working to solve the same problem.
As Chris Hedges pointed out, by the time war breaks out, it cannot be stopped. No one can be persuaded to abandon the polarized hatred of the other side. But before reaching this ultimate stage — actual organized fighting — people go through a preliminary psychological stage involving casting blame. At that stage, change is still possible. Writers can teach people that blaming is a useless orientation. Dramas can teach them to look for solutions instead. That would move the world toward a culture of peace. First, we have to decide whether that is what we want, and then we have to demand it of Hollywood.