Quality of life is important to all of us. Love, equality, security, and harmony in human relationships contribute, but it may not be easy to enjoy these without peace.
It has been noted by great communication specialists that “One cannot not communicate” (Watzlawick, Beaven & Jackson, 1967, p. 51). Thus, in every moment, we communicate whether more or less peacefully, in ways that tend to humanize or dehumanize, connect or disconnect, and we do so both verbally and nonverbally.
The distinguished anthropologist Edward T. Hall (1959, p. 186) wrote, “Culture is communication and communication is culture.” So, the question then is what culture do we wish to communicate?
While we cannot control everything that happens around us, I have learned from the study of Nonviolent Communication by clinical psychologist Marshall B. Rosenberg (2005) and followers, that with consciousness, we can make choices about how we express ourselves and how we listen to others. In line with this, Rebecca L. Oxford (2017), a well-known language education educator, emphasizes that ‘peace consciousness’ involves awareness, attention, intention, and effort towards expanding peace.
Peacebuilders acknowledge that it is possible to cultivate peace in different dimensions from the individual to the social and even ecological. Collectively and simultaneously working in each dimension and across fields, of course, we can make greater strides.
Peace Studies has been branching out since the 1960s. Following Peace Education and Peace Psychology, a newer bud is Peace Linguistics. For its part, this interdisciplinary field can help us examine communication and see how language is effectively used (or not used) to meet our transformative goals of reducing or improving our handling of conflict, violence, and war and, more positively, by building and sustaining peace.
Linguistic peace or violence may be manifested in multiple ways in any given situation or context. Our choices of language varieties (mono- or multilingual, regional or ‘standard’), modes (spoken, written, and/or signed), or registers (formal or informal) can serve to empower or disempower, dignify or humiliate. Use of simple and transparent rather than ambiguous or obscure styles can aid comprehension or, on the contrary, mystify, muddle, or otherwise impede it, enhance inclusion or result in exclusion. Similarly, the speech acts we select (cf. observing vs. judging, requesting vs. demanding, inquiring vs. interrogating), the diverse grammatical devices and structures we employ to carry these out (choice of sentence type, active or passive voice, pronouns, modals, etc.), certainly our vocabulary use, our tone and other associated nonverbal behaviors (e.g. silence, hesitation) and strategies (e.g. conversation or topic initiation/conclusion, turn taking, overlapping, response time) may also produce more constructive or destructive communicative effects on relationships.
It is easy to envisage a colleague at work saying they might ‘shoot’ you an email to inform you they are right ‘on target’ to ‘execute’ a project by a certain ‘deadline’ but how might the effect be different if they instead said they might ‘send’ you a message to let you know they are ‘on track’ to ‘complete’ a project by a ‘certain date’?
Since violence has in many ways been naturalized in mainstream language use, insidious effects may not always be apparent. However, as sociolinguist Karol Janicki (2105) points out, repetitive exposure to words (priming) affects beliefs, which may induce or prolong peace or conflict.
Sexist, classist, ablest, ageist, racist, homophobic, nationalistic, nativist, or otherwise intolerant uses of language in interactions, narratives, and other discourses (with insults and hate speech being particularly perceptible examples) can and do lead to all kinds of physical, psychological, social, and cultural violence (e.g. bullying, suicide, rape, honor killings, exploitation, detention, genocides, wars, ecocide, etc.).
However, with this vital tool, language, leaders of all kinds can give speeches that inspire peaceful relations. Policy makers can create important documents like the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Diplomats and mediators can draft sustainable quality peace agreements. Language planners can develop effective multilingual policies. Historians can document and analyze peace-promoting figures, ideas, movements, and events and discuss those that failed to do so in that light. Journalists can get the public to reflect on important issues through their reporting, question established ideas, and challenge stereotypes, biases, and false information. Health professionals can more empathically care for patients and families in medical situations. And artists and media producers of various kinds can share more peaceful worldviews and imagined possibilities.
In education, curriculum designers, materials developers, teachers, trainers, and assessors can choose which topics and contents to focus on and what language and skills to raise awareness about and include in their local syllabuses, audio, visual, or textual resources, and classroom activities, tasks, and projects. They can also decide how to best assess these to contribute to their situation or context-specific peacebuilding goals. In line with this, they can consider which teaching methods or approaches to adopt, adapt, or develop, knowing that their work with students can support present and future peace.
As individual users, we also have a role to play in our everyday lives. Again, the question is, what quality of culture do we wish to communicate?
To finish with a quote, the celebrated peace linguist Francisco Gomes de Matos says, “May communicative peace be with you” (Gomes de Matos, 2005). May it indeed be with us.
This article is based on a short speech prepared for “Beaconhouse Cantt Boys Branch in Lahore, Pakistan” on the International Day of Peace, 21 September 2021.
Paul Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin, and Don D. Jackson, Pragmatics of Human Communication: A Study of Interactional Patterns, Pathologies, and Paradoxes. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc., 1967).
Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language. (New York: Anchor Books, 1959).
Marshall B. Rosenberg, Speak Peace in a World of Conflict: What You Say Next Will Change Your World. (Encinitas: PuddleDancer Press, 2005).
Rebecca Oxford, “Peace through understanding: Peace activities as innovations in language teacher education,” in Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education: Spanning the Spectrum from Intra- to Inter-personal Professional Development, eds. Tammy S. Gregersen and Peter D. MacIntyre, 125-163 (Cham: Springer, 2017).
Karol Janicki, Language and Conflict: Selected Issues. (London: Palgrave, 2015).
Francisco Gomes de Matos, “Concept Discussion: On Communicative Peace – Origins, Goal, and Applications,” Journal of Peace Education 2, no. 2 (2005): 210-211.