Positive Conflict (In Transit)

Daisy chains and love hearts are great and all, but most of us love a little conflict. Our books, movies, politics, religions, and even our conversations, are based on conflict. The stories we live and tell are based on the contradictions, the tensions, the heroes and villains, the differences of opinion, stories about the good times and the bad. How can we reconcile a love of conflict, with a desire for peace?

A student of Peace and Conflict Studies, preparing to present at a conference to theologians, philosophers and scientists in Krakow, I was going to need to be clear about my definitions.

And so, on the train from Stockholm to Copenhagen, I recapped some old notes and defined what is, in my mind, a clear vision of peace: Positive Conflict.

“Positive Conflict” is not an official term in Peace and Conflict Studies. I made it up. Scholars infer it, but no one has stated it as a vision. And I think it’s a useful one.

Positive Conflict is conflict that leads to constructive and creative consequences and is resolved in non-violent ways. Well that’s my working definition anyway.

For me, “Positive Conflict” is a more appealing objective than “Positive Peace” (see definitions below). Maybe because the word “peace” carries an image of what Whitehead calls its ‘bastard substitute, Anesthesia.’[1] Or maybe simply because I love challenges, and enjoy the mental, emotional and physical stimulation that comes from conflicted spaces.

I don’t like violence – but conflict, positive conflict, can be a lot of fun.

‘Peace is the understanding of tragedy, and at the same time its preservation,’[2] another Whitehead quote.

This Taoist “dipolar” way of thinking of peace is a challenge when one encounters acts of horrific violence, as I would soon discover on a visit to Auschwitz… but I’ll leave that story for another day.

Definitions: [3]

Negative peace = the absence of war. It is the peace of the Pax Romana – often maintained through repression.

Positive peace = presence of desirable states of mind and society including ecological harmony & social justice. This kind of peace minimises/eliminates exploitation and “structural violence”. It is the peace of the realpolitik, advanced by Johan Galtung, the founder of Peace and Conflict Studies.

The aim of peace is to avoid/resolve:

Direct violence = observable eg war, physical harm

Structural violence = hidden, caused by unjust social structures, eg hunger, suffering, environmental harm, deprivation of self-determination

Cultural violence = often makes direct/structural violence feel right, or at least not wrong, eg racism, sexism, other forms of discrimination


[1] Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (London: Cambridge University Press, 1964). p. 283.

[2] Ibid. p. 284.

[3] Barash and Webel, Peace and Conflict Studies, SAGE Publications: London 2009


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