The Avengers and philosophy – Peace in the age of Ultron

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Why would anyone interested in peace (like me) go and look at a violence-packed superhero movie for inspiration? Doesn’t violence in movies lead to real world violence? Well, the evidence on that question is still inconclusive and Avengers: age of Ultron, when viewed with the right kind of questions in mind, offers insights into peace you just won’t find in arthouse beauties such as One day after peace.

Avengers - image retrieved from www.savethecat.combeat-sheetavengers-age-of-ultron-beat-sheet.com

Sure, most people going to watch the movie will do so because they enjoy the highly stylized violence, the beautifully choreographed fights, the exploding buildings or the testosterone packed jokes by the main characters. But the film also explicitly deals with the victims of the Avengers’ violent way of solving conflicts and the plot is driven to a large extent by various desires for peace going awry. Moreover, in the lulls between fights, the protagonists inadvertently end up having quite philosophical conversations on the meaning of peace, coming up with no less than five different conceptualizations of the term.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might find this post contains either spoilers or things you totally don’t understand. I apologize for the former and try to make up for the latter by explanatory hyperlinks. That said, here are the five concepts of peace that drive the plot development and make Age of Ultron one of the most interesting peace-related films I have seen in a long time.

  1. Tony Stark (Iron Man): Peace as the absence of any and all threats
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Tony Stark/ Iron Man “Stark’s vision of total security necessarily remains Utopian.”

The first view of peace present in Age of Ultron reminded me of what I heard from people working at NATO: peace means the absence of any and all threats to human life. It is this drive for total security that leads Tony Stark, one of the heroes, to build Ultron, who then turns into the main villain of the movie (see below for his idea of peace).

Stark’s vision of total security necessarily remains Utopian. As Anthony Giddens pointed out a long time ago, there will always be threats to humanity’s existence, and trying to control for all of them inexorably leads to new dangers. Or to a totalitarian dictatorship, the central message of Captain America: the Winter soldier, another Marvel superhero movie.

  1. S.H.I.E.L.D.: Saving civilian lives
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Evacuation of citizens of Sokovia

On a much less ambitious reading of peace, the rebuilt employment agency for superheroes, SHIELD,  limits its role to saving civilians from the combat zones where the Avengers do their job. Even if the town of Sokovia is annihilated by Ultron, at least the people living there get out of it alive and thus might be able to find peace again elsewhere. This echoes the Just War criterium of discrimination, the idea that armies ought to distinguish between innocent civilians and enemy combatants, and only target the latter. In the real world, it also seems to mirror (highly dubious) efforts by the Israeli army to get civilians out of the way before moving in to fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

However, we can rightfully ask whether the refugees in question would agree that this is a form of peace. Taking their cue from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, some present-day critics of liberal peacebuilding point out that safeguarding the ‘bare lives’ of civilians does not really suffice to speak of any kind of peace ‘worth having’. Even though in mainstream academic literature, armed conflict is only defined in terms of how many people die as a result of the conflict: as long as nobody dies, there is peace. I have criticized this view in a previous blogpost.

  1. Dr. Banner (the Hulk): inner peace
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The Hulk : “This idea of inner peace as a tranquil state of mind is found both in Eastern philosophy and in St. Augustine’s musings on the subject”

Back to the movie. Dr. Banner, Tony Stark’s superhero partner also known as the Hulk, tries to come to grips with his (and mankind’s?) violent nature. Already in the first Avengers movie, Banner was found taking yoga classes in India, trying to control the violence in himself. At the end of Age of Ultron he flees his companions and sends a postcard from Fiji, supposedly having found peace there by sitting on a beach watching the sun set.

This idea of inner peace as a tranquil state of mind is found both in Eastern philosophy and in St. Augustine’s musings on the subject. It does have one major drawback though, as Natasja Romanov, a.k.a. Black Widow, points out in the movie while shoving dr. Banner off a cliff: “I adore you, but I need the other guy right now”. In order to save the world, the Hulk has to give up his inner peace and engage himself with the world, through violence if need be. This is the same criticism pacifists have received ever since the term was first invented: in a bad world, you have to make dirty hands.

  1. Ultron: harmonious balance with all of nature
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Ultron: “His conclusion that mankind can never learn to live in peace and thus should be ‘saved from itself’ is a step too far”

The theme of peace is running so strongly through the film that even the bad guy, Ultron, is driven by a desire for peace. Built by Tony Stark with the aim of creating ‘Peace in our time’ (a rather obvious reference to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler), cinematic logic demands that Ultron decides the best way to achieve this peace is the eradication of mankind. Our violent nature means we will never be able to live in peace, so perhaps we should just die out and make room for another, more peaceful species. Ultron sincerely cannot believe the Avengers, with their violent way of dealing with conflicts, are in any way agents of peace. He is probably right about that. His conclusion that mankind can never learn to live in peace and thus should be ‘saved from itself’, however,  is a step too far for even the most radical eco-hippies. It does mirror the idea of peace as ‘living in harmony with all of creation’ though, adding another layer to the movie’s philosophical dealing with peace.

  1. Hawkeye: peace as normality
"As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment"

Hawkeye: peace as normality: “As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment”

One of the big surprises of this movie comes approximately halfway, when Hawkeye, a side character famous for shooting explosive arrows, turns out to have a family living in an idealistic mid-West cottage, apparently without 21st century technology. This cottage is the counterpoint to all the violence in the movie and the viewer is left with the distinct impression that Hawkeye is best off of all the superheroes. As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment. Which might be a lame conclusion for a superhero movie if you are a testosterone-filled 21-year-old comic geek, but it is the kind of peace your parents will definitely identify with.

 

 

So what have we learned from this brief exploration of Avengers: age of Ultron? I would say three things. First, peace and security are not the same thing, and the desire for total security threatens all other forms of peace we might be after. Secondly, if all we want is to safeguard our own inner peace, we leave the world to the bad guys. Sometimes we just “need the other guy.” Even though his violent acts might stand in the way of more durable solutions to the world’s problems. Finally, I would say that Hawkeye understands peace best of all. It is a lived experience, not some Utopian dream.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.

Five peaces for Lebanon (and the rest of the Middle East)

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 5 Minutes

For my PhD in political science, I study the meaning of peace. Not in the dictionary sense of the word, but in practice: as an objective of ‘peace work’. Why and how you would want to do that is the subject of another blog. When studying the meaning of peace, you will very soon find out that the dictionary sense of the word is not going to help you make sense of most peace work. For instance, the most widely used academic measure of peace boils down to ‘a situation in which no more than 24 people die in a given year because of armed violence.’ But how does that relate to working on post-conflict reconciliation? Or to building democratic institutions? Let alone to peace education or youth peace camps? The amount of people dying is far too crude a measure to serve as an indicator for the success or failure of such peacebuilding work. So my question became: what could be a good indicator? To answer this question, I first had to find out what people were actually trying to achieve with their peace-work.

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As part of this quest, I recently interviewed a series of peace workers in Lebanon, asking what peace means to them. What is peace in Lebanon? Considering that peace is a word that lacks a plural, they gave me a surprising variety of answers.

Most interestingly however, at least for a student of political science, was the lack of answers containing the word ‘political’. In Europe I found that peace work is often seen as highly political (in contrast to more ‘technocratic’ development work). Peace work consists of facilitating political dialogues to reduce violent conflict, building the capacities of local peace ngo’s, or lobbying for the abolition of certain weapon systems. For the Lebanese peace workers I interviewed, none of this was part of their repertoire, nor, in their opinion, a prerequisite for achieving peace.

This is not to say that there is no political notion of peace in the Middle East. There is. The ‘peace process’ (or lack thereof) between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab countries is an example of this political kind of peace. It is even the first thing many Lebanese mention when you ask them about peace.

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In Arabic this peace is called salaam. Etymologically, as well as in the minds of people, salaam is related to the word Islam, which is ‘(inner) peace through submission to God’s will’. This element of submission is, to my mind, why so many Arab people reject this form of peace: it is not that they necessarily want to wage a total war against Israel, they just don’t want to surrender to it either. A peace between sovereign equals (like the paradigmatic Peace of Westphalia) is just not the kind of peace that Lebanese have in mind when they talk about peace in the political sense of that word. To them peace (salaam) means submission. Hence, almost all organizations working on other forms of peace are very careful to point out that they have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict, nor with politics in general.

Instead, many organizations are working on a ‘civil peace’, or silim in Arabic: establishing good relations between Lebanon’s many different religious groups. This is important, because the political situation in Lebanon is so very tense. And because a breakdown of civil peace leads to civil war in the way Hobbes wrote about it: a war of all against all. This is something no Lebanese who has lived through the civil war wants to experience again. Even if they have grown accustomed to low level political violence. A car bomb detonating in the middle of Beirut is considered no more of a nuisance than a traffic accident, but this violence should never be allowed to spiral out of control again.

On an even more individual level, peace is associated with personally not using violence in your relations with other people. Former combatants from different sides, united in an organization called Fighters for Peace, accentuate the need for a personal commitment to non-violence as the only guarantee for peace. Even if they are privately wondering whether it is wise to uphold such a commitment when you are facing an enemy like the Islamic State.

DSCN0237The most personal kind of peace that people are working on is inner peace: peace of mind. A range of trauma counselors, religiously inspired actors and social and humanitarian workers claim that this is the kind of peace they want to contribute to. Mostly because they believe any other form of peace will only last if people are ready to accept it, and acceptance depends on their state of mind.

Finally, there are some peace activists who see peace explicitly not as a noun, but as an adjective. They share the personal commitment for not using violence, but add another normative goal to it: justice. In the eyes of non-violent activists, peace is not a state of affairs at all, but a way of acting (silmiya, peacefully). Which does make peace political again: it is ‘the continuation of policy by political means only’ (to paraphrase Clausewitz). Peace however, is no longer the objective of this policy, which makes it fundamentally different from the peace process with Israel. Justice is not submission, although peace can mean both things. As well as three others.

So, what is peace in Lebanon? The honest answer is that I am not entirely sure. Which also means that I am not entirely sure whether one can say that there is peace in Lebanon or not. But at least these five concepts give us some clue what it would mean to say there is peace. Which is infinitely more than counting dead people can ever tell us.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.

The light of peace – reasoning by metaphor

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 5 Minutes
I study peace. Which is quite unusual. In political science, but even in peace and conflict studies. Many people say they study peace, but really what they study is war. Or ‘armed conflict’, which is war on a smaller scale. These people argue that peace is the absence of war. Hence, if we understand what causes war to either erupt or end, we will also know something about how to keep or achieve peace. Which makes some sense. But problems arise as soon as you are talking about peace-building in post-conflict situations, in frozen low-intensity conflicts or as a preventative measure. You cannot judge the success of these activities solely in terms of how much armed violence they have prevented. Both because it is very difficult to measure violence that did not happen, and because peace is much more than the absence of war.

To explain this to readers unfamiliar with peace and conflict studies, I will introduce a metaphor. I am not sure whether the metaphor works, but it might be illuminating, so let’s give it a try. Let’s say that war is like darkness, and peace is like light. This carries some beautiful religious overtones, and is thus very useful for Christmas dinner conversations or other midwinter nights. In a situation of total and utter darkness, you will want some light. That makes sense. Just as, in really desperate cases of war, you want peace. Any peace. This light can come from many sources: candles, classical light bulbs, low-energy light bulbs (CFLs), oil lamps, led-lights, a fire, a pocket torchlight. Even a match will do when you’re really afraid of the dark. Likewise, peace can come from many sources: armed intervention (or winning the war), promoting non-violence, statebuilding, democracy, improved standards of living, trade, meditation or peace education.

It is an empirical question which of these mechanisms does ‘better’ in terms of preventing or ending armed conflict, just as it is an empirical question how much light stadium lights provide compared to matches. On a quantitative approach to peace, this is as far as you can get. But more interesting than the amount of light (peace) a certain intervention brings, is the question what kind of light is needed for this situation. Especially when it is not totally dark.

Then you might not want to risk burning your fingers on a match, especially not if the match will not add much to the already shadowy illumination. And when you are feeling sleepy, lighting a candle to drive away the darkness might not be the best solution (as your local fire brigade will no doubt be glad to tell you). Making love (instead of war) is best done by soft candlelight, whereas rebuilding calls for construction lights. Comparable advantages and disadvantages can be found for all other forms of illumination, but the point is clear.

In a situation of total darkness you might want any kind of light, but as soon as there is some light to go by, you have to start thinking about the pros and cons of different forms of lighting.

It is the same with peace. In a situation of total war, like the Syrian conflict, it is extremely useful to think of different strategies to stop this war and try any of them. But fortunately, in most other conflicts the situation is not as dark as it is there. Which means that you have to think carefully about the kind of light (the kind of peace) you are bringing to those situations.

You can’t do this solely by studying the darkness and measuring its depth. You have to study the varieties of peace, as phenomena in and of themselves. Because different (post-) conflict situations call for different forms of peace. Sometimes you will need reconciliation, sometimes accountability. Sometimes you will have to work on people’s mindset, sometimes on institutional constraints. Sometimes you will want a candle, sometimes construction lights. What you probably don’t want is to set the world on fire, even though in a situation of total darkness  this will provide some  light.

But, unless you study peace as a positive phenomenon, you will have no idea what the candle, the construction lights and the fire are metaphors for. I am open to suggestions.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.