Dorota Semenowicz, Katarzyna Tórz
The media feed us information about war, terrorism and their victims around the clock. Livingin Europe, we usually watch this news in the context of our own peaceful lives, oblivious to the fact that global destabilisation is seeping into our everyday existence. It suffices to recall the war of the Western world against terrorism declared by George W. Bush in 2001, joined by many countries in Europe. In Poland, this was when secret CIA prisons were established, only to be revealed many years later. We are citizens of countries that are involved in armed conflicts, the circumstances of which we are unaware. War is part of everyday life. In some countries it has been going on for so long that people have forgotten what peace is like. Despite this, historians and philosophers tell us that we are living in the most peaceful period in human history. We don’t notice this, because we are more willing to absorb negative information.
This is the conclusion Steven Pinker has reached (based on data) in his bestselling book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011). The Harvard University linguist and psychologist shares this stance with other thinkers, including Joshua L. Goldstein, Professor of International Relations and author of an article Winning the War on War: The Decline of Armed Conflict Worldwide (2011); philosopher Peter Singer, author of a book The Most Good You Can Do (2015); or political scientist John E. Mueller, whose book Retreat from Doomsday: The Obsolescence of Major War was published in 1989,three years before the outbreak of the bloody war in Yugoslavia. Despite the latter, Pinker and Goldstein maintain their position, stating that in the most modern parts of the world war has practically disappeared. The great powers no longer fight each other, but as a result of the spread of democracy and growth of prosperity, are leading the way in the process of improvement.
Pinker builds his argument by citing how a large portion of the Western population believes that pre-20thcentury wars were much less bloody. Moving from human prehistory to the present, Pinker argues that the past was much more brutal than we think. If we consider the number of wars, their duration and the incomparably lower population, we find that the probability of death on the battlefield in the Thirty Years’ War (first half of the 17th century) was close to that of World War II. In comparison, the Europe of the last few decades has been unusually peaceful. But Pinker’s argument does not just concern Europe. He demonstrates that the number of armed conflict fatalities is falling across the world. Wars are less frequent today and much less bloody than they used to be. This, he ascertains, is caused by the modernisation of countries that have been monopolised by force. It has also been brought about by the invention of the printing press, the emancipation of women, greater empathy and the growing influence of the concept of enlightenment. The decline of violence (not only war) is accompanied by a decline in attitude that tolerate or glorify violence (e.g romantic militarism). We notice how bad things are going, but not how high our standards have risen.
Pinker’s critics (among others, John Gray and John Arquilla) point to his focus on war victims in the traditional sense: divided into two sides of a conflict on a specific battlefield. Meanwhile, the invention of nuclear weapons for immediate mass destruction meansthat the great powers are no longer as involved in wars as they were in the past. They prefer to support, in various strategic alliances of economic and political nature, the different sides of other people’s conflicts whilst conducting large-scale public information campaigns. Examples that instantly come to the mind are the Vietnam War, the War in Afghanistan, the Angolan Civil War, the First Gulf War, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the military interventions in Libya and Syria, the Russian cyber attacks on the Baltic states and Ukraine and Russian involvement in the elections and referenda in the US, the UK, France and Italy. Nowadays, the word ‘war’ is adopting milder synonyms that are more acceptable to the general public: ‘operation’, ‘stabilisation mission’, ‘deployment of troops’. Consequently, the horror of war dissipates in mainstream information.
Pinker is right about the number of soldiers killed in armed conflicts being on the decline. However, the number of fatalities among civilians is growing. It is estimated that during World War I, civilians constituted 10% of the 10 million fatalities. During World War II, the numbers grew to approximately 50% of 50 million, whereas in Congo, following several decades of conflict, the civilian death toll has reached 90%. Hunger and the deliberate destruction of urban areas have become a war strategy in Syria. Wars are no longer waged between well-organised states that may, at a certain point, negotiate peace, but between irregular troops of mercenaries, militias or self-proclaimed armies who see no difference between soldiers and civilians. The warfare of the Islamist Boko Haram in Nigeria has involved mass murders of civilians, destruction of towns and villages and enslavement of women and children.
Yet the general perception in the West is that this does not affect us, and violence as such is seen as an expression of backwardness. Meanwhile, the wars that are ravaging other continents are the work of European colonial empires. One of the causes of the genocide in Rwanda was the segregation of the population by German and Belgian colonialists. The endless war in Congo was driven by the demand for its natural resources in the West. The consequence of the American invasion of Iraq is ISIS. The Western world has driven war beyond its borders and, under the guise of democratisation, is starting war where it has political and economic interests. African homes are being bombed in wars which the West uses to test its modern equipment.
Steven Pinker's book was published eight years ago and despite becoming a bestseller in many Western countries, little has been said about it in Poland. Meanwhile, it has strongly influenced the imagination of North Americans and Europeans, and the discussion it has provoked is still relevant. How can we answer the question of what war is today and how we can count its victims? Where is it fought? Isn’t peace more and more like war? And doesn’t war lose its weight when pretending to be the norm? Can people who are dying of hunger or disease as a result of armed conflicts still be counted among the victims? Can refugees be included in Pinker's statistics? After all, they did not die. There is also more and more talk about PTS, the post-traumatic syndrome that affects all those involved in war and prevents them from living a normal life. The author of The Better Angels of Our Nature does not include in his statistics the victims of dictatorships. It is estimated that the number of people whose deaths were caused by the Mao regime, apparently in a time of peace, is about 70 million. Therefore, it is impossible to count the number of war victims precisely, and the selection of data is arbitrary and typically dictated by the Western perspective. Millions of people have died and are still dying in wars unknown to the world, in various parts of Asia and Africa, for example in eastern Congo and Afghanistan. The number of people dying on the battlefield has, indeed, dropped, but can we, like Pinker, regard our times as the ‘Long Peace’? War is different today and is closely linked to peace. You cannot think about them separately.
Knowing that war and peace are so closely entwined is a great responsibility. We keep on comparing ourselves to the richer countries of the West, but in the global context, in Poland we live in great prosperity and peace. This gives us all the more reason to become interested in what is happening in other corners of the world and to spread this knowledge. The rates of illiteracy, child mortality and fatal diseases decimating populations around the world have fallen. Still, 8% of our planet’s population lives in extreme poverty, though in comparison to 30% in 1999. According to the document Sustainable Development Goals 2030 adopted by all UN member states, poverty in the world is to be eliminated by 2030. Both this plan and the above statistics fill us with optimism.
Yet in different parts of the Western world, we hear more and more voices calling for a change of course: to retreat from the achievements of medical science, from disarmament and emancipation. This puts up walls and establishes systemic categories that segregate people, define their sense of freedom and identity: Europe vs. Africa, white vs. black, woman vs. man, the rich vs. the poor, the better vs. the worse. The paradigm of a hierarchical developmental ladder is doing very well. Hence, itis necessary to recognise the privileges we enjoy and to make the most of our potential. This is not about everyone going to African countries with a humanitarian convoy. This is about what we can do right now, within real opportunities and our individual lives. We are responsible for the choices we make and the words we speak, for omission and for silence. Nástio Mosquito, the curator of this year's Idiom Army of the Individual, says: ‘Today … when I hear you utter the word “conflict”, the other word that comes to me is “inevitable”. Conflict is inevitable. We can only choose what kind of conflict we want to have ... what conflict you wanna be part of.’
The intersection of war and peace is the theme of this year's Malta. We will be looking at it from different perspectives. Nástio Mosquito is interested in a civilised and softened war, a war ingrained in everyday life: in image, in word and in body. A body trained by war, involved in war, trying to free itself from the discipline and dynamics of violence. All the artists invited by Nástio to to co-create the programme hail from different, often distant, cultural and social contexts. All are members of the Army of the Individual and thus have their own ‘political body’, their own reasons to accept the invitation, and their own artistic practices which they want share with us. The Idiom will feature dance performances by Alice Joana Gonçalves, Radouan Mriziga and Lisbeth Gruwez; an immersive audio-visual installation by Vic Pereiró; a performance action by Kelly Schacht; and a city intervention by Priscila Rezende. Our festival will also include a dance workshop activating the bodies of crowds run by Benjamin Abras; a film programme featuring selected productions by Geração80, aplatform that brings together young Angolan filmmakers; and a presentation of videos by Li Ran, an emerging star of Chinese art. Nástio will present an audio-visual happening that records the moment of human birth, and No.One.Gives.A.Mosquito’s.Ass.About.Us, a performance that pays an ambiguous tribute to karaoke. All the artists will be showing their work in Poland for the first time.
Conflict is also the theme of the novel Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee. A stage adaptation of the novel has been made for Malta by Maciej Podstawny. According to the creators of the performance, the sexism, racism and genre chauvinism described in the book are three aspects of the same story: the story of exploitation that underlies Western culture. In the novel, they run parallel and expose each other. All three are a reference to the concept of segregation upon which the inequality-based world is built. People from the West have defined themselves through their opposition to people differing form them in terms of race, gender, sex or religion, in terms of nature and other species. Hierarchy has been the foundation of the social order, and the objectification of the Other has been a way to empower oneself. The performance is a co-production with the Stefan Żeromski Theatre in Kielce.
This year, Generator Malta ‘is getting ready for peace’ and treats peace as homework. We want to think about peace not as a state that is given to or taken from us, a post-war period or a break between wars. We want see peace as a space where all of us constantly work on it in every ‘here and now’. The programme features a performance by Army of Love; music workshops with rapper donGURALesko and vocalist Karolina Czarnecka; breakdance workshops/performance by Stereo 48from Palestine; and an installation by 858. Archive of Resistance. The latter was created from hundreds of videos and photographs showing the protests against Mubarak’s regime in Egypt in 2011. There will also be plenty of Generator formats that the Malta audience knows and enjoys. We will climb the tallest buildings as we conquer the Summits of Poznań, we will create sentimental maps (in Naramowice, Wilda and Grunwald-Północ districts), and help those in need as we buy clothes, books, records, and so on, at the Poznań Garage Sale.
Furthermore, in our Forum entitled A Culture of War in Times of Peace, we will meet on Liberty Square to discuss various aspects of contemporary wars and the state of war/peace. We will discuss this with war correspondents Piotr Andrusieczko, Wojciech Jagielski and Maria Wiernikowska; with writer and Polish Army officer Grzegorz Kaliciak, who was in charge of the defence of the city hall in Karbala; with Janina Ochojska, the founder of Polish Humanitarian Action; with psychologist and philosopher Andrzej Leder; journalists and reporters Agata Kazmierska, Konrad Piskała, Dariusz Rosiask and Katarzyna Wężyk, general Jarosław Stróżyk, political and cuture scientists Leszek Koczanowicz and Iwona Kurz or sociologists Elżbieta Korolczuk, Małgorzata Druciarek among others. The Forum will open with a debate dedicated to the ongoing Polish-Polish school war, namely the teachers’ strike. Our education will be discussed by the legends of Polish education, active pedagogues and their pupils.
As always, the Malta Map is full of paths and points of interest. But a map always comes with territory. As the famous mathematician and logician Alfred Korzybski points out, these are not the same. Each of us, the authors and readers of this text, people who will meet within the context of Malta, have their own territories of war and peace. Territories understood as our relationships with our immediate surroundings, the political systems we live in, and our own inner conflicts. This year, we want Malta Festival to open up various spaces of freedom, to be a plane of affirmation. We want it to transform unproductive and destructive conflict (which so often divides Polish society) into one that is creative, based on the acknowledgement of both sides, on dialogue and acceptance of diversity. We want Malta to help us discover the many paths that lead us to a peaceful coexistence.