Ignorance and Real Peace
Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.
-- Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama
Ignorance and lack of peace are connected: by fear. In ignorance, we fear; in fear, we lack peace. Nobel peace prize laureate L. B. Pearson famously declared that "Misunderstanding ... arising from ignorance breeds fear, and fear remains the greatest enemy of peace" in his 1957 Nobel Lecture, "The Four Faces of Peace" which was given in the context of the Cold War.
Misunderstandings can lead personally nonviolent people, collected as a group, into violence and collected as a nation, into war. Misunderstandings create conflict without reason. Fear is the enemy of reason in any degree, and as Professor Andrew Lo of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology stated this morning on CNN International, "The strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown." To forgive Professor Lo -- that quote has almost become cliché, with the original words written by H.P. Lovecraft. Four swords to slay the dragon of ignorance or misunderstanding: education, experience, communication, and patience.
The Pearson quote above is the part of his Nobel Lecture most often noted, and in fact those must be the most quoted words from Pearson's entire, inspiring life. Still, what he said that day in 1957, in just his next breath, is essential for compassionate understanding and appreciation of our progress since then:
Misunderstanding ... arising from ignorance breeds fear, and fear remains the greatest enemy of peace.
A common fear, however, which usually means a common foe, is also, regrettably, the strongest force bringing people together, but in opposition to something or someone. Perhaps there is a hopeful possibility here in the conquest of outer space. Interplanetary activity may give us planetary peace ... a really United Nations!
In 1957, Pearson regretted that only in fear was much of the world aligned and he imagined more positive possibilities. Space exploration was not just a casual interest. The Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1 less than two months before the day he spoke -- the first object put into orbit around Earth. The American response was not publicly known at that time aside from general shock and hysteria that the Soviets were so far ahead in space and military technology. Despite Pearson's hopeful prescription, the American response would not prove to be one of peaceful collaboration in a common, global challenge. Instead, the United States responded in fear, most notably with heavy military investment, during what historians now call "the Sputnik crisis." Four months after Sputnik 1, two months after Pearson's Nobel Lecture, America launched our own first satellite and the world's second, Explorer 1.
Our circumstances, and what is right or wrong accordingly, are almost never as simple as wise words can make them seem. The Dalai Lama's opening volley in today's article are compact like a mantra; they require unpacking for most practical uses.
With America's hostile response to the Soviet Union's achievements, sandwiching Pearson's hopeful Nobel Lecture, hope could have been lost for peace. Instead, the seeds of compassion we have since enjoyed were being planted. Compassion requires that we go beyond good intentions and pure thoughts, to wade into ethical swamps and especially those of our making. Defeating ignorance to make peace means we must drain the swamps of prejudice, assumption, and misunderstanding. We must find facts to demystify disagreements. Where ignorance remains there is an equal instability in peace.
Throughout civil human history, from early use of scales and standards in transactions and markets to our modern age of computing, we have used factual, extrasomatic reference and machines to drain the swamps within and among humanity. The last 50 years of shared scientific and technological realization, though with dubious beginnings, have helped us achieve unprecedented global interdependence and relative peace.
Since 1957, real peace by collaboration through space exploration has had more success. The International Space Station (ISS) is one literally shining example of the possibilities for which Pearson hoped. For fun and inspiration, you can even go out at night, look up, and see the ISS with your own eyes -- no telescope or binoculars are needed -- and from your own home town. All you need to know is described on these pages by the European Space Agency, good for reference all around the world.
There is of course something even greater than space exploration bringing humanity together, most of it not out of fear but in positive interaction: the Internet. Incredibly, the Internet can trace its origins again to the Sputnik crisis. In 1958, as part of the United States' reaction to Sputnik, U.S. President Eisenhower began the United States Department of Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. That agency immediately commenced gathering and funding computer network research and in 1969, ARPA researchers sent the first ever communication between two computers on the ancestor of today's Internet.
It might have been a more scripted story if the Internet was born entirely of an effort for peace, but this machinated wonder does not mind its origins. It has brought this article to you, and you to this article. Wikipedia is an example I point to often, with "684 million visitors yearly [and] more than 75,000 active contributors working on more than 10,000,000 articles in more than 260 languages" -- yet Wikipedia is a tiny fraction of all the activity online. In the middle of 2008, Google announced that their machines see more than 1 trillion unique pages on the web, making Wikipedia's 10 million articles still less than .001 percent of the web -- and that's not the Internet, it's only the web. The Internet also carries all our email, instant messaging, file transfers, and so many other aspects of modern interaction.
When you do the math counting current people online against the current population, roughly 1 in every 4 people alive today use the Internet. This is an incredible, splendid flood of education, experience, and communication. Patience, perhaps not, but new features are created every day to work around our impatience :) The Internet is the greatest challenge to ignorance humanity has ever made, it is the greatest effort for peace ever made, and we are making it together. "Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace." Where we master machines, we master ourselves, and we will make peace.