The Common Good
July 2009

The Language of Peace

by Rosalie Riegle | July 2009

Contesting Patriotism: Culture, Power, and Strategy in the Peace Movement, by Lynne M. Woehrle, Patrick G. Coy, and Gregory M. Maney. Rowman & Littlefield.

We wring our hands about the culture of violence that pervades our nation, and some of us expend enormous energy trying to change our country’s rhetoric from one of war to one of peace. We act locally and from within esteemed national peace groups such as the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Pax Christi, War Resisters League, and the American Friends Service Committee. But the wars—and the worries—persist. What should we do? And how?

Contesting Patriotism gives us a language to talk about our dilemmas. In it, Lynne Woehrle, Pat Coy, and Greg Maney describe the rhetoric used by peace organizations and then give us real solutions as we look to the future.

In academic circles, “to contest” something means to unpack its meaning. The slogan “Peace is Patriotic,” for example, harnesses the word “patriotic” and shows that it can mean something different than its normal use in dominant discourse. That harnessing is one of the strategies peace groups use when a nation’s collective identity is unified. When there is more diversity in thinking, such as in our current time, peace groups move to more oppositional strategies—strategies the authors name as counter-informative, critical-interpretive, radical-envisioning, and transformative rhetoric. Counter-informative rhetoric gives new oppositional knowledge, critical-interpretive rhetoric interprets given facts in critical ways so that people begin seeing events differently. Radical-envisioning and transformative rhetoric show that another world is possible and that other ways of thinking are necessary to bring it about.

One of the problems peace workers face is that they lack access to power on foreign policy issues, even if they may be more knowledgeable than both the mainstream media and foreign policy stakeholders with billion-dollar defense contracts. Another problem is that peace groups sometimes disagree on strategies among and between themselves.

Contesting Patriotism helps us think about how we can break through these two barriers. Part one, “Peace Discourses in a War Culture,” analyzes the rhetoric of 15 peace organizations during five conflict periods from 1990 to 2005, concentrating on the months after Sept. 11 and on the current Iraq war. The authors look at venerable peace groups and new groups such as MoveOn, Code Pink, and the unfortunately little-known Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR).

If you work in local peace groups, as I do, you’ll realize that the helpful rhetorical distinctions the authors make lie at the basis of the often wrenching discussions about strategies and alliances. Such a realization, in itself, can help heal divisions and help us see that many strategies are needed if we are to move our country toward peace.

Chapters four and five give the most food for thought, particularly the segments on what the authors call “critical feeling.” We’ve all heard of the intellectual virtue called “critical thinking,” but we can also encourage “critical feeling.” Peace groups fought the climate of fear after Sept. 11, first by channeling it into appropriate targets—such as the very real fear that we would lose our constitutional freedoms—and then by reclaiming individual moral agency. One example is the T-shirt our local secular peace group designed during the days leading up to the U.S. military’s “shock and awe” campaign against Iraq. It read simply, “Thou Shalt Not Kill.”

Contesting Patriotism is an academic book, complete with an 11–page bibliography, but it’s written by professors who are themselves activists and is eminently readable. It’s a “must-read” for anyone who wants to move from wailing about strategy to truly working for peace.

Rosalie G. Riegle is the author of Voices from the Catholic Worker (Temple University Press) and Dorothy Day: Portraits by Those Who Knew Her (Orbis).

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