Peace Cultures

Nagler & Lappé: The Complexity of Peace

This May 2003 event featured influential thinkers Michael Nagler and Frances Moore Lappé exploring the complexities of peace building. Dr. Nagler is Professor Emeritus of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of California at Berkeley, where he also founded the Peace and Conflict Studies program, which he chaired for many years. Frances Moore Lappé is the co-founder with her daughter Anna Lappé of the Small Planet Institute. Among many books, Lappé authored the bestseller Diet for a Small Planet in 1976 when she was a graduate student at Berkeley.


The Center’s executive director, Ginny Straus, kicked off the event, welcoming the speakers, guests, and moderator Meenakshi Chhabra of Lesley University. In her opening remarks, Straus expressed her desire that the evening be an opportunity for everyone there to “make connections in an atmosphere of hope.” She then quoted Center founder Daisaku Ikeda on the power of hope:

All those who have achieved great things have done so because of their ability to create hope… to pull it forth from within themselves regardless of the circumstances and challenges they face. We must learn to make the hope we cannot find. Where there is hope, there is the possibility of peace.

Michael Nagler

Nagler began by suggesting that “the movement towards peace,” a phrase coined by Kenneth Boulding, was like a large group of people trying to put a jigsaw puzzle together without the box; that is, without the picture on the box to help them all understand what the completed puzzle should look like. He also recalled Gandhi’s wisdom about a successful revolution requiring two distinct parts: a constructive program and an obstructive program, a concept of action that Gandhi called satyagraha.

Using another of Kenneth Boulding’s phrases, Nagler stated that “A stable peace will require both.” He went on to say that Frankie Lappé’s book proposes the infrastructure of a just and sustainable world order… thus linking their two streams of work as mutually reinforcing.

As a means of explaining our current socio-political predicament and his ideas on how to get out of it, Nagler told the story a Native American grandfather told his grandson, “ I feel there are two wolves fighting for supremacy inside of me — one vicious and one gentle.” The child asked, “Which one is going to win?” The old man replied, “The one I feed.”

Nagler then showed a diagram to illustrate his view that most of our attention as human beings is focused on political decisions and political action. “I believe the reason the peace movement has not gotten further than it has, over the past 20 years, is that we’ve lost the battle on the cultural level… and the problem is embedded in our culture.”

To the problem of our cultural failure, Nagler added that “There is something even deeper than our culture [at the root of the problem] and that is our spiritual predisposition, which means who we think we are.” In this context he quoted scholar of world religion Huston Smith: “As far as western civilization is concerned, there will be no further progress until we figure out who we are.”

Nagler showed two advertising images to demonstrate his point that our mass media culture, which emphasizes marketing and consumerism, has disconnected us from a shared idea of what a civilized human being is, thereby embodying a culture of dehumanization.

Likening the current critical moment to 1927 vis-à-vis the rise of Hitler’s Nazi party, Nagler referred to The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Back Bay Books 2002) by Malcolm Gladwell, which develops the idea that small changes led by key individuals can have big effects. In particular, when small numbers of people start behaving differently, that new behavior can influence others until a critical mass or “tipping point” changes the world. According to Nagler, we may be reaching the “tipping point” because things have gotten so bad, and yet there are many people yearning for change.

While stressing the importance of a coherent message that could be communicated to large numbers of people, Nagler offered five courses of action:

  1. Shun the commercial media.
  2. Take care of yourself spiritually.
  3. Relate spiritually to others.
  4. Learn about and practice nonviolence.
  5. Get involved in peace work.

Frances Moore Lappé

Lappé began with a question: How can it be that we are—as societies—creating outcomes that we abhor as individuals… (such as hunger, poverty, and global warming)? In this context, she quoted from a book by social philosopher Erich Fromm entitled The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Vintage/Ebury 1974): “It’s man’s humanity that makes him so inhumane.” In other words, because we are capable of constructing ideas about reality, ideas Fromm referred to as “a frame of orientation,” we do that and, in so doing, impose those constructs on ourselves.

Using the term “mental map” for such constructed ideas of reality, Lappé pointed out that “this mental map determines what we can see and what we cannot see,” even to the point that it determines who we think we are. She noted that this is fine if the “mental map” is “life-serving.” However, she asked, “What happens if you and I happen to be alive in an era when the dominant mental map is life-denying?”

What happens if you and I happen to be alive in an era when the dominant mental map is life-denying?

Frances Moore Lappé

In Hope’s Edge, Lappé and Lappé attempt to identify the “thought traps” of the current “mental map,” such as the idea that we must accumulate as much as possible… or that there is a scarcity of everything, including love. According to the thesis of the book, these “thought traps” reduce us to a “shriveled notion of humanity” that leaves us with no alternative but to turn over our fate to the marketplace. Furthermore, in Lappé’s view, the mentalities of consumerism and materialism create a culture of fear. “Living democracy is not possible in a culture of fear,” she said.

As an example of how fear drives and feeds competition, she told a story of two friends climbing a mountain on a beautiful day. Suddenly, one of the men changes into his running shoes. As his friend is trying to understand what is happening, he notices a bear coming after them. “What are you doing? You won’t be able to outrun that bear,” he says. The other man replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear; I only have to outrun you.”

She then posed another question: “How do we crack this cycle of fear in order to create a virtuous cycle of hope?” With this question in mind, Lappé addressed a series of “needs” that must be fulfilled in order for people to overcome fear:

  1. The need to connect and effect (i.e. change within themselves and each other)
  2. The need to see possibilities for inclusive democracy
  3. The need to share stories of success and human connection (e.g. the numerous stories from five continents reported on in Hope’s Edge)

In closing, she stated that “The biggest threat to our planet today is the notion that the dominant mental map is unstoppable.” Objecting to that mentality, she said, “It is simply not possible to know what is possible.”

Returning to the idea of hope as “not something that we find in evidence but something we become in action,” she quoted from a poem entitled “Beginners” by Denise Levertov:

But we have only begun
to love the earth.

We have only just begun
to imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
—so much is in bud.

Q & A

After a small group discussion period, Meenakshi Chhabra posed a question for both speakers to answer before opening the floor to questions: How do you see change happening to redefine the “mental map” Frances Moore Lappé refers to, or to activate what Michael Nagler has called the “soul force,” when fear, suspicion, and governmental policies — like the Patriot’s Act — are fragmenting the diverse population of the United States.

Michael Nagler responded by noting that in spite of these threats, there are many positive human elements in our culture. The challenge, he explained, is in “creating a sense of bonding” in such a vast human society. “We must reconnect with each other,” he said, reminding the audience that in his book he speaks of “unity in diversity.” He went on to state that “One of the most pernicious aspects of the dominant mental map we have is that I can only become myself at your expense.”

Frances Moore Lappé suggested that a source of motivation for change might be the upcoming presidential election in 2004, in which George W. Bush will be running for office. She urged those present to use the Internet to organize and communicate common concerns.

Picking up on Lappé’s point, Nagler commented that statistics gathered by Paul Ray and Sherry Ruth Anderson, authors of Cultural Creatives: How 50 Million People Are Changing the World (Three Rivers Press 2001), suggest that there are enough people “out there” who are dissatisfied with our society to have an enormous influence in the 2004 elections.

Questions were then open to the audience:

Question 1
The first question came from a woman speaking on behalf of her small group session in which issues of class and economic disparity were raised. She suggested that the peace movement and collective projects like community agriculture had become the domain of the privileged, along with what she referred to as “the obscenity of consumption.” She asked, “What will it take to raise awareness?”

Nagler agreed that one must be careful “about exporting nonviolent peace strategies [from the safety of Western culture to] people who are deprived of freedom.” Rather, he suggested, the challenge is to share expertise without disempowering others along the lines of Gandhi’s model of trusteeship. In this model, resources are understood to be given to some for the benefit of all. Nagler reminded the audience of Gandhi’s words: “There is enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Lappé returned to the idea of “thought traps,” identifying the concept of scarcity as one of the key “thought traps” in our society. She urged those present to always ask this question in their dealings with other people: “Am I operating from a concept of scarcity?” She also deplored the gap between the wealthiest and poorest people on Earth and emphasized that this in not in anyone’s interest — rich, poor, or in the middle — for this gap to exist.

Nagler also spoke to the concept of scarcity by pointing out that research coming from various universities is enlarging the picture of human needs beyond needs for survival. He referred to bonding, autonomy, and meaning in life as some of the needs people share, noting that “There is no scarcity of love, or of meaning. If my life is more meaningful, then the lives of those around me become more meaningful.”

Question 2
A second question focused on how we reach those who most need to hear the message that was conveyed by Nagler and Lappé. “It often seems that we’re preaching to the choir,” the questioner said.

In response, Nagler pointed out a lesson he had learned from early literature; namely, that there are two reasons to “preach.” One is to convert people “to the faith,” while the other is to help those already converted to clarify their ideas. Given the state of the world, he supported the practice of people who agree on basic problems communicating with one another in order to clarify thoughts and develop “a consistent, vibrant message” that can be shared with a wider audience

To this point, Elise Boulding remembered the efforts she had been involved in which allowed her to interact with her neighbors. “No one knows their neighbors anymore,” she said. “Get to know your neighbors and their needs.”

Question 3
A third and final question asked for feedback on Nagler’s concept of “a consistent, vibrant message.” The questioner was concerned that the importance of unifying ideas and communication strategies might overshadow diversity.

Nagler simply stated that “We don’t want dogma, but we need coherence.”

Lappé, on the other hand, stated that “Our language is important. We need language to talk about what we are for and against.” In her view, the essential problem is the issue of control. In the face of this control, Lappé urged those present to become “language activists” as part of their role in a living democracy.