Negative peace is the cessation of overt hostilities, while positive peace is the state achieved when underlying conditions causing the hostilities are truly addressed. Knowing which is your goal helps determine how you navigate the conflict in front of you.
“I don’t want to resolve this conflict,” said the professor, looking me squarely in the eye and leaning forward in his seat. “I want to exacerbate it.” The word exacerbate was pronounced with each syllable clipped and exaggerated to highlight his point. “It’s a conflict that needs to be done thoroughly, fearlessly, and with zest.”
I’ve described that professor and his colleagues to my conflict resolution students over the years, asking them, “How does a mediator help best in this situation?” Invariably, the majority want to settle things down, help the faculty colleagues talk to each other in nicer ways, see if they can find some things to agree on, and de-escalate the hostility in the faculty department.
The mediator that does that will have missed both the point and the opportunity. The point is that good mediators don’t smooth in the name of resolution and settlement. The opportunity for these faculty colleagues is real dialogue, even if it’s messy. Smoothing and rushing to resolution thwart real dialogue.
It’s the difference between positive and negative peace. Mediators can inadvertently interfere with the former with too much zealousness for the latter.
While studying for my doctorate many moons ago, Birgit Brock-Utne’s Feminist Perspectives on Peace and Peace Education rocked my world by differentiating negative peace, the cessation of overt hostilities, from positive peace, the state achieved when underlying conditions causing the hostilities are truly addressed.
Negative peace-making is the act of reducing nastiness, back-stabbing, violence.
Positive peace-building is the restoration of relationship, the creation of family and organizational systems that address injustice and/or other underlying causes of the conflict.
Neither is an easy form of peace-making, but the second takes particular courage and perseverance.