The Best Defense
Paul K. Chappell On The Urgent Need For Peace Literacy
by Leslee Goodman November 2021
Peace educator is an ironic career choice for Paul K. Chappell, who graduated from West Point Military Academy, was deployed to Iraq, and spent seven years in active duty, leaving the Army as a captain. Chappell was, at different times, a tactical control officer for the air defense of Washington, D.C.; responsible for systems that intercepted rockets at forward-operating bases in Iraq; and a commander of a Patriot-missile battery. But throughout his service he never stopped questioning whether force was the most effective means of solving problems and achieving peace. Upon leaving the military in 2009, he committed himself to teaching nonviolence, studying under James Lawson, Bernard Lafayette, and C.T. Vivian, all of whom worked on civil-rights campaigns in the 1960s and were colleagues of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Born in 1980, Chappell was raised in Alabama in a household overshadowed by war. His Black father was a veteran, and his Korean mother had experienced war as a civilian. He applied to West Point in part because he was convinced the military was the only place where someone with his mixed Black and Korean ancestry would be treated fairly. While training to become an officer, he began to heal from the legacy of trauma passed down through his parents. Paradoxically, the seeds of his later advocacy for peace literacy would be planted while he studied war.
Peace literacy, as Chappell sees it, enables us to confront the root causes of problems rather than just their surface symptoms. It includes the capacities and skills needed to create shared trust, build strong communities, increase realistic hope, reduce injustice, heal trauma on an individual and societal level, use technology with discernment, and solve national and global problems. It teaches us, among other things, to see aggression as a symptom of distress, to speak to others’ potential, and to remain calm — and calm others — during conflict. As the founder of the Peace Literacy Institute (peaceliteracy.org), Chappell has helped design a curriculum that starts in preschool and continues through college courses and workshops for adults.
Chappell is the author of the Road to Peace book series, which includes Will War Ever End? and Soldiers of Peace. The seventh and final volume, scheduled for publication in 2023, predicts enormous technological disruptions in the coming years and discusses how we can respond. His goal is for peace literacy to become an essential part of education worldwide. He calls it a human right and says it empowers us to protect all other human rights.
I previously interviewed Chappell in the April 2011 issue of The Sun [“Fighting with Another Purpose”]. For this conversation we spoke for several hours via video chat.
Goodman: You focus on peaceful conflict resolution at the individual level.
Chappell: If we don’t understand how war and violence and injustice affect people on the personal level, then we can’t understand how they affect people on a global level.
One reason I focus on the personal level is because that is how war and violence initially affected me. I grew up in a violent household. My father fought in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, and he brought a lot of trauma home with him. My mother lived in Japan during World War II and in Korea during the Korean War, and she, too, carried wartime trauma.
Due to the violence I experienced in my home and my extreme racial alienation, I developed a lot of behavioral problems as a child. I was kicked out of elementary school for fighting. I was suspended from high school for fighting. And even though I grew up looking Asian, my father was Black and raised me to see the world like a Black man living before the Civil Rights Movement. He was born in 1925 and had me when he was fifty-four years old. So there’s a skipped generation between us. An only child, I grew up alienated because I didn’t fit into the Black community, the Asian community, or the white community. Both my parents taught me to think that I would inherit disadvantages from their heritage.
I was never taught how to heal. So all of that rage, alienation, and mistrust caused me to develop the personality of a mass shooter in high school. Every day I would fantasize about shooting the other kids in my classes.
When people think about peace or war, they typically think of something outside themselves, far away over there. We seldom think about all the ways that trauma can create a war within the human psyche. When we explore this further, we realize how common this kind of war is and how many people it affects. Many problems can emerge from it: mass shootings, domestic violence, addiction, suicide, depression, extremism, polarization, terrorism, racism, injustice. We cannot understand peace on a global level unless we first understand how the psychological terrain of suffering and trauma — the battlefield where the wars in the human psyche are fought — affects so many people. We have national and world leaders who are stuck in this terrain. We have to teach people how to navigate and move beyond the violence, racism, injustice, and other problems that are frequent landmarks on this terrain.
Goodman: Why do you say you had the personality of a mass shooter?
Chappell: I realized that in my sophomore year at West Point: My friends and I were raking leaves, and it was pretty boring work. As we raked, I said to them, “Remember being really bored in high school and fantasizing about shooting all the kids in your classes?” I thought everyone fantasized about this, but they all seemed really alarmed and said they’d never had those thoughts. So later I called my one friend from high school and asked, “Did you ever fantasize about shooting all the kids in our classes?” He seemed shocked by the question and told me he hadn’t. I told him I had, and he asked, “Did you fantasize about shooting me, too?” And I said, “Yeah. I mean, it was nothing personal. I just wanted to shoot everybody back then.”
Think about that: If you’re feeling good, you don’t want to hurt anybody, right? You want to share your joy with other people. So if you want to kill people who’ve never harmed you, and who have even been kind to you at times, then you are in a lot of pain. That’s why I say I had a mass-shooter personality. It wasn’t just a fantasy. The compulsion to inflict harm was almost overwhelming. The urge was difficult to control and lasted for years. It has taken a lot of work for me to learn how to navigate beyond that painful psychological terrain. Mass shootings are only one manifestation of that terrain. Most people in our society are not taught how to move beyond rage, mistrust, or alienation, because society keeps them trapped within these forms of pain. One reason I developed peace literacy is because the traditional education system did not help me overcome these problems, and every year we see them affecting more and more people. Just turn on the news.
Goodman: You’ve said that at West Point your fellow students and teachers helped you feel like a part of the group, rather than like a lone individual who had to survive on your own. Was West Point the start of your healing and recovery?
Chappell: Ironically, I learned more about the skills needed to wage peace from the United States Military Academy than I did from our K-12 education system. West Point gave me a sense of family and community that I’d never had before. The thing is, the military leverages this sense of fellowship to increase our effectiveness in waging war. But I began to think about how we could leverage it to wage peace, which ultimately paved the path to my healing and recovery. I also saw how the military gives people excellent training in waging war, and I wondered: What if people were as well trained in waging peace as soldiers are in waging war?
I was also helped by a comment from a high-school teacher. When I was fifteen, I wrote a short story for English class. My teacher, Mrs. Vaughn, said that she liked my story and that I should think about being a writer. I had never considered that before, because I didn’t like to read when I was growing up. But I had enjoyed writing that story, so I wrote another, and another, and another. For countless people, aggression and violence are forms of expression. When I became obsessed with writing, I started to see how it’s a deeper form of expression. Real healing would take many more years, because I did not yet have the skills or understanding I needed, but writing became an essential tool. The older I got, the more I realized why it had been illegal for my enslaved Black ancestors to learn how to read and write, and why men have often forbidden women to learn to read and write. Reading and writing are incredibly powerful tools in the struggle for liberation. This story about Mrs. Vaughn also shows how much power and influence teachers can have over the lives of students. My life was saved by a teacher.
I . . . saw how the military gives people excellent training in waging war, and I wondered: What if people were as well trained in waging peace as soldiers are in waging war?
Goodman: I’m curious how you got into West Point with your school background.
Chappell: My father was in the Army for thirty years, and ever since I’d been a child, he’d told me that the Army was the only place in America that would give a Black man a fair chance. Both my parents thought that a lot of the progress of the civil-rights era, in terms of changing attitudes, would not apply to me because of my multiracial background. And they thought that the Army, of all places, was the most progressive around issues of race. The Army had desegregated earlier than many other parts of this country. So West Point was the only college I applied to. I believe I would have shot myself if I hadn’t gotten in.
Thankfully, even though my ability to perform in school was impaired by my mental-health issues, I had good-enough grades and SAT scores, and I was athletic enough, to get into West Point.
Goodman: Do you think political leaders who call for us to respond militaristically to crises are suffering from trauma?
Chappell: Being a world leader or politician does not protect people from suffering. It’s definitely possible that childhood trauma could be playing a role in how they think. In peace literacy I discuss how trauma can create forms of pain that distort our perception, which I call the “tangles of trauma.” These include rage, mistrust, alienation, meaninglessness, shame, cynicism, and a ruthless worldview. There are influential people of all kinds stuck in these tangles, and they are also manipulating other people’s tangles of trauma. And our society is almost defenseless against this, because peace literacy is not something we prioritize. The most dangerous weapons of war in the twenty-first century are not bullets and bombs; they are the weaponization of this rage, mistrust, alienation, and other tangles of trauma, which make all forms of violence more likely. Social media has created new ways to both weaponize and amplify people’s psychological wounds. One reason I became so disillusioned with traditional warfare is that the U.S. government has the most powerful military in human history, and yet a tank is useless against mistrust. There’s nothing an aircraft carrier can do to stop people from using social media to weaponize rage and destabilize our democratic system. Peace literacy provides a defense against that form of warfare.
Goodman: Why do you say that trauma is an epidemic in this country?
Chappell: A lot of people do not realize how vast the problem is. It’s as if our society has been sweeping the tangles of trauma under a rug, but they come out sideways in the form of extremism, racism, domestic violence, suicide, addiction, and other problems. Recently, through social media and other outlets, our society has lifted up that rug. It has shocked a lot of people to see what is under there. The only solution is to confront the root causes that we’ve ignored or denied for so long. We have to face our history of injustice and racism, but we cannot do this in a deep way that will move us forward unless we understand the anatomy of trauma and the strategies for waging peace.
Violence, by its very nature, is only capable of confronting symptoms of problems. From a strategic perspective, the usefulness of violence is very limited, because it cannot confront root causes. But peace literacy can help people navigate and move beyond the tangles of trauma that are the root causes of so many problems.
There’s a great quote from the Iliad that is perhaps more relevant today than it has ever been. In Book 17 Zeus, the king of the gods, is looking down upon humanity and says, “There is nothing alive more agonized than man of all that breathe and crawl across the earth.” In other words, no other species on the planet has the range of psychological problems that humans have. No other species self-destructs from drug addiction or alcoholism. No other species is joining ISIS or neo-Nazi groups. No other species looks in the mirror and says, “I don’t like how these pants make me look today.” No other species seems to experience our degree of existential anxiety about the inevitability of aging and death.
During a workshop someone once said to me, “Practically everyone I know suffers in some way from these tangles of trauma. Is there something traumatic about being human?” People in the ancient world seemed to think so, even if they would not have used the word trauma back then. Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden was depicted as a traumatic experience. The philosophy of Stoicism and the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism all describe human suffering as something that can be severe and very dangerous. The story of the Buddha is about Siddhartha Gautama learning about the inevitability of aging, sickness, and death, which is so traumatic to him that he leaves his family and basically risks his life on a mission to transcend this pain. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest surviving written story, Gilgamesh is so hurt by the death of his friend Enkidu that he goes to seek a solution to the suffering of mortality. As human beings we realize that we’re going to die, and everyone we know is going to die. And on top of that we have this hyperawareness of our self-worth and can subject ourselves to endless self-criticism. As far as we know, no other species does that — at least, to the extent that humans can.
We need to learn to navigate our humanity. We’re unique in this way. An oak tree doesn’t need to learn how to be an oak tree. It doesn’t need the kind of guidance from mentors that humans require. A caterpillar doesn’t need to learn how to turn into a butterfly. It doesn’t have to attend school or be instructed by its parents. But we have to learn how to be human. The Roman philosopher Seneca said that of all the art forms — painting, sculpting, playing an instrument — living is the most difficult. And in the art of living we’re both the sculptor and the sculpture. Unfortunately most of us aren’t taught the art of living. In fact, we’re often taught the opposite by our media. Instead of learning to resolve conflicts peacefully, we learn skills that lean more toward aggression and violence.
It’s not just our own trauma we’re dealing with, either, but that of our parents and our grandparents, too. It’s passed down through generations. We have to give people more tools to navigate this, because it’s a lot, and it’s often just beneath the surface, until leaders come along who know how to turn it into a weapon.
The need for peace literacy also transcends age. I’ve done a lot of workshops with adults — even people in their seventies and eighties. Our oldest peace-literacy supporter was Richard Blomquist, a World War II bomber pilot who died this year at the age of 103. He enabled us to say, “Peace literacy is for ages 3 to 103.” We are working to integrate peace literacy into professional-development workshops for businesspeople, first responders, veterans groups, community leaders, engineers, professors — anyone seeking to improve the workplace environment or their organization’s relationships with the community. We’re trying to teach as many people as possible, because every year we see more reasons why our world needs peace literacy.
No other species on the planet has the range of psychological problems that humans have. No other species self-destructs from drug addiction or alcoholism. No other species is joining ISIS or neo-Nazi groups.
Goodman: Climate disruption — with the accompanying ecosystem loss, refugees, and economic uncertainty — seems likely to traumatize billions. Can we realistically address their needs?
Chappell: We can start by addressing existing tangles of trauma. Right now rage, mistrust, and alienation are preventing us from solving global problems like climate change. Think about mistrust. When people don’t trust their fellow citizens or public institutions, how can they work together to solve problems? One reason that climate change is so controversial is because there is so much mistrust of scientific information. Many public institutions have earned some of the mistrust directed at them, which creates other problems we have to deal with. Rage furthers polarization and extremism. All of these problems are interwoven, further demonstrating how people’s personal problems affect global problems, and vice versa.
Goodman: You say humans need to learn the “art of living.” Isn’t life itself a teacher?
Chappell: Absolutely. In our Constellation of Peace curriculum, we say that, just as humans in countless cultures used the stars to navigate at night, our ideals can help us navigate through life. If we don’t have ideals, however, we can become shipwrecked. Albert Schweitzer, the famous humanitarian doctor, said, “The soft iron of youthful idealism hardens into the steel of a full-grown idealism which can never be lost.” But to do that we need a forge, a fire. Life is one of those forges, but education can also be a forge. If we don’t have effective forges for transforming the soft iron of youthful idealism into the stainless steel of adult idealism, then our youthful idealism can turn into the rust of cynicism and bitterness.
Goodman: You’ve been critical of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous “hierarchy of needs.” Why?
Chappell: Maslow’s hierarchy, which puts physiological needs first and self-actualization last, does not help us understand human problems, especially today. Maslow himself later wrote criticisms of his theory. In my lectures I often ask the audience what we need as humans. People will typically mention physical needs first: water, food, safety, and so on. These are the foundation of Maslow’s pyramid. Then I’ll ask about non-physical needs. “What is more important,” I’ll say, “food, or purpose and meaning?” Many people say that food is more important. But then I’ll point out that we often have to overcome adversity to get food, especially when trying to survive in harsh and life-threatening circumstances. Purpose and meaning help us overcome adversity by increasing our motivation, courage, and resilience, empowering us to more reliably meet our physical needs.
Great peace leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. realized that if you give people immense purpose and meaning, this has such a huge impact on their motivation, courage, and resilience that they will sacrifice physical needs by willingly giving up safety and even getting beaten, going to jail, or dying for a cause. People will go on a hunger strike and not eat if they believe this serves an important purpose. If a military leader gives soldiers a sense of purpose by convincing them that they’re fighting for their family, their country, or their freedom, they will risk their safety, suffer deprivations such as hunger and lack of sleep, and even be willing to die.
It’s important to have a purpose that goes beyond you, which we can call “higher purpose.” Of course, if you don’t have food, you will be motivated to get food. But if you also have the higher purpose of feeding your family or community, you will have more motivation, more courage, and more resilience. This explains part of the appeal of extremist conspiracy theories. They give people a higher purpose, in the form of an epic purpose in life. They say, in effect, “We are involved in an epic struggle of good versus evil. We’re on the side of good. Other people are too afraid to face the truth, but you have the courage to realize that you are being lied to. We need your help in this epic struggle. Our world needs your help.” They turn their movement into a Star Wars or Lord of the Rings movie: an effort to save the world. Politicians, too, especially authoritarian politicians, appeal strongly to epic purpose: “These evil people are destroying our country, and we have to save it.”
Goodman: Can traumas create a misguided sense of purpose? For example: 9/11 was a hugely traumatic event that led to the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, which traumatized both U.S. soldiers and the populations of those countries. So that one event — 9/11 — created hundreds of thousands of individual traumas.
Chappell: The need for epic purpose can be fed from a healthy source or an unhealthy one, just like our need for water: if you don’t have a healthy source of water, you will drink from a source that’s contaminated. I think that 9/11 and other similar events, and the way that people respond to these events, show us there is a real thirst for epic purpose in our society, and this thirst can lead people in both healthy and unhealthy directions.
Goodman: You feel purpose and meaning should be prioritized in a hierarchy of needs?
Chappell: Yes. There are other needs Maslow leaves out as well — for example, our non-physical need for expression. Humans need to express their emotions, and this can be done in many ways: through language, art, or just body language and facial expressions. If you think about body language and facial expressions, people are almost incapable of not expressing their emotions. People can also express themselves through tattoos, bumper stickers, T-shirts, social media, protests, rioting, voting, and violence. How someone decorates their house or cooks or plays tennis can be a form of expression. When we come out of our mother’s womb, we express ourselves by crying while we take our first breaths. We cry before our mother gives us our first meal. And babies express themselves to get food, right? Non-physical needs are the means through which we fulfill our physical needs. According to Maslow, if people don’t have food, water, or safety, all they care about is food, water, and safety. But, in reality, people who don’t have their physical needs met will experience an increased need to express themselves either verbally or nonverbally. They might say, “I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m afraid.” They might break a window. They might protest or riot.
Maslow does include our non-physical need for belonging in his hierarchy of human needs, but he places it after food, water, and safety. In reality humans get food, water, and safety through being part of a community, belonging to a group. A two-year-old child in the wilderness alone will starve. Belonging is connected to our non-physical need for nurturing relationships, and the foundation of nurturing relationships is trust. One reason people feel unsafe in our society is that our trust is so fractured. Even people who live in the safest physical conditions — inside gated communities with security cameras and guards — will feel unsafe if they don’t trust others. Our sense of safety is largely psychological, and trust is a primary way we attain it. Hitler understood that when people don’t feel safe, their need for trust actually increases. He used this to his advantage, making people feel less safe and then telling them that he was the only leader they could trust to keep them safe. Many other politicians use that dynamic, consciously or unconsciously.
Another non-physical need is the need for explanations. This need is so strong that if we don’t have an accurate explanation, we will accept an inaccurate one. People in power often offer false or misleading explanations.
In all, I count nine non-physical needs that help us get our physical needs met: purpose and meaning, expression, belonging, nurturing relationships, explanations, inspiration, self-worth, challenge, and transcendence. By “transcendence” I mean transcending our sense of time. There are many ways to do this, such as being so absorbed in the moment that a person feels a sense of timelessness, or seeking a sense of immortality through legacy.
I was recently talking to someone who said, “Don’t you think that if everyone had enough food and money and all their physical needs met, we would have peace?” I said, “Well, every American political leader and billionaire who is criticized for perpetuating the world’s problems has more than enough money and all of their physical needs met.” The people who are causing the greatest harm often have all of their physical needs met. Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hitler — none of these people were lacking food or water or shelter when they launched violent campaigns on a mass scale.
Psychologist Erich Fromm said that when we have satisfied all of our physical needs, that is when our problems truly begin. Satisfying physical hunger and thirst are easy, relative to satisfying non-physical needs. Feeding people’s hunger for purpose and meaning, self-worth, belonging, expression, and transcendence — those are harder problems to solve. We have material poverty in this country, but we also have poverty of purpose, malnutrition of meaning, and many unhealthy ways of feeding our non-physical needs. We can consider all of this a kind of spiritual poverty. The people suffering from spiritual poverty are much more dangerous than people suffering from material poverty.
Desiring billions of dollars is not about an individual’s physical needs. It is more about non-physical needs such as self-worth, purpose and meaning, challenge, being able to expand one’s expression and also express power, or transcendence. But because money doesn’t fill that void very well, it’s like drinking salt water to quench your thirst: you’re never satiated and just keep wanting more and more.
People suffering from spiritual poverty are much more dangerous than people suffering from material poverty.
Goodman: You said our need for explanations is so strong that we will accept inaccurate ones. When both accurate and inaccurate explanations are presented, what determines which one a person will embrace?
Chappell: A huge part of the answer is trust. People are more likely to accept information from someone they trust, even if it’s inaccurate. Trust is like a doorway that allows information in. Establishing trust is essential for conveying any kind of important information, especially accurate information that might be unpopular or unpleasant. But trust can be misused, because trust can also let in a lot of false information.
Also, when people are suffering from tangles of trauma and have access to multiple explanations, they will tend to favor the explanations that speak to these tangles. For example, when I was filled with rage and mistrust, the explanations that spoke to my rage and mistrust were more compelling to me. Sometimes people who promote peace wonder why the approach they offer is not as appealing as an ideology that advocates destruction. It is often because the destructive ideology is better at speaking to people’s tangles of trauma, whereas a peace approach might seem saccharine and can shame people for feeling rage and aggression. With peace literacy I wanted to create an approach to peace that could speak to, acknowledge, and understand my rage more powerfully than destructive ideologies could. This is why peace literacy is filled with realistic hope and radical empathy, but it also makes a home for all of the pain and pathos of being human.
Goodman: How does peace-literacy training help people satisfy their non-physical needs in healthier ways?
Chappell: Imagine if you had a basketball game but nobody had been taught how to play basketball. It’d be a mess, right? But nobody would despair over humans’ inability to play basketball. You would expect the game to fall apart. We live in a society where people are not taught the most basic peace skills. We don’t teach people how to heal or how to feed their non-physical needs in healthy ways. So we shouldn’t be shocked or despairing that most people aren’t good at creating peace, especially when our society teaches people harmful habits that are the opposite of peace-literacy skills.
The peace-literacy curriculum seeks to create a future in which we take education in peace as seriously as we take education in reading and mathematics. I’ve been doing this work for twenty years — full-time for twelve. Still, teachers say to me, “Can you come to the school and give a thirty-minute talk about peace? We might have another thirty-minute lecture on peace next year.” But a teacher would never say, “Can you come to the school and give a thirty-minute talk about algebra?” You can’t teach algebra, or any complex subject, in thirty minutes.
I know a peace-studies professor who also teaches middle school. He told me that he showed a documentary about Martin Luther King Jr. to his students, and they all really liked it, but a few hours later at recess they went back to aggressively pushing each other around. He asked me how this could happen. I said, “Well, it’s like showing people a video of Michael Jordan playing basketball and expecting them to play basketball like Michael Jordan.” We are not teaching people the core skills and competencies they can use in the midst of struggle. With peace literacy, our goal is to change our whole cultural paradigm around peace; to help people realize that, just as literacy in reading and writing and mathematics are competencies we need for life in the twenty-first century, so is peace literacy, which is even more complex than literacy in reading and writing and mathematics.
Goodman: Another of your goals is for peace literacy to be recognized as a human right.
Chappell: Yes, in 1948 the United Nations recognized education in reading and writing as a human right. We are saying that, in the twenty-first century, people need peace literacy as much as they need reading and writing skills. In fact, peace literacy is the human right that empowers us to protect all other human rights.
We are also developing the peace-literacy “metaverse,” which uses virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to transform the classroom into an epic journey where students can learn the skills needed to create a more peaceful and just world. The word metaverse has become popular recently in mainstream news articles because Mark Zuckerberg has been saying that Facebook will transition from being a social-media company to being a “metaverse company.” But we have been using this term for a while, because we have enough curriculum to fill a metaverse, and we want to define in new ways what this term can mean for creating a more peaceful and just world.
Goodman: Won’t it be hard to give most students access to VR and AR? And how will this technology affect students once they get access to it?
Chappell: Let’s start by looking at the growth in smartphone use with students around the globe. Smartphones have already become ubiquitous in American high schools. I taught a workshop to a school district in 2019, and the teachers and principals asked me what they should do about the problem of smartphones in their classes. In that moment I realized they were asking this question thirteen years too late. I remember being in the Army in 2006, when it was issuing Blackberries to soldiers, who called them “Crackberries,” because the phones were addictive. So if adults — soldiers, whom we think of as disciplined — were having addiction issues with Blackberries, what happens when you give a device that is a thousand times more capable than a Blackberry to millions of children?
VR headsets and AR glasses will be much more powerful, compelling, and potentially addictive than smartphones. Year after year, VR and AR devices will become more advanced, more accessible, more comfortable, and less expensive. They will make smartphones look like the horse and buggy in comparison. Where VR and AR devices are concerned, we cannot be thirteen years too late yet again, because if people think smartphones are a problem, just wait until they see what VR and AR devices are going to unleash upon the world. By leveraging the power of VR and AR positively, however, we can help students practice the peace-literacy skills they will need to navigate the future.
Goodman: Won’t VR and AR make it more difficult for us to discern fact from fiction?
Chappell: Oh, yes. We want to introduce peace-literacy training in VR and AR to unlock positive uses of the technology that will help counterbalance the many harmful uses. Imagine any problem that exists today — such as addiction, misinformation, extremism, or violence. VR and AR have the potential to greatly amplify all of these problems. For example, when a player kills someone in a traditional video game, they push a button on a controller or a keyboard, but when you stab or shoot someone in VR, you use muscle movements as if you were actually stabbing or shooting them. That’s why the military is investing heavily in this technology: You can become faster at target acquisition. You can become better at lining up the sight. You can become better at situational awareness. Imagine a mass shooter who has spent five thousand hours shooting people in VR, with realistic “haptics,” which simulate pistol or rifle recoil and trigger squeeze and things like that.
Apple and Facebook and Microsoft are all predicting that AR glasses will replace the smartphone, and they’re working to make it happen. A few months ago I gave a talk to middle-school students about VR, and many of the students already had their own headsets.
We’ve all seen how people have trouble telling reality from fiction when they are reading 280 characters in a tweet on a tiny smartphone. What’s going to happen when people can make you see, hear, and to some degree even touch whatever they want you to?
Goodman: What mechanisms might we put in place to resist that? Perhaps critical-thinking skills would provide protection against an alternate reality.
Chappell: Critical thinking is certainly important, but the tangles of trauma have a way of distorting our perception of reality. If trauma has distorted our perception of reality, and we are using our critical-thinking skills within that distorted perception of reality, then we can arrive at all kinds of conclusions that are not grounded in reality.
Goodman: So what is your prognosis? What can we do?
Chappell: We need to recognize what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” Our technology has escalated, and our peace literacy has not kept up with it. We also need to change our understanding of peace itself, so people see it not as an abstract goal or sentimental wish, but as a skill set and human right that we need in order to survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.
Creating a peaceful and just world is like an engineering project, but it is a thousand times more complex than engineering the most complex physical structures. When civil engineers design cities, they don’t have to worry about meeting the non-physical needs of the buildings. They don’t have to worry about cultivating shared trust among the buildings or the dangers of the buildings developing distorted perceptions of reality based on tangles of trauma. They don’t have to worry about the buildings becoming anxious about mortality or developing addictions as a way of coping with pain.
I recognize how difficult the engineering project of peace is, but I have realistic hope. Imagine if you told an engineer living four hundred years ago that humans could go to the moon. It would probably seem impossible. But if you communicated the mathematical frameworks that show why this incredible feat is feasible, the engineer would see new possibilities where none had existed. In the same way, peace literacy reveals new possibilities by giving us practical and comprehensive frameworks for understanding the human condition, the anatomy of trauma, the limitations of waging war, and the power of waging peace. I know firsthand that the journey from rage to realistic hope and radical empathy is possible. The journey from war to peace is possible. So now is not the time to despair. Now is the time to learn the skills and frameworks we need to create a more peaceful and just world, and to create this world together with fierce urgency.
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