This is the transcript of a talk given by Paul K. Chappell at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s symposium “The Fierce Urgency of Nuclear Zero: Changing the Discourse” on October 24, 2016. The audio of this talk is available here. For more information about the symposium, click here.
Alright, we need to talk about the psychological obstacles to nuclear weapons. But I want to begin by talking about an issue that I think is perhaps more controversial than nuclear weapons, and that issue is hope. And the one thing I want you to get from this is not just some solutions that we can begin implementing, but I also want you to feel more hopeful about the world. But I want that hope to be based on a realistic understanding of where the world is and where we can go.
So if you look at World War I, after World War I ended, many people breathed a sigh of relief, to take a quote from Jackie, but then a couple of decades later you have World War II happen, and how could that be? A major reason is because the underlying ways of thinking, the modes of thinking, did not change. So people breathed a sigh of relief, they thought, “Oh, I’m glad this is over”, but then the underlying ways of thinking did not change, so you end up with World War II. The Cold War ends, the first Cold War, the underlying ways of thinking don’t change, they haven’t changed. And now we’re ending up with the second Cold War, and this should not surprise us.
And I want to talk about how dramatically attitudes can change and how do we shift those attitudes. So in 1958, only 4% of Americans approved of interracial marriage between blacks and whites, only 4%. Today, 87% of Americans approve of interracial marriage between blacks and whites. So in one human lifetime interracial marriage, which was so controversial… The Civil Rights Movement would not touch interracial marriage. In one human lifetime, that issue that was so controversial the Civil Rights Movement would not touch it, went from 4 to 87%, and I’m living proof of that. My mother’s Korean, my father’s half-white, half-black, I grew up in Alabama, so I’m living proof that these attitudes have and can change. Now that’s just one human lifetime. If you look at several human lifetimes. In 1800, women in America could not vote, they couldn’t own property, they couldn’t go to college, they couldn’t serve on a jury and a man could legally beat and rape his wife. Also in the year 1800, many white men did not have the right to vote because there were certain property requirements. Now, we don’t have women’s rights everywhere today, but wherever you find a lack of women’s rights today you will find a women’s rights movement.
Today there is women’s rights movement in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan. If you go back 300 years there was not a single women’s rights movement anywhere in the world asking for full political, social, economic equality; did not exist anywhere on the planet. So women in Saudi Arabia today have more rights than American women had 200 years ago. And if you go back 200 years, many American women, probably most American women back then, did not believe women should have the right to vote. There was a women’s rights activist named Ernestine Rose, she was doing a petition for women’s right to own property in New York in the 1840s, and she could barely get a handful of women to sign this petition.
Now let’s look at a larger timeframe, look at centuries or millennia. If you go back throughout human history, every major agricultural civilization at one point in their history practiced animal sacrifice, human sacrifice, or both. In China, India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, the Aztecs and Maya were sacrificing humans to the gods, and the Romans did not outlaw human sacrifice until 97 BC. They did this as government policy back then; if there was a drought or a plague or a famine or any kind of external threat, they’d say “We have to sacrifice people or animals to appease the gods”.
I do not know one government in the world that does that today as government policy. So I want to talk about how we can shift these attitudes, because the issue we’re dealing with now is time and the urgency of the issue we’re dealing with. So I want you to imagine that there is a high school anywhere in America today that has a 0% literacy rate; imagine if there was a high school anywhere in America today where none of the students and none of the teachers knew how to read. Would that get national media attention? It would probably get international media attention. Now imagine going back 3,000 years to the time period of the Trojan War between the Greeks and Trojans, and these societies back then, they’re almost completely illiterate. Imagine trying to convince them 3,000 years ago that they should have universal literacy. Would that be an easy or difficult thing to do? It would be very difficult, ’cause they had no reference point for what reading is. If you tell them reading is a thing where you make marks and the marks make sounds, they’d say “Well, what’s tho point of that? Why not just tell the person or send a messenger to tell the person?”
And if you said, “Well, if you learn how to read you can read books and read letters”, they’d say “What’s a book? What’s a letter?” And these people don’t even know what books and letters are, let alone what universal literacy could be. Now, if you live in a small, nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe you don’t need literacy, but when you’re living in a large agricultural civilization, literacy becomes essential. And this is why every major agricultural civilization in history reaches a point where they’re trying to develop a written language. In China, India, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, Rome; there were multiple written languages in the Americas, the Aztecs and Maya had written languages. Now, if you’re living in a small nomadic hunter-gatherer tribe, literacy is not essential, but when you live in a large agricultural civilization literacy eventually becomes essential. So a question I wanna ask you is why is literacy so important? Why is it so critically important? I think literacy is the thing that we most take for granted today. But why is literacy so critically important?
Well, it allows a universal discussion, dissemination of ideas.
Yes, great point. People typically mention distribution of information, but there are two larger reasons that people usually don’t mention, and that’s a very good reason. One of the larger reasons is, as Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power”. There is a reason why slave owners in America made it illegal for slaves to learn how to read, there’s a reason why the Nazis burned books, there’s a reason why dictators ban books, there is a reason why Malala was shot in the head for trying to promote literacy and education for women. There is a reason why the Taliban does not want women to become educated. Because when you deny people literacy and education, you also deny them power.
Another major reason is literacy is not just about distribution of information. Literacy gives us access to entirely new kinds of information. There are forms of information that you do not have access to unless you live in a literate society. One of those new forms of information is history. Without literacy, there is no such thing as history. And you might say, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why do you need literacy for history?” And the reason is because without literacy, you cannot separate history from mythology. If you were to ask an ancient Greek 3,000 years ago, “Who’s your ancestor?” They might say, “Well, on my father’s side, my great-great-great-grandfather was Zeus. On my mother’s side, my great-great-great-grandmother was Aphrodite.” Do people talk like that today? If they do, it sounds very strange. And another new form of information that literacy gives us access to is science. Every scientific field is only possible because of the way that literacy allows us to organize and analyze information. So, if you like electricity, if you’ve ever benefited from antibiotics, you have to thank literacy for that.
Another new form of information that literacy gives us access to is every form of complex math. You can’t have calculus, you can’t have algebra, you can’t have trigonometry, you can’t have computer programming without a written language. Now, a better term for the Ancient Greeks and Trojans back then was not illiterate, but preliterate, because they weren’t aware that they should know how to read. They just weren’t aware that they were missing some kind of crucial information. Because when you live in a preliterate society, you don’t realize you’re preliterate. Now, the point I want to make is, what if all of us today are living in a preliterate society, and we don’t realize it? We’re not preliterate in reading. We’re preliterate in something else. What if we are living in a society that is preliterate in peace? And the reason why we have so many national problems, global problems, and even personal and family problems, is because our society is preliterate in peace. And just as literacy in reading and writing gives us access to new kinds of information, literacy in peace gives us access to new kinds of information.
If you talk about how to deal with terrorism, and a person doesn’t have peace literacy, it’s like you’re speaking a different language. They don’t even comprehend what you’re talking about. And the point I want to make here is, if you have a basketball game, and no one is taught how to play basketball, it would be a mess. And everybody would say, “Of course it’s a mess. No one is taught how to play basketball.” And if you had an orchestra play Beethoven, and no one was taught how to play their instruments, it’d be a mess, and people would say, “Of course it’s a mess. No one is taught how to play their instruments.” So, we have this society of billions of people who aren’t taught how to live. They’re not taught how to resolve conflict. They aren’t taught anything about peace or being human. Why should we be surprised that there’s all these problems going on? As I was growing up in America, I was never taught how to resolve conflict. I was never taught how to develop empathy. I was never taught how to listen well. I was never taught how to overcome fear. One of the most important life skills we could have is how to overcome fear. I was never taught how to overcome hatred. I was never taught how to calm myself down, how to calm other people down.
And the way we can frame this is that peace literacy deals with the modes of thinking underlying nuclear weapons. We get distracted by the weapons themselves, but we have to attack and confront the underlying ways of thinking. And if you look at the underlying ways of thinking that support racism, sexism, war, nuclear weapons, bullying, trauma, rage, they’re all features of the same phase. And when I do talk with young people, there’s many issues where I can engage them, but nuclear weapons and war can be distant, because there’s no [09:17] ____. But when I talk about trauma, rage, aggression, respect, how to live, people feel a visceral emotional reaction to those issues, because they deal with those things on a daily basis.
I want to talk about one aspect of peace literacy, and this is going to tie into the psychological obstacles to abolishing nuclear weapons, and how this issue is different from other issues in the past. And we have to understand this difference. So, what’s a phobia? Irrational fear, right? So, what are examples of phobias? Fear of heights, fear of spiders, fear of snakes. Everybody has a phobia, nothing to be ashamed of. But there’s something that Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman calls ‘the universal human phobia’. There is something that 98% of humans have a phobia of. Can you guess what it is? 98% of humans have a phobia of what?[Personal death.]
Death is a good answer. This is a bigger fear than dying.[Humiliation.]
Close. I think this will tie into nuclear weapons, because people say, “Well, what’s worse than dying?” There is a bigger fear than dying. And nuclear weapons tap into this fear. It’s a more serious fear that people have than dying. And nuclear weapons are able to tap into that through connecting with this phobia. 98% of humans have a phobia of human aggression directed at them. Anti-personal human aggression scares most people, and I’m going to explain how this is a bigger fear than dying. So, every year in America, hundreds of thousands of people die from the effects of smoking. Very, very tragic. But every day, millions of people casually smoke without a worry or care in the world. Every year in America, tens of thousands of people die in car wrecks. Very, very tragic. But every day, millions of people casually drive without a worry or care in the world, knowing the risk. But if there is one serial killer in a town, and that serial killer kills a few people, the whole town can go upside down. One mass shooting kills a couple dozen people, the whole country goes upside down. One terrorist attack kills 3,000 people, the whole country goes upside down, dramatically alters our way of life.
So, 3,000 people die every couple months in car wrecks. Why do car wrecks not scare us the way that terrorism does? I read an article in The Atlantic that said that after September 11th until today, after September 11th until today, if you are an American citizen, you are as likely to be killed by your furniture as by a terrorist. You’re as likely to die because your furniture falls on top of you than to be killed by a terrorist. So, in 2010 globally, 15 American citizens are killed by terrorism. In 2011 globally, 17 American citizens are killed by terrorism. Now, I’m not trying to minimize that loss of life. That’s a lot of lost life for those families, but if you were to multiply that number by 1,000, let’s say that every year, 15,000 American citizens are killed by terrorism, that would still be less than half the number of people killed every year in car wrecks, so if you look at the statistics, our fear seems irrational. Why are we so much more afraid of violent home invasion or mass shooting or terrorism than we are of smoking, car accidents?
What’s the number one killer of Americans? Heart disease. What’s the leading cause of heart disease? Eating animal products. If terrorists could give Americans heart disease, do you realize how terrified people would be of heart disease? So why are we so much more afraid of terrorism than car wrecks? If you look at the statistics, our fear seems a little bit irrational. What’s going on there?
They manipulate us.
Yeah, government can fear-monger over any issue, but the most effective fear-mongering throughout history is when a government makes you afraid of other humans. So first of all, it’s not about control, that’s a myth. People say, “Well, it’s about control ’cause when you’re driving you have control, terrorism you don’t have control.” First of all, when you’re driving, you don’t really have control. You have control over your own vehicle, but you don’t have control over the other drivers texting and driving, driving drunk, falling asleep at the wheel, being distracted, and you might say, “Well, when you’re driving, you have the illusion of control because you’re holding on to the steering wheel.” But what about riding in a taxi or an Uber? Do people have a fear of riding in an Uber or a taxi where they have no control? Or how about this, how many of you have ever been on a long road trip and been in the passenger seat and gone to sleep? Do you realize how dangerous that is? The driver might kill you, you might never wake up, and you know that unconsciously, you know, “I might go to sleep, I’m going to take an hour long nap, driver might kill me, let me go ahead and take an hour-long nap. I might die and never wake up”, you have no fear and you are completely giving up control. When you sleep in a car as a passenger, you are completely giving up control. You might be killed and you have almost no fear of that.
It’s not about control. I’m going to give you two scenarios, and you tell me which scenario is more traumatizing. The first scenario, you’re riding your bike, you fall off your bike, you break your leg. The second scenario, you’re riding your bike, a group of people grab you, hold you down, and break your leg with a baseball bat. Which one is more traumatic? The second one, right? But why? If you had the exact same physical injury, why does it matter how you broke your leg? What’s more traumatizing? Think about natural disasters. You feel helpless, you have no control, earthquake, tsunami, wildfire, tornado. What’s more traumatizing, being a black family in the South and having your house burned down by a wildfire? Or being a black family in the South and having your house burned down by the KKK? And humans, we are so vulnerable to human-induced trauma that a human being does not even have to physically touch you to traumatize you. A human being can traumatize you by betraying you, by humiliating you, by verbally abusing you, by bullying you, by spitting in your face, by calling you a racial slur, by shunning you, by spreading malicious gossip about you.
If you had to choose between breaking your leg in an accident and being publicly humiliated on national television or being betrayed by those closest to you, what would you choose? You might choose to break both legs. So nuclear weapons offer us this protection from other humans, and that’s why the fear that people have of being violated, right, think about the high likelihood of dying when you drive drunk or texting and driving, people know it’s dangerous, people do it anyway, but how many people don’t lock their doors at night? And the idea of being conquered, of being attacked, is so frightening that nuclear weapons offer us, through deterrence theory, the rhetoric that that would protect us. And we have to understand that this is why terrorism is so dangerous, the reason why terrorism is so dangerous, is because of how we react to it. If Al Qaeda would have said they want us to spy on our own people, and torture and betray our own values, and make our economy, we would’ve never have done that, but by attacking us, we willingly do that.
And if you look at the whole gun control issue, this is why people on both sides of the gun control issue are so emotional and they actually have common ground. So if you were to ask an anti-gun control person, I know many anti-gun control people, if you were to ask an anti-gun control person, “Why should you be allowed to have a gun?” Many of them will say, “I don’t want a crazy person to shoot me and my family.” If you ask a pro-gun control person, “Why should we restrict guns?” Many of them will say, “I don’t want a crazy person to shoot me and my family.” They have the exact same fear, but they react to the fear differently. And if you ask an anti-nuclear weapons person, “Why should we get rid of nuclear weapons?” They’ll say, “‘Cause I don’t want to be killed by a nuclear weapon.” If you ask a pro-nuclear weapons person, “Why should we have nuclear weapons?” They’ll say, “‘Cause I don’t want to be killed by a nuclear weapon.” They have the exact same desire, but through misinformation, they’re actually reacting to things differently, and I think it’s important to understand just the human vulnerability with this issue and how we live in a culture where people are not even aware constantly that they have this phobia, and that allows governments to manipulate people very easily, because whenever somebody makes you afraid of other humans, you should be become very skeptical of what they’re saying to you.
So I think that peace literacy is the only way to deal with the underlying ways of thinking, that nuclear weapons is really a symptom of much deeper problems, and those problems are how people view conflict, how people view violence, how people view peace, how people view humanity. And if you can’t shift that huge boulder, nuclear weapons are really the symptom of that misunderstanding of these so many other issues, how we relate to humans, how do we provide security, how do we protect ourselves, how do you resolve conflict in a national or international order, until we can change those modes of thinking, nuclear weapons, it’s not gong to budge, because it’s caused by an underlying way of thinking.
Just like you cannot deal with people who are racist unless you deal with the issue of racism itself, and the underlying myths about that. So, I think that peace literacy is a way to offer agency, because you’re giving people a skill set that they could use to deal with conflict, or racism, or sexism, or gang violence, or bullying, or just being happier in life, and that issue is connected to the nuclear weapons issue, because it’s dealing with the same underlying mode of thinking that we have to confront directly.