Peace Literacy in a Nuclear-Armed World

By |2020-07-13T12:00:33-07:00July 13, 2020|

As a partner organization of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), we shared in the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize for our work to achieve the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. NAPF played an important role in the negotiations as part of the ICAN effort, including writing working papers for the governments negotiating the treaty, and speaking at the negotiating sessions. Earning the Nobel Peace Prize is perhaps the highest honor one can receive in peace work, but we were not content to rest on our laurels.

Witnessing how effortlessly hard-fought treaties and legislation have been torn up over the past couple of years caused us to ask difficult questions about how our society, for the past 75 years, has continued to accept the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. We concluded that we need to look deeper than the symptom of nuclear weapons, and address the root causes of why our society continues to embrace these weapons. The root causes of nuclear weapons are in many cases the same root causes that lead to wars, mass shootings, racism, sexism, and many other serious problems. Peace Literacy gives people the tools they need to recognize, address, and heal the root causes of these serious problems plaguing societies around the world.


History, as well as scientific studies, show us that nuclear weapons are absolutely catastrophic. So why is it that we – meaning our society – have accepted this existential threat for 75 years? Why do we, as a society, accept the fact that our country is spending over $100,000 of our tax dollars every single minute on nuclear weapons?

To explain some reasons why our society has accepted these things, in Peace Literacy we use the allegory of the “six-headed hydra of dehumanization.”

The six heads of the Six-Headed Hydra of Dehumanization are:

  • Psychological Distance (viewing people as subhuman)
  • Moral Distance (“you are pure evil, I am all good, and God is on my side”)
  • Mechanical Distance (the farther away you are from someone, the easier it is to kill them)
  • Industrial Distance (viewing people as machines, usually as cheap and expendable machines)
  • Numerical Distance (viewing people as numbers)
  • Bureaucratic Distance (people become sheets of paper or items on an Excel spreadsheet)

Beneath these six heads are two levels of the hydra’s body (that symbolize two levels of root causes). The upper level of the body (upper level of root causes) are systems, such as systemic racism or the war system (nuclear weapons are a symptom of the war system). The even deeper level of the body (even deeper level of root causes) are aspects of the human condition (such as our non-physical needs being met in unhealthy ways, the tangles of trauma, underdeveloped empathy and conscience, inaccurate explanations, etc.) that sustain and perpetuate these systems. If we don’t use the light of listening to journey deep into the body (the root causes) of this hydra and confront these root causes with the sword of nonviolence, the heads will keep growing back in different forms. In order words, if we don’t confront the root causes of nuclear weapons that exist in this hydra’s body, the heads of dehumanization that enable nuclear weapons will grow back, and nuclear weapons will not stay abolished. Although as a society we must learn to clearly recognize the heads in all of their forms, the only way to truly weaken the heads is by confronting the root causes in the body.

Root Causes

The deep level of root causes of nuclear weapons that we must address is that both individually, and collectively as a society, we must meet our non-physical needs in healthy ways.

The nine non-physical human needs that we have identified are: purpose and meaning; nurturing relationships; explanations; expression; inspiration; belonging; self-worth; challenge; transcendence. People are going to find ways to fulfill these needs. If they can’t find healthy ways of fulfilling them, they will find unhealthy ways.

In Peace Literacy, we talk a lot about “the tangles of trauma.” Let me explain a little bit.

Often, when trauma of some kind gets tangled in these non-physical needs, negative outcomes can occur. Some examples of individual trauma are physical abuse, a child’s parents getting divorced, being the victim of racism or sexism, and much more. Some examples of collective societal trauma are war trauma (think about how our society reacted to Pearl Harbor or 9/11); economic crashes (blaming immigrants for job losses, for example); and pandemics like COVID-19.

Here are just a few of the tangles of trauma that specifically relate to nuclear weapons.

MISTRUST – What happens when Kim Jong Un calls President Trump “dotard”, or President Trump calls Chairman Kim “Rocket Man”? Does this inspire trust and confidence? Everyone likes to be listened to, and everyone likes to be treated with respect. Has anyone ever told you, “Stop listening to me! I hate it when you listen so well!” or “Could you please respect me a little less?”

RUTHLESS WORLDVIEW – Inaccurate explanations can lead to ruthlessness. An extreme example of this would be Hitler’s explanation – an inaccurate explanation – that Jews are the source of the problems many people in Germany were facing. This inaccurate explanation was latched onto by people who were desperate for an explanation, leading to an appalling genocide.

CYNICISM – “There’s no way North Korea would ever get rid of its nuclear weapons.” “We’re always going to have enemies, so we will always need nuclear weapons to protect ourselves.” These are self-fulfilling prophecies. Leaders must inspire people to imagine a different type of world, and to develop realistic hope that things can change.

SHAME – this is a really interesting one. A common refrain in the United States is that “America is the greatest country in the history of the world.” This is a mindset that is deeply ingrained in many Americans’ self-worth, and to our collective self-worth as a nation. In our society, it is often considered a sign of weakness to admit that you were wrong, or that you changed your mind about something. The shame associated with our nation indiscriminately slaughtering hundreds of thousands of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 would be difficult for many people to process. So they double down. “They deserved it. And anyone who messes with us in the future would deserve it too.”

A New Approach

So why are we taking this approach to the nuclear weapons issue – training people in Peace Literacy –  instead of just trying to get treaties passed at the UN and cut the budget in DC?

The most dangerous weapons of war in the twenty-first century are not bombs and bullets, but the weaponization of mistrust, alienation, rage, disillusionment, cynicism, and other tangles of trauma. Digital technology has given people the ability to weaponize and magnify these tangles of trauma in new and unprecedented ways, creating metaphorical bullets and bombs that can crumble the human psyche, social relations, and civil society. Societies become more unstable, and all forms of violence become more likely, when greater numbers of us feel:

  • mistrust toward each other and institutions
  • alienation that separates us from the humanity of others
  • rage that leads us into cruelty and away from justice
  • disillusionment and cynicism toward democratic institutions and processes, which undermine democratic norms

When you combine these 21st century weapons with the extremely dangerous and indiscriminate 20th century weapon, nuclear weapons, you have an absolutely lethal mix. We, as individuals and as humanity, must overcome the root causes that have led to the past 75 years of nuclear weapons. Absent this, we will continue to have national leaders that cling to nuclear weapons.