Confessions of a pacifist

Richardc Jackson

Pacifism is the most ethically consistent position…it entails a consistency of means and ends – we’re not using evil means for good ends.

Prof Richard Jackson is Deputy Director at the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (NCPACS) at the University of Otago. He has written several books on conflict and terrorism, mostly recently in the form of a novel Confessions of a Terrorist.

Talking points

I had a personal terrifying experience…a taste of the utter lawlessness of war, the arbitrary life and death decisions
Even though nothing happened to me, I was really just on the edges of the war, I realised how morally void war was – that’s one of the reasons why I became a pacifist.

A real impetus for me was to try to understand the causes of underdevelopment

My focus on how we deal with violent conflict, and how we can make the world a more peaceful place.

9/11 occurred, maybe a little bit before, I was starting to question whether we really understood the causes of war.

9/11 was a transforming moment…I started thinking about how we respond to terrorism.

9/11 was void of meaning so we saw the development of a language to describe it, it wasn’t a criminal act, it was terrorism and we quickly saw the response framed as a “war on terror”…it was televised…and it was on the back of years of increasingly racist sentiment…so the response was unlike anything we’ve experienced before…a whole new paradigm of irrational hatred.

The television coverage mirrored disaster films…so the interplay of real and virtual exploded.

This one was framed as “act of war”…and everyone repeated that around the world. The consequence of that, and maybe the intention, was to take terrorism out of the political or criminal frame and to put it in a military frame.

Partly this was a psychological response, because on that day the American military – the most powerful military in the world – proved itself incapable of protecting the American people. It was impotent. Now that impotence had to be banished, so the best way to do this was to say “well this is not just terrorism, and it’s not crime, not murder, this is an act of war”. And the only way to respond to an act of war is to launch a defensive war – to use our military, to deploy it to eradicate terrorism around the world. So a war on terrorism was declared. Then war became the primary frame, not just strategically but legally as well.

The military (response) has been the absolute disaster of it. Because you can’t deal with terrorism though a war response. Terrorism is a political problem and it can only have a political solution.

I’m trying to avoid giving the notion that 9/11 was a rupturing event, it was certainly rupturing, but a number of things had been occurring before that which fed into this moment, the rise of the risk society, the idea that there are these risks out there that are completely unpredictable, well terrorism seemed to prove that, so you have to have an extreme precautionary philosophy in order to try and deal with it. And that means redefining laws – putting people into prison for what they might do rather than what they have done.

This reinvigorated the military-industrial complex…the security sector is thriving in western economies. But it relies on a discourse of “unlimited terrorist threat and that the state has a duty to prevent that, so if we have to give up civil liberties and have surveillance – this is just the price of dealing with this immense uncertain risk that faces us”.

The population was so easily manipulated with a preexisting culture of fear, crime is going down but the fear of crime is going up, something to do with affluenza – we’ve reached a level of society where we’re affluent enough to be able to sit around and be able to worry about things…there are so many moral panics that sweep through society.

The terrorism scare has come at a moment in our society that we’re already in a state of fear.

The media plays a huge role in the drama of terrorism – they just go nuts, exaggerating and hyping up threats that if you look at them statistically are tiny

There’s been a failure of public intellectuals, media commentators, and courageous politicians to stand up and say “hold on a second, this is hysteria, we really don’t need to be this worried, we really don’t need to change our entire way of life for this kind of hyped up threat”.

I’m more of a pacifist than ever before.

Violence is an incredibly useless way of getting things done.

The harm that violence does vastly outweighs any good outcomes that it produces.

I’ve examined theories of ‘just war’ and they are completely ludicrous, they really don’t stand up to scrutiny.

For intellectual reasons, it seems to me that the most realistic, and the most credible, as well as the most ethically consistent position is pacifism. It doesn’t entail any division or bifurcation between the means and ends, instead it entails a consistency of means and ends – we’re not using evil means for good ends, it’s using good means for good ends.

Research is showing that non-violence is twice as successful as violence in achieving its goals, even against the most oppressive regimes.

But not only that, when you use non-violent means to over-throw a dictator, or resist an invader, or change laws – you are creating democratic societies and longer lasting peaceful societies.

The means and ends are intimately connected, and the way you construct your politics will affect the kind of politics you have.

Basic social theory, the way you practice things constitutes the thing you are trying to make. If you practice violent politics you are going to create a violent polity. So to me it makes more sense, and it is more ethical to use non-violence to create a peaceful society.

Every time we chose violence we create the condition for the next war.

We’re not doing nearly enough to educate for a peaceful society. Most of our cultural system and educational system is geared towards normalising war and militarism.

Our remembrance practices – how we remember war and commemorate war is mostly geared towards war is inevitable, necessary and that war can be good and heroic and that we ought to value the people who go and fight in wars, rather than remembering it as a tragic waste of life and sowing the seeds for subsequent wars. Instead of remembering it as “never again”…that narrative got transformed.

In all our cultural productions – TV and movies, they are all about very violent heroes, who we admire even though their violence is exactly the same as the bad guys, they do it for good reasons.

There are not many peaceful heroes out there. Partly it’s because it is hard to make peace sexy, viscerally admirable, exciting, something to aspire to.

But, we’re at a moment in history of war weariness, a growing suspicion of militarism and its connection to inequality, climate change, the bad structural things. There’s a growing global consciousness…

Violence is built into international system.

Now we have a broader war of insurgency – non state actors, part of a growing inequality.

Every time we use violence to deal with what is actually a political problem we actually create more violent resistance. It’s an endless cycle.

(Activist?) I do. As a scholar we have a responsibility not just to study the world but to try and change it. It’s not the biggest part of what I do but it is something I am trying to expand upon.

I don’t believe in remaining neutral – I don’t think it is possible. If you try to remain neutral you basically support the status quo, and that is a political act


(Motivation?) A desire for a more peaceful world and a desire that my contribution to the world is a positive one rather than a negative one on balance. I try to live my life in a way that does no harm but also positively challenges the evil structures that we’re facing and transform them.

(Challenge?) Create more of a voice for peace activists, and work to try and transform what is actually quite a violent society.

(Miracle?) The world’s leaders wake with a revelation about the futility of violence.


climate change oil politics peace science

Encouraging scientists to think differently

Stuart Parkinson

We want to promote dialogue amongst scientists and engineers, particularly in areas where they don’t want to talk about things

Dr Stuart Parkinson is Executive Director of Scientists for Global Responsibility.

Talking points

Our aim is to promote science, design and technology in contributing to peace, social justice and sustainability

Encourage scientists and engineers to think differently

To think differently about their role in society, prioritising environmental issues and social justice rather than a narrow economic focus

The challenge is an agenda of security through an arms industry – we argue for science and technology not based on yet another generation of highly destructive technologies

We want to promote dialogue amongst scientists and engineers, particularly in areas where they don’t want to talk about things

There’s an acceptance of the arms industry – “it keeps us safe” – we want to question that.

We try and fill gaps, ask the awkward questions.

Not just responding to problems with a technofix – another technology.

Part of the concern is that technology is often grabbed as a simple answer and it turns out not to be – it might deal with one problem but create another.

Trying to get around the techofix mentality

The term activist is so often used as a pejorative. If it’s about about questions, proposing different solutions to mainstream, challenging systems and offering something constructive, then it’s an activist organisation.

Working in the arms industry made me ask awkward questions, ones I hadn’t faced before – severely questioning what I was doing.

One of the challenges of the environment is ‘oh we don’t need to worry about that because it is too uncertain’ but on the other hand, we’re willing to believe economists, where the uncertainties are orders of magnitude bigger than the environmental ones.

We’re willing to take at face value economic models…despite being hugely unreliable and based on so many assumptions you can make them prove whatever you want according to your political viewpoint.

We’ve developed an economic system that’s not very stable (or fair or sustainable) so takes a lot of tuning – our news has become fixated on this.

(why sticking to growth narrative) because we haven’t come up with an alternative economic model that works in the way we’ve become used to.

SGR has ethical principles rather than specific polices on every subject. We encourage debate and discussion to apply principles.

(On demilitarisation) moving towards a society that solves its conflicts through dialogue and building trust and diplomacy rather than trying to build new generations of weapons

We need a to follow cautionary principle, rather than doing things just because we can

Some scientists can create a new technology, and other scientists can ask awkward questions about that technology – like what’s the impact, social implications and will it improve quality of life.

We’re being driven along by an economic imperative, not considering broader pros and cons.

We’re breaching environmental limits, some clearly, others either we don’t know or we will breach them in few decades – and that’s really scary.

We need to change norms of international behaviour that says nuclear weapons are unacceptable for anybody to have.

Challenge the assumption that there is a technofix. Technology is just one group of approaches, we need scientists and engineers to know that there are other groups of approaches

Codes of ethics (in professional bodies) are very narrow. Our organisation’s name is Global Responsibility – derived from social responsibility, corporate, environmental responsibility.

Ethics so often in professional institutions is interpreted very narrowly – professional ethics of do you job well, don’t lie, don’t plagiarise, don’t make something that’s going to blow up as soon as you’ve sold it. We think that’s far too narrow, you’ve got to think about your role in society, your place in society as an engineer, as your company, as your profession – and think are we doing the right thing?

Activist: Yes. For same reasons the organisation can be considered activist

Making things unacceptable is a very powerful idea. At the moment nuclear weapons aren’t something to be ashamed of for a lot of countries – chemical weapons are, biological weapons are – that shame that comes with breaching international law that’s built up over a couple of hundred years – its more powerful than people realise.

(What do we need to do to preload students with awkward questions?) We want to inspire students with science, give them at least sight and experience of something else.

The science and technology that is presented as exciting, especially for boys, is things like explosions, fighter planes and warships…we’re trying to present an alternative to that, still desirable, kind of nicer, this is what society is about, helping each other and using technologies that help us to help each other. And this is how is how you can live a good life – not being dazzled by the flashing lights and loud noises of the problematic technologies.

Being affected enough to make a different choice in their lives.

This conversation was recorded in the Common House at Lancaster Cohousing (see earlier conversation with Cathy and Alison).


Positive peace

Gray Southon

(Inability to respond, complexity of science, wickedness of problems yet he seems quite positive) To be effective you have to be positive. If you get negative – you get cynical – you can’t do anything.

Dr Gray Southon first worked in medical physics, eventually becoming a researcher in informatics. Now he is active on the Quaker Futures Committee and in the New Zealand United Nations Association.

Talking points:

The United Nations stopped the third world war – we fully expected it when I was young.

Working through the contrasts of different national interests, of social contrasts, different perspectives, different political interests

We’ve made enormous progress – not enough – but still enormous progress

Climate change is politically difficult. it can’t be too difficult because we can’t pack up and go to another home – we haven’t got another home to go to.

We’ve got to do the best job we can. It won’t be perfect

we have to work to improve understanding, to bring more parties together and to identify and remove blockages.

NZ is one of the slowest movers. The government gives the impression that we are contributing but we shouldn’t be sticking our neck out, but we’re nowhere near sticking our neck out

We’re ruining our reputation by being so slow.
The official policy is that we’re concerned but don’t want to disrupt the economy – they don’t want to sacrifice.

(on critics of UN) To reject a thing is fine is you’ve got a replacement, but there’s no replacement for the UN. We either negotiate or we fight. If you don’t want a world war then you need some way of bringing the nations together. We can work to make it better.

Can there be a just war? No. That level of violence is inherently evil.
The priority has to be to prevent that level of violence. To find ways of resolving conflict in such as way that violence is not required.

We have to learn from our past.

Why has the US got so many military bases around the world? That’s destabilising. Having arms around creates fear. And fear undermines cooperation.

The ‘war on terror’ is horrendous, a quite unnecessary imposition. It has vindicated the terrorists. The United States and its allies have completed the terrorists’ job by imposing terror on the rest of us.

The war on terror has diverted governments’ attention away from development as the main tool for preserving security.

We’ve gotten so tied up with arms as the basis of security, not the first millennium development goal – shared prosperity.

We don’t actually have food scarcity, we waste so much, we distribute it so poorly.

With carbon dioxide we’re polluting our common nest.

There’s no silver bullet, everything is complex, everything has a lot of different angles to it, we need to see it from all those angles and address multiple aspects.

For me at one time sustainability seemed to contradict ideas of progress, that we were putting the breaks on…it took me a while to realise that we’re burning our bridges, we’re destroying the ground under us. We’ve got to find different ways of thinking, different ways of working. People’s understanding of who they are, where they are and what progress is about, their relations to each other and to the world, to the future – these things can be very difficult to understand.

We reject violence in any form, physical including to the environment, emotional violence as well. Interactions need to be based on respect.

(Despite all the effort going into sustainability) we’re still a long way from doing what we need to do. How to people feel about this? How does this inaction affect people?

People have to see the light themselves.

(Inability to respond, complexity of science, wickedness of problems yet he seems quite positive) To be effective you have to be positive. If you get negative – you get cynical – you can’t do anything.

We know what we need to do, I hope we find a way of doing it. But to do that we have to know what the blocks are.

(Miracle question) that the fossil fuel industry has collapsed…investors pull out…we will have to act radically.

(Activist) Yes. Not large scale destruction. There’s an enormous amount that’s valuable, we’ve got to build on it. We’ve got to support the constructive…and try to move the others in that direction.

(Advice) Think carefully about what you do and how you can work together with others to impact policy. Commit to Generation Zero’s Climate Voter.

(What’s driving Generation Zero?) Survival. Our young people, they want to live a life


My generation has had the best life of any generation. It’s downhill all the way now.

philosophy religion

theology, science, environment and drones

Greg Dawes

Once you accept that government can decide without due legal process which of its citizens, or perhaps worse still, other countries’ citizens, can be put to death, because you judge them to be a threat, then we are in a very dangerous situation.

Associate Professor Greg Dawes researches the philosophy of religion. We discussed the relationship between theology, science and environmental considerations. We ask if there is a theological take on climate change? and what’s deal with evangelical churches and conservative denial of climate change? The pope got an airing, as did the morality of drone strikes (see his recent article).

Talking points

Sometime in the 19th Century God disappeared. He didn’t of course disappear from popular culture but he did from science.

The nature of science: to bring God into it would would confuse levels of explanation


Many Christians today interpret the biblical command in terms of stewardship, our task today is to take care of the natural world.  But it is nonetheless true that the religous view sees the world as human beings being quite distinct from the natural world -distinct in kind, not merely in degree.    That means a different conception of nature than you might have if you see human beings as continuous with these other creatures.

These views are taken quite seriously, that there are these preordained catastrophes awaiting the human race, but God’s elite will be spared them (…therefore it doesn’t matter what we do).

There’s no reason why you can’t be a scientist can’t accept that the natural world is created by God and yet the task of science is to understand how the world operates by means of natural causes and offer natural explanations – because God has created the world to function in a way not entirely autonomously from him but at least it has its own way of operating, so there’s no contradiction there, there’s no reason why you can’t be a Christian scientist, but on some issues such as evolution, it looks like you’ve got a fairly stark choice.  if you deny evolution by natural selection or our best scientific account, then you’re holding the belief that at some point God carried out some kind of miracle to create human beings, that’s a stark choice, you either take the science or you take something opposed to the science.

Sometimes science communicators act as though presenting the facts is enough, but you have to take into account that they’re trying to fit these facts into  a system of beliefs that they already hold,  perhaps hold dearly, and that might be held quite dearly, so if the two don’t quite fit it might be the science they reject.

I was stung into writing this by the attitude of the Prime Minister.

There was a day that politicians felt they should pay at least lip service to the rule of law.  That day sadly seems to have gone.


I’m not sure people are aware of what is going on with this campaign of using drones to “take out” people judged to be threatening.

There is supposed to be a presumption of innocence, you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that this person is guilty of a very serious nominated crime.  The problem with these drone strikes is that there’s no legal process, the people involved never get a chance to represent themselves, and often it is not clear that they are guilty of any particular crime at all, they’re just regarded as suspects who might one day cause trouble for us.

“signature strikes”  – targeting any male of military age.

The Prime Minister’s use of the word prosecution was odd. A prosecution is a legal process.   The only process here is that the US President has decided with a group of advisors that these are the people to be killed. And sometimes their names aren’t even known.

(A memo that it might be legal) is a pretty dodgy basis to claim legality when on the face of it seems contrary to all principles of natural justice, indeed contrary to the US constitution.

(previously they used hit men on the quiet) The fact they felt compelled to do it on the quiet was at least something, because they were at least paying lip service to the rule of law.  When you call them out, call them to account and say ‘you’re not living up to your own standards here’.   When we abandon those standards, and give governments the authority to effectively do what they like, then we are on very dangerous ground

(How are they getting away with it?)  These are people that are a long way away, in countries we don’t naturally identify with, these are people we don’t instinctively identify with – they seem different from us – a geographical and cultural divide.

The US considers themselves to be under attack, but this language of war is deceptive.  To describe this as a war, as it has been since (9/11), but it is not in the traditional sense. And even if it were, there are rules of war.



Sidney Harris: Then a miracle occurs.

Living under drones pdf, Armed Drones: President Obama’s Weapon of Choice graphic.

Left Behind series