State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Could ‘Peace Speech’ Save the Planet?

Peter Coleman and poet Padraig Ó Tuama
Poet Padraig Ó Tuama (left; photo by Trevor Brady) and Columbia social psychologist Peter Coleman are teaming up to explore the power of language when it comes to promoting peace, security, and sustainability across the globe.

“Peace on Earth” is a popular sentiment this time of year, hung beneath storefront wreaths and scrawled across holiday greeting cards. But what does peace on Earth look like exactly, during a time when the planet is experiencing rising temperatures, dwindling biodiversity, polluted water and air, and violent land disputes? Achieving peace—especially when it comes to planetary issues—has a lot to do with the language we use, according to Columbia Climate School social psychologist Peter Coleman and award-winning poet Pádraig Ó Tuama.

With support from the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution (MD-ICCCR), Teachers College, and the Climate School at Columbia University, Coleman and Ó Tuama are teaming up to explore the power of language when it comes to promoting peace, security, and sustainability across the globe. Coleman, a professor of psychology and education and director of MD-ICCCR, is an expert in conflict resolution, and editor of the seminal textbook, Handbook of Conflict Resolution: Theory and Practice (2014). Ó Tuama is a writer of poetry and prose, theologian, public speaker, and community peace builder. Originally from Ireland, from 2014-2019 he was the leader of the Corrymeela Community, Ireland’s oldest peace and reconciliation community.

From October 2021 to May 2022, Ó Tuama will be in residence in New York City working with Coleman and other collaborators at the MD-ICCCR and Climate School. The outcome will be the publication of an anthology of 35 poems exploring major themes expressed in Coleman’s award-winning handbook, which covers conflict between individuals; conflict in groups; ambivalent responses to conflict; regression, aggression and resistance; cooperation and negotiation; as well as conflict as a state of existence in the current climate crisis.

“For me, theology, conflict, and poetry are all centered around the usage of words and the power of words,” said Ó Tuama. For years, when counseling both writers and community builders, he has stressed that language — especially in syntax, tense and story — is a powerful container for meaning. An artistic approach towards word choice can be harnessed to deepen peace building.

“Some people find themselves wordless in the face of conflict, and other people find themselves with extraordinary access to possibly the most devastating language in the space of conflict and can say things that that are ultimately unforgettable,” he said. “That can happen among people who love each other, as well as people who hate each other, or both. And for me, conflict resolution has always been an act of poetry to think about what is possible in the poem that’s created in the room where a conversation is taking place.”

Although he was already familiar with conflict resolution theory due to his work in peace building in Ireland, Ó Tuama said he has found Coleman’s handbook to be an excellent resource during his residency. He first came to know Coleman about five years ago, when the Columbia professor emailed him out of the blue. Coleman was grieving the loss of a friend and heard an interview with Ó Tuama on the On Being with Krista Tippett show broadcast on NPR.

excerpt from "song for the turtles"
Listen to Pádraig Ó Tuama read “Song for the Turtles of the Gulf” by Linda Hogan on Onbeing: Poetry Unbound. Image: Letterpress prints by Myrna Keliher | Photography by Lucero Torres

“I was really taken by it,” said Coleman. He reached out to Ó Tuama, who, ironically, happened to be right down the street on a visit to New York City, and they struck up a friendship and creative partnership. Coleman immediately looked for ways to bring Ó Tuama to New York as a collaborator, and this year’s residency was made possible with support from the Climate School, Columbia University’s Teachers College, and two anonymous donors.

“One of the things I’ve been privileged to be able to do in the last 20 years is work in these multidisciplinary teams, which bring together very different kinds of people,” to study the planet’s multi-faceted, complex problems, said Coleman. “I always learn when working with colleagues who are coming at problems from a fundamentally different point of view. It’s refreshing to me. It’s critical to understanding the different natures of phenomena and to advancing our understanding of complex topics.”

Most recently, at Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict and Complexity, Coleman is leading the Sustaining Peace Project—a team of multidisciplinary researchers devoted to bridging the gap between the academic understanding and practical applications of lasting peace. The group is working to build consensus around what types of language represent “peace speech”— the opposite of “hate speech”—in order to investigate how language might be used to repair and heal violent or broken communities. For one project, the team is using machine learning to scan 900 million news articles published during a 10-year span in both highly violent and highly peaceful nations. They are analyzing and comparing linguistic differences among the countries.

“What data science can reveal sometimes are kind of fundamental cultural differences in how people communicate that may be harder to find when you’re studying language at the micro level,” said Coleman. “And what we’re finding in the mining of this language between these societies is that there are different lexicons that are functioning in highly peaceful societies versus less peaceful societies. The structure of the language is different.”

Using “peace speech” is highly important when it comes to discussing controversial matters related to the environment like climate change, according to Coleman and Ó Tuama. Ó Tuama will explore this concept further in the work released after the end of his residency in May.

“The question as to what language is working and what language needs to be avoided is a fluid one, depending on the room. In some groups, for instance, you know, ‘climate deniers’ might be a phrase that even if you think is accurate, is actually just going to impede the possibility of communication and is going to cause someone to feel insulted,” said Ó Tuama. “The bigger question for the communicator in this is, ‘What do you want?’ What do you hear in this negotiation? What hope for any kind of resolution do you have? And how can your language be focused on and achievable and workable and important for resolution rather than trying to win every little battle?”

During Ó Tuama’s residency, he will also host multiple public readings and workshops, open to Columbia University students and the general public. The hope is that these events will be useful for writers and communicators as well as well as for students of narrative medicine, climate change, theology and conflict resolution, he said.

Upcoming Events

Poetry Lab: Exploring conflict intelligence through the lens of a single poem

Fridays, 2.30pm. (Feb 4, 11, 18, 25; March 4, 11)

Open to all. Register here.

Poetry and Climate: Bringing a poet together with a climate specialist, these three online sessions will explore climate change, place, lament, protest and art. Sessions will be available on Youtube following the series. Dates and times TBD. Check our events page for updates.

Poetry and Conflict: Bringing a poet together with a conflict specialist, these three online sessions will explore conflict, language, lament, change and intervention. Sessions will be available on Youtube following the series. Dates and times TBD. Check our events page for updates.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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