Student Reflection: Joshua Cheon on Peacebuilding and Pacifism

Friday, January 20, 2023
Joshua Cheon

This past term, several students had the opportunity to go to New York for aMennonite Central Committee (MCC) United Nations (UN) Office Seminar. It was a chance to connect with other students, hear guest speakers from all over the world, and tour the UN headquarters. One of the students who went was Joshua Cheon, a second yearPACS (Peace and Conflict Studies) major, who came out of the trip reflecting on what he had learned and experienced.

Over the few days he was in New York, Joshua learned from speakers from around the world, some working in Non-Government Organizations (NGOs) and other in politicaldiplomacy. Two of the speakers stood out for Joshua. A speaker from Myanmar and an NGO worker from Ukraine, reportedly declared that they were not pacifists, and linked this belief to the conflict and violence that is unavoidable in countries at war. Joshuafound this perspective fascinating and he has continued to reflect and wrestle with what pacificism means for him and why other people might hold a different viewWhile studying PACS Joshua had wanted to articulate similar feelings about pacifism. It bothered him “like an itch that couldn’t be scratched” so hearing these opinions be articulated was an aha moment within his own beliefs on something he wishes was talked about more.

It is a privilege to think that we can prescribe pacifism to other people - people who  face the consequences we will never have to suffer. It sometimes feels as though most of these students at UW were privileged enough to be far removed from extreme forms of violence, and were seated atop a high horse looking at the world.

Growing up Asian in a predominantly White school, Joshua learned quickly that ignoring a bully or trying to talk things out will not work. He learned at an early age that a show of force can work as a deterrent.  

This background from childhood, combined with theory and learnings from PACS courses, led Joshua to come away from the seminar with some critical questions:

  • How does our positionalityas citizens of a privileged, powerful, and peaceful country allow us to trivialize conflict?

  • How does our position as White and/or educated North Americans allow us to fall into a false sense of moral superiority when it comes to war/armed violence? He grapples with these questions.

While international affairs are slightly different from a playground altercation, Joshua did take away from the MCC UN Seminar that, while it is important for foreign agents to be strictly non-violent, there needs to be an observation for how victims of conflict understand non-violence. Non-violent tactics should come from the victims of conflict themselves, Joshua reflects, rather than be demanded from an uninvolved third party. He addsthat it is a privilege to think of pacifism as the only moral option.

Overall, the seminar was a good grounding framework of PACS ideas. A chance to see people use ideas and theories we learn in class and how they fit into national and international scales. You get a better idea of how it impacts people on a level you cannot really imagine.

Joshua shares that apart from speakers that were there sharing their experience and insight into United Nations and NGO work, it was also an opportunity to meet students from all diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

Despite the differences between many of the students from all over North America, there was a unified excitement and interest in peacebuilding and unity. Joshua looks back fondly on the rich connections that were built and the ability to come together even though there were so many unique backgrounds.

We were all able to unify for peace in a grounded way, moving away from theoretical [frameworks], which was very special to me.

The speakers grounded a lot of theory and ideologies Joshua had learned fromPACS courses into a cohesive worldview with practical applications, and the students were able to bring valuable perspectives and a feeling of community.

I appreciate that there is a stark difference in talking with students in or out of Peace Studies.At the conference it struck me how open people were to hear about different struggles of ethnic [identity]; not trying to discredit eachother's experiences but instead understanding the differences inexperience.

Joshua grew up in a family that worked in an NGO and so hearing about the intersection of government work and non-profit and NGO work was interesting and personal for him. 

Overall, this experience challenged Joshua’s ideas of pacifism, privilege, and action, in a safe environment of like-minded students. He came back from the seminar wondering how to share these thoughts and experiences with PACS students and excited to keep expanding and shaping his own worldview.