Post No.: 0361
Entrenched biases from both/all sides of an international difference of perspective can start and perpetuate a conflict. ‘Pre-emptive strikes’ are just triggers of war. ‘Self-defence’ is often just offence. ‘Interrogation’ methods are sometimes just torture. ‘Getting even’ really means escalation because we end up wanting to kill more of them than they’ve killed of our own, and so the vicious cycle of revenge further escalates via a reciprocation that is imperfectly carried out in the real world. We’ve probably all done it before, particularly when young – a person hits us and only hitting them back harder really feels like ‘getting even’ and ‘tit-for-tat’. And many protracted arguments or conflicts do start from relatively small beginnings.
Why does a long-range missile or bomb strike that creates a huge indiscriminate blast and collateral damage feel less brutal than a more face-to-face and precision knife kill or execution? Our conception of what’s ‘evil’ suffers from bias – the only objective facts are the death, injury and damage counts, more than the morality of the way people are killed; although we may argue that the quickness of a death matters when it comes to the amount of pain inflicted, and why someone was particularly targeted in the first place. The intentions may also matter too i.e. whether something was accidental or deliberate – but in war, killing is deliberate and even the ‘accidental’ deaths could be foreseen, yet the belligerents carry on. It’s like intentionally driving with a very muddy windscreen yet ‘not meaning to’ kill anyone innocent(!)
If we cannot see the whites of our victims’ eyes then it’s psychologically easier to kill them and it’s easier to accept their death (in the killer’s, the media’s and those who view the media’s eyes), thus a missile, bomb or otherwise long-distance kill doesn’t feel as morally repugnant, brutal or disgusting as a face-to-face kill or execution – but if we cannot see the whites of their eyes when they’re being killed then are they not still people and did they not die? (‘Smart’ weapons are becoming ever more precise but low collateral damage is not the same as zero collateral damage for a missile or bomb is always going to have a certain blast radius that causes at least distress to any innocent civilians who witness it where they and their children live.) If killings happen far away in another country that has a contrasting culture to us, and if the victims have a different coloured skin to us, then are they not people too?
Post No.: 0272 explored how disgust is not a reliable guide to what’s more right or wrong. We use a lot of propaganda to de-disgust and justify our own goals and actions.
They ‘kill’ or ‘murder’ but we ‘eliminate’ or ‘neutralise’. If we call them ‘barbarians’ or ‘insurgents’ to try to dehumanise them then are they not human or ‘sons’, ‘brothers’, ‘fathers’ or ‘husbands’ and so on? The opposition is generalised with broad and negative brushstrokes. Each side calls the other ‘animals’ and believe each other are beneath them rather than equals. Once we start to think that one of our lives is worth a thousand of theirs then something has gone morally awry.
The soldiers of one’s own side are called ‘heroes’ yet we’re aware of the propaganda of the opposition but not of our own. We tend to think that nationalistic propaganda or propaganda against other countries is only seen in other countries, but a worldlier perspective will reveal that all countries present their/our own nationalistic biases to make their/our own country seem better than it is, and very politically-different countries seem worse than they are. Some do it more than others but no nation as a whole is impartial.
And wouldn’t it be biased to celebrate our own violent imperialistic ambitions or historic victories yet scorn and disapprove of the violent state-building ambitions of other sides, past or even present? It’s true that we cannot change the past, and we likely didn’t have anything personally to do with these events, but we shouldn’t celebrate or glorify such victories otherwise it’d be hypocritical if we want to simultaneously argue that it’s immoral for other countries to seek and celebrate such ‘national glories’ too. We should remember and honour, but not celebrate or glorify, such events.
The media also plays a key part. The media sources of a country generally only fairly or heavily reports on one side of the story – their own country’s. For example, a nationalistic media outlet may report on each and every single casualty from its own nation’s side, but it might not even show a single face or name of the thousands of civilians that were killed on the other side, never mind put in an equal amount of research into their families and lives or pay each of those people an equal amount of coverage each. Is it individual market demand, for which a market cares far more about its own people than people from other countries? Is it the bias of a particular media outlet? Why does one killed soldier from one’s own side feel more abhorrent than hundreds of killed civilians from the opposition’s side or who were neutral (or even supported us) but got in the way during a conflict in a foreign land? A solider explicitly signs up for potential involvement in violent conflict while civilians do not too. Even one innocent non-combatant dying in the fog of war should be unacceptable. Is an unnamed and faceless casualty not also a person? Isn’t this why their families might feel a very strong urge and desperation to take revenge?
It is about the ‘identifiable victim effect’ when it stirs up much more empathy, disgust, pain and anger within us when one person gets killed but we know this person’s name, face and story, compared to when a dozen unnamed and faceless people from somewhere far away die? The lack of equal reporting for each and every single casualty, whichever side they come from, makes it feel like they weren’t even human or their death didn’t even happen. At most, it’s like they’re merely a statistic.
The media can serve for the good too though and highlight hypocrisies or atrocities. For example, the Vietnam War created a sour taste amongst the American public once they visually saw, through the media at last, the horrors that were committed at the ground level there. They could finally see how individual Viet Cong soldiers were being lined up and executed on the streets. The American public could see the whites of the victims’ eyes and it made these deaths less palatable.
One side may resort to what seem like ‘underhand’ tactics, such as using improvised explosive devices, guerrilla tactics, taking hostages or spreading homemade propaganda videos on social media. But it’s somewhat understandable when they cannot match the fear that billions of dollars worth of military kit or Hollywood movie-making brings against them (where even the fictional villains are frequently chosen from just a limited pool of foreign state or non-state actors). It’s a desperation to somewhat try to equalise the fear factor in other resourceful ways and therefore the perceived leverage that fear brings. There’s every chance we would do the same if we were in their situation – and we’ll likely be biased if we disagree with that statement because the scientific research and real-word evidence reveals that context is generally more telling than an individual’s personality. Even some suffragettes resorted to ‘underhand’ violence to try to challenge a more powerful opposition, and Nelson Mandela initially condoned violence to fight apartheid; whether we agree with the necessity of what they did or not. Their goals may have been more laudable but this is about the methods groups will employ when faced with a far more powerful adversary.
It’s like rich people saying that they’d never steal – but they don’t know what it’s like to be relatively destitute and desperate. And many rich people still steal things anyway! When the opposition cannot afford in the order of ~$100,000 per anti-tank guided missile launch, we might call them ‘devious’ for using IEDs, but if we did the exact same thing in their situation, we’d probably call ourselves ‘clever’!
So every nation has its own propaganda but we’re typically blind to our own because we only receive, take and trust our own side’s view. We typically only pay attention to our own national media sources, or at most those that write in the languages we can read. We spin our phrases to make us seem like the more moral side and our enemies the more immoral side. Propaganda is a weapon, and over the years its effectiveness has been honed. And in today’s age of technology – propaganda can spread across the world with a single keystroke and influence vulnerable people who’ll act upon it too.
Not everyone is so narrow-minded or naïve though. It’s not about saying that the other side is necessarily right in their goals or better. And it’s not about rolling over to violent opposition by being pacifists. This post is about understanding the minds of those from the other side from a fairer standpoint. For if we’re not prepared to do so, we’ll never find a path towards understanding and peace.
We’ll likely find that we have more in common than we think – both in terms of the good and the bad.
Meow. What do you think about the language we subconsciously select to make us feel like we’re always on the good side and never on the bad side, such as they ‘kill’ but we ‘neutralise’? Please share your thoughts by using the Twitter comment button below.