Right now in Ukraine, thousands are fighting to defend their land against a Russian invasion, cities are being bombed, and nearly a million people have become refugees, fleeing to neighboring countries.
Or are they?
They are. But not everyone believes it to be true. In fact, many Ukrainians are facing the extraordinary reality that some of their relatives in Russia—even close family members like siblings and parents—refuse to believe what is happening in Ukraine. They will insist that the Ukrainian government is neo-Nazi, that Russia is just conducting peacekeeping operations, etc.
To address this troubling reality, one Ukrainian set up a website called Papa Pover (meaning “Dad, believe me”) to help Ukrainians speak to their Russian relatives about the war.
But why is this a front the Ukrainians should have to fight at all? Why do their relatives not simply believe the reality of the devastating conflict in Ukraine?
Part of the answer is that the Putin regime has tried hard to control the flow of information inside Russia and most of the media outlets are state-controlled and parroting the governmental line. But part of it is that their relatives don’t want to believe.
In times of crisis, uncertainty can be especially unnerving. When our environment feels unstable, we seek to have something to hold on to, something that is sure.
It’s why you’ll often see national discourse become far more monolithic in times of vulnerability and crisis. Consider how little dissent there was in most American public conversation in the immediate aftermath of September 11th. It’s not a new phenomenon, of course; perilous times have brought rigid thinking for millennia.
We live in a time of increasing alienation and an increasing sense of disenfranchisement. As a result of technology and an ever more interconnected world, the world that people knew growing up is rapidly disappearing: the homogenous, ethnically privileged, culturally distinct society that many people knew is yielding to a diverse, multiethnic, multicultural society that no longer operates on the same assumptions as its predecessor. In addition, a predominantly rural way of life is yielding to a predominantly urban one. There is nothing inherently wrong with any of these changes but they can be unnerving to many. And many who find global changes terrifying feel powerless and out of control in their ability to stop them or at least to slow them to a comfortable pace. Being in command of the truth is at least being in command of something.
So, it should not surprise us that during a time of economic uncertainty, geopolitical upheaval, and an enduring global pandemic, people would cling to certainties.
The Fog of War
Further, as if that crisis were not enough, the reality of war only compounds the problem.
The Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz wrote of this phenomenon in his book On War:
War is the realm of uncertainty; three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty. A sensitive and discriminating judgment is called for; a skilled intelligence to scent out the truth.Carl von clausewitz
This “fog of war” is not limited to the participants on the battlefield or in the strategy rooms; it extends to us on the outside looking in. It is notoriously difficult to ascertain the truth of events while a war is raging.
Faced with that fact, human beings tend to fall back on certainty. As human beings, we are uncomfortable with prolonged uncertainty and unknowing and will often latch on to something as certain and fact, just to have something to hold onto. As Arthur Conan Doyle said, “Any truth is better than indefinite doubt.”
You may have heard that we have blind spots in our field of vision. If you weren’t aware, you can try this method to find your blind spots. But the reason most of us are unaware that we have blind spots in the first place is that the brain does a very good job of glossing over the missing information. In other words, the brain fills in the missing information so that we don’t even notice something’s amiss.
In the same way that our brain glosses over the blind spots in our visual field, it may be that we likewise cover the blind spots in our knowledge. When we are conscious and perceiving things, inconsistencies are more detrimental than inaccuracies, and so the holes in our knowledge are more troubling than the fact that the holes are filled with erroneous information.
And nowhere are our blind spots bigger than when looking at ourselves.
Contrary to most of our movies, villains are not usually mustache-twirling fiends intent on doing evil. Most people believe that they are good people and doing the right thing.
It is extremely hard to imagine otherwise, to, in the words of Peter Rollins, “behold one’s own monstrosity.” This is true of communities and nations as well as individuals. It is no wonder, then, that when asked to admit that one’s country—and by implication, oneself—is complicit in an act of unjustified aggression and currently carrying out war crimes, you don’t want to believe it. The uncertainty over whether you or your community might be doing the wrong thing is not only unbearable because it’s uncertain but because it goes right to notions of self-esteem and respect.
Russians doubling down on the rightness of their country’s actions in Ukraine are not doing so because of any objective evaluation of the facts or weighing of the sources; they’re doing so because it’s too painful not to.
Who, after all, wants to believe that their country has just launched a war of naked aggression and conquest against a peaceful neighbor? Who wants to believe that their country’s prosperity is, in large measure, the result in of centuries of racial oppression and exploitation? Who wants to believe that their country, founded as a haven from oppression, is oppressing others? No one. It’s easier to believe the comforting mythology and to shut out any cracks in that myth, any doubts in our own rightness. It’s easier to believe in the certain falsehood than the uncertain truth.
But there are many reasons for us to embrace the fact that we might be wrong, not the least of which is stopping deadly conflicts in Europe.
It turns out that uncertainty can be extremely beneficial to us and may be at the root of what makes us successful. Successful people will often say that they learned far more from their failures than their successes. As Jamie Holmes points out in his insightful book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing, failure reminds us that we might not have understood things as well as we had thought. It forces us to revisit old certainties and to impose ambiguity on things we thought we understood well. This includes our understandings of ourselves.
We cannot grow as individuals or societies unless we know who we truly are. A person cannot conquer their addiction unless they acknowledge that they have one and are willing to embrace the uncertainty that the person they’ve been telling themselves they are is not the complete picture.
In the same way, societies with a history of systemic racism cannot truly move past that racism unless it is acknowledged and the history embraced, shattering comforting mythologies of equality that make us feel better.
So it will be with the Russians—it will be difficult for them to reconcile with their Ukrainian relatives and their country with the world until there has been an acknowledgment that the comforting myths they’ve been telling themselves aren’t necessarily so.
It’s not an easy task—for any of us—but it is an essential one for the progress of individuals and nations.