Friday, August 29, 2014

Imagining the 'other side'

On Malta recently for a brief weekend break, and staying with Russian friends, I watched an edition of the Russian night time news. My Russian understanding is inadequate at the best of times and faced with the rapid fire of a news presenter it collapses entirely. However, since an image is apparently worth a thousand words, I sat and absorbed them and the atmosphere they fashioned.

They were disturbing for several reasons.

The first was that they felt like propaganda - why else have a news item about people signing a giant Russian flag in Nizhny Novgorod (a city I know well and have lived in) as an exercise in solidarity with the people of Crimea. In the importance of world events, this has no significance but in a pattern of manipulating fellow feeling with Russia's newest (and, as my host pointed out) expensive citizens, given the disparity between Russian and Ukrainian living standards, very important.

The second was that you knew which 'side' the news cast was on - the beleaguered Russians of the eastern Ukraine - assaulted by an illegitimate government (manipulated by fascists and the West). There was not even a pretense at 'neutrality', a rounded view or an attempt to tell impartial facts.

The third disturbing feature was that you slowly began to feel for the 'victims' and 'understand' the patriotism. As my host remarked her level of patriotism had increased even though her rational faculties held to a more balanced view of what was unfolding (though she did realize she had a more mercenary motive for Crimea ceding to Russia - it would make it easier to sell her house in the Crimea - probably to one or other of the Russian officials whose passports have been withheld to encourage them to show solidarity and holiday there)!

However, the final, and most important reason, was recognizing the question as to how different is it truly on the other side of the fence? I do not suspect the Ukrainian media is a beacon of probity and factual reporting nor for that matter the 'Western media'.

In this later case, I expect, it is not so much deliberate acts of propaganda but mental framing that has decided that Russia is 'the enemy' and corroborating facts are emphasized and contradictory ones sidelined. But is an 'unconscious' bias truly more forgivable than a naked manipulation? Are we not all responsible for our conscience? Look, for example, how different it is for Ukrainian military to shell civilians (in their own country) and for Israel to rain bombs and shells on Gaza - levels of coverage, levels of approbation etc.

All the coverage is predicated by hunt the 'victim' and the belief that the victim is only here (or there) but never 'everywhere'. Yet perhaps the truth is that there is only ever 'everywhere' and our separations are artificial, cleaved in fear.

I remember a conversation with a prison inmate telling me how difficult it was in prison to allow your mask to slip, to show your true self to any one. It was the third conversation of a similar kind I had that very day and in the same prison! I had an image of a grotesque 'masque' ball - everybody trapped in their masks. No one willing to lower theirs because they were convinced that no one else would.

Is there anything in the world that would encourage us to take off our masks?

To which I think the answer is not in the world but in the condition of the world's making. Each and every one of us is made in the image of God which is a simple truth, so simple that it is radically difficult to live! But what other route is there but to a ever deeper recognition and practice of our inter-being? Of recognizing that imagining the other is a practice of self-knowledge. After all, the other pathways do not appear to work very well!

 

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