The ‘C’ Word
I’ve been slacking on the ‘C’ Word posts recently, either by not writing them at all or by writing them but speaking about the ‘C’ Word in them, going against the entire point of the series. Let’s hope today’s post will be a return to form.
I was scrolling through my Youtube feed tonight when I stumbled across a video titled ‘Do you hate the US? 100 Russians‘. It is by a channel called 1420, a ‘street journalism’ channel based in Russia. I found it recently as I was searching Youtube to try and find content that gives an honest reflection of Russian civilians’ opinions on what is going on in the war in Ukraine. The videos are centred around asking random people on the street a question, which is usually used as the video’s description. It seems that the channel has existed for quite a while, so it hasn’t been created in response to the war in Ukraine, but the current situation makes it an extremely interesting format to be engaged in making.
I don’t know the ins and outs of Russian law, but I do know that any form of journalistic endeavours there put the perpetrator at great risk of being on the wrong side of the government. There was a recent video of a woman holding up a sign with writing on it, which translated as ‘Two Words’. As soon as she unfurled the sign in front of the camera, she was detained by police officers. Quite incredibly, another woman then started to berate the cameraman asking if he is willing to interview people who agree with the war too, to which he responds that he is. She is then also detained by police. They must have assumed she was also pushing rhetoric that was considered ‘anti-government’, or just didn’t care what her opinions were but saw speaking into a camera in public as enough of a crime in and of itself. You can watch it here. It is almost comical until you remember that these are real and ordinary people being detained for stating their opinions peacefully in the street; in this particular example, they weren’t even expressing opinions, they were just daring to express anything. The reality is bleak and, unfortunately, though we kid ourselves that our society in the United Kingdom is very different, one which we are sliding closer towards with some of the reforms in protesting laws that are being pushed through here too. I do hope it could never get to this stage of ludicrous, though.
I have incredible respect for the people who run the 1420 channel, as they continue to record and upload this style of video despite the risks. I’m unsure if they feel at risk, and don’t know what their personal opinions or political leanings are, but that, if anything, should show what a great channel it is.
The ‘Do you hate the US’ video is quite long and I haven’t made it past about 2 minutes due to me not liking to dwell on war news for too long, but luckily, most people definitively say no. Or they at least say that they don’t hate the US population, but do not like their political system. I felt a huge rush of relief as I watched it. I have met a few Russian people in my life and I have always found them to be very open-minded and intelligent individuals, so I wasn’t necessarily surprised by their answers. It still felt good to prove to myself that there wasn’t a majority of people in Russia willing to state on camera that they hate another continent of people and hope their government would hurry up and nuke them; that is the sort of irrational thing you can start to think in such charged times and which, on a large scale, can lead to tensions rising to an unpalatable level. Russia has a rich history of culture, with many famous plays, operas and novels being written there. Their people are strong-willed and intelligent. I can’t claim to be an expert on this, but I was made aware of it through a rather random connection with the US.
I went through a period of only reading novels by the American authors Charles Bukowski and John Fante. I particularly enjoyed the protagonist in Fante’s series of semi-autobiographical novels called The Bandini Quartet. The main character’s name is Arturo Bandini and the series of novels follow him from childhood to old age, as he finds his way in the world as an aspiring, then (somewhat) successful author. He always has an arrogance in his own abilities and regularly goes on tyrannical rants to himself about how good a writer he is, whilst also comically idolizing people around him, such as an editor of a magazine who paid for a few of his stories. His absurd style has greatly influenced my writing in these blog posts, and I haven’t laughed as much at any other novel I’ve read. Dreams from Bunker Hill and Ask The Dust are both incredible books in the series and continue to be 2 of my favourite novels to this day.
Bukowski famously said that ‘Fante was my God’. He randomly discovered Fante’s work whilst trawling through a library shelf one day. You can see the influence on his work if you read a novel by Fante, then a novel by Bukowski. The auto-biographical form and dark, over-indulgent humour are evident in both, although Bukowski took the latter to an extreme that Fante did not. Seeing as I had found Fante through Bukowski, I started looking into other writers that Bukowski was influenced by, which was when I heard the name, Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian novelist. I started looking into other influential Russian writers and found there to be a long list of names, including people like Mikhail Bulgakov. It forced me to recognise a side of Russian history that I had been totally unaware of, one of free-thinking, innovative writing which was recognised across the globe. It made me address some bias that I obviously had towards Russia, and it challenged my perception of the country. I had never realised this about Russian history.
This is why I breathed a sigh of relief as I watched the video of Russian citizens recognising that feeling ‘hate’ for an entire population is ludicrous and that any ill feelings should be put towards whatever system is governing that population. US culture has dominated the world in my lifetime, and I wasn’t sure if Russians may feel a lot of hatred towards them. The video showed that they didn’t. I’d be interested to see what result you’d get if you asked the opposite question to 100 Americans. Hopefully, it would produce similar results.
Hate is a powerful emotion. If hate is successfully conjured up in a population against another population, then that is an extremely worrying situation to be in. If you have ever dealt with a truly hateful person, you’ll see that they are vacuous individuals who are extremely unpleasant to be around. That’s not to say that hate is never an appropriate emotion to feel, and it has its uses in the world. Powerful emotions force us to act in the face of extreme situations, helping us survive. The problem is that powerful emotions cut off the reasonable and analytical parts of our brains, and result in us engaging in extreme acts with little ability to evaluate them. Tactics such as identity politics are used to force us to feel powerful emotions towards a situation and/or population, which then allow for extreme acts to take place. I read a book on the Rwandan Genocide a few years ago, and that was an example of where drumming up hatred led to acts so horrific they seem to be a thing of dystopian fiction. One day people were neighbours, the next they were enemies.
Ukraine is currently being invaded, and the Russian government are engaged in all sorts of propaganda games with their population, the same way that our governments in the west are engaging in an information war by influencing us that what Russia is doing is evil and that what we are doing is successfully fighting back against it, in an ‘appropriate’ fashion. The difference between the West and Russia is that the west have enough journalistic volition to critique and challenge what their governments do. My worry with Russia is that the government’s total control of the media results in the population believing and supporting whatever schemes their government is engaged in. the 1420 Youtube channel offers a fly on the wall style look into what the citizens of Russia really think, and reassures us that they are very much the same as us. Some likely buy into extreme opinions on both sides, but most of those interviewed seem like reasonable individuals, with balanced opinions in spite of what their government tells them. It almost sounds patronising for me to say that, and I really don’t mean it to be, but we are lucky enough to have the technology now which prevents these types of smoke screens from being effective. Russia’s government can say they are engaged in a special operation to liberate Ukraine from extremists, but when they see videos online of Ukraine cities that have been raised to the ground by Russian shelling, they likely start to question whether their government’s ‘special operation’ is really benefitting ordinary Ukrainians. It allows people to draw their own conclusions about a situation and hampers their leader’s ability to influence their population. This also hampers their ability to drum up hate in their population for another people, as videos of their suffering humanises them, and helps Russians see that they are similar to each other. Normal people’s lives are being ruined by their armies in Ukraine; there are videos of the damage all over the internet.
Although I can honestly say there are very few things in the world I actually ‘hate’, I have used the word many times in my life in the colloquial sense. For example, for about a decade, any time I saw fennel on a menu or it came in a conversation I was involved in, I would emphatically state that I hated fennel. This was usually followed by a rant that I don’t understand why anyone would feel anything other than hate towards it, that people who don’t hate it clearly had something wrong with their brains, and that any emotion other than hate expressed towards it was inadequate. I recently found a recipe for pasta bake that used a bit of fresh fennel and reluctantly decided to try it, and now realise that if you balance it well in a meal, it can actually be very delicious. The conclusion that I drew from this is that being closed-minded to anything, even something fairly trivial, may prevent you from experiencing whatever is potentially positive about that thing. It will at least prevent you from understanding what someone else’s positive experience is from that thing. If I shut down any conversation about fennel with a rant about how much I hate fennel, I’m unlikely to be susceptible to changing my opinion or hearing out others on why they don’t hate it. My good friend Dan told me that eating fresh fennel soon after it has been picked is something he has treasured since childhood. I was in utter disbelief about this when he told me, but it has made me curious to try it. I’ve also had a very nice tea that uses fennel root to sweeten it. Look how far I have come… This leads me to my final point, another one about strong emotions and how it is easy to be swept into them.
In the past, I’ve been guilty of disagreeing with people on subjects that I know very little about and, in fact, don’t feel passionate about in any way, shape or form. I’ve spoken about this before I’m sure, but it really is worth emphasizing again. There is something about engaging in a ‘disagreement’ (which innevitably moves into an argument once the disagreement gets out of hand) that I used to find irresistible. The topic could be almost anything and I would come in with the opposite opinion of the person speaking, starting off as ‘devil’s advocate’, but soon assuming the position as a gatekeeper for an opinion I don’t hold, over a topic I don’t understand.
I remember a particular example where a colleague brought up flat earthers, and I quickly dismissed him and said that people who believed it were stupid. He then asked me how I knew it wasn’t flat, and if I had personally proved it to be round. We then engaged in an argument that lasted far too long, went far too meta and was never going to produce any winners. Alcohol played its part too of course, but the whole thing got extremely heated and, frankly, embarrassing. I remember that as a pivotal moment for me – the moment I realised that I don’t actually need to engage in these types of ‘disagreements’ and that they never resulted in me being any happier. I don’t mind a discussion now, but I try and approach them with more of an inquisitive attitude, as opposed to obsessively trying to be ‘right’ or to see everything as a competition where I need to be the winner. I stop myself from getting to the stage where I am blinded by strong emotions, which prevent me from learning anything or thinking critically.
It made me realise that all of the people that I knew and respected most were people who tried to stay calm, looked to engage with others over differing opinions and allowed their prejudices to be challenged. The people who were always desperate to be right, desperate to be seen to be the most intelligent and ready to engage in any argument were not the ones I idolised at all, yet they were all traits I easily identified in myself when I evaluated my past behaviour. It is my interest in evaluating these types of human behaviour that led me to the 1420 channel, and that inspired me to write this post.