One of the things that has been noted is the different attitude regarding refugees and interest and assistance that has been given to Ukraine compared to other conflicts. People have noted the easier time Ukrainian refugees have had getting accepted into other countries compared to, say, Syrian refugees. Others have noted the rush to support one side over the other, and so on.
Various theories are stated, and certainly they have validity. Racism and other forms of ethnocentricism and bias certainly play a role, but, I think, there’s a larger reason for it. Humans tell stories.
This seems like a bit of obviousness too stupid to even mention, but the human use of storytelling exceeds merely entertaining each other. It informs how we view the world, how we interpret events. It’s such a fundamental part of our psychology that even in things that are as far from fiction as you can imagine, storytelling is critical in effective messaging.
These days my full time job is working in a field where we produce reports on decisions made regarding environmental assessment. When we write those decisions, it’s not just a simple, rote, recitation of facts and what the decisions based on those facts are. You have to tell a story, to allow the audience to understand why that decision was made, build up how the evidence was presented.
Lawyers I work with have told me the same thing. When you present the case, you frame it as a story, guiding the jury or the judge toward the conclusion that story is inevitably leading to. When a prosecutor describes the crime, it’s not a simple recitation of facts, it’s the story of the events.
The Biblical parable, meant to teach morality or religious truth: stories. The “word problems” given to teach math: stories. How we tell our co-workers about the great party we were at over the weekend: told as a story. Logic puzzles: stories. How we relate sporting events: stories. We do it so often people don’t even realize it’s being done. It’s just the way we do things. And the ones that grab our attention, the ones people remember and pay attention to, are the ones that make the best stories.
Odds are the vast majority of people are unfamiliar with the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 CE. Even the ones who do know about it might only know the basics: some kind of revolt, Romans eventually burned Jerusalem and the temple. I mean, I’ve studied that era probably more than most people, and off the top of my head, that’s all I can really tell you.
But if you ask someone the story of Masada, odds are there are a lot more people who could tell you about that. Outnumbered rebels, the inevitability of Roman victory, the choice of death over capture and slavery. Pretty damn epic. May not be entirely true but hey, still pretty damn epic. People might not even be aware of the conflict it was part of, but they will at least be vaguely aware of Masada.
So let’s go to the present day. Why are people more fired up about Ukraine than, say, Syria? Why are people so more vocal about this than, say Israel and Palestine? It’s because, well, Syria is a civil war, and civil wars can often get fuzzy, especially if people aren’t familiar with the country. Yes, one side is demonstrably worse than the others, but, well, the problem is there are others. You’ve got democratic reformers versus the existing dictatorship versus radical jihadists versus who knows who. There’s no simple good guy and bad guy. it’s not a simple story to tell.
Israel-Palestine falls into the same boat. One can argue about which side is more responsible, but at the end of the day both sides have their share of asses which make the boundary fuzzy. This week the Israelis might be shooting up a Palestinian settlement. Next week someone is blowing up a bomb. There’s no easy to understand story, and no easy story about what anyone can do.
Putin’s mistake was screwing up an existing, fuzzy plot. The status of Crimea, while a land grab, had some uncertainty, and the separatists in the Donbass, well, we’re back to the fuzzy civil war. Had the Russians simply openly rushed into the separatist region and stopped, basically enforcing their bullshit “republics”, I really don’t think there would have been that much of an international reaction. Pressure would have been on the Ukrainians to find some sort of settlement. But the Russians screwed it up. Their assaults on what were unquestionably not separatist regions, the obvious attempt not to merely secure their puppet states in the Donbas but to take over the whole country, that simplified the story.
It wasn’t a civil war. It wasn’t a conflict over disputed territory. It was a bully attacking someone smaller. It became the story of the evil empire, and I use the term deliberately, trying to take over its next victim. And out of that came the outnumbered few willing to stand and say no, the underdogs who, despite all the odds apparently against them, who were holding out. The men and women taking up arms to defend their freedom.
That is an epic story. But then came the atrocities, the murders, the outright calls for genocide. This wasn’t just the story of the underdog anymore, this was the story of good versus evil. This was the Rebel Alliance versus the Galactic Empire, and any more traditional story, real or imagined, that might come to mind. And it makes it easier to decide who to support, who is in the wrong, who needs to be defeated.
Yes, the real world is vastly more complicated. Yes, there are other places, and other people, who deserve, or should have received, similar attention. But they weren’t the beneficiaries of simple, straightforward stories. The kind people have gut reactions to. The kind that don’t require a lot of examination to decide who are the good guys and who are the bad guys and don’t require someone testifying at the UN about WMDs to try and make the case about who is who. Where simple facts on the ground make it quite clear who, exactly, is the aggressor and who is the innocent victim who not only needs the sympathy but the support to fight back. And a bully that the good folks have finally stood up against because they’re tired of his shit.
Ukraine is a simple story.
Comment: This is a good editorial, in my obviously biased opinion. The comments are also worth a read. A lot of this does boil down to telling a story or, in military terms, running an information operation. For over twenty years, the story of Putin’s Russia was the story of a magnificent ascent from an abject disaster. I was watching from the inside when Putin’s people were beginning to gin up his IO campaign. There’s a lot of truth to that story, but now we’re seeing another side. That has to cause a lot of cognitive dissonance and rationalization among the true Russophile believers. And now there is Zelenskiy and the Ukrainians. Now he knows how to craft a story. And it’s a damned fine story… so far.