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This Week on Better Questions
Self-destruction is not a necessary part of creation. So why do we keep believing it?
Something On My Radar:
Ben from Epsilon Theory writes on the mobilization of narrative for warfare.
I'm dedicating this entire round up to Ukraine, but I do so with a caveat:
You need to be aware of the waters you are swimming in.
The internet is a machine for the dispersal of narratives. That's what it does, and people figured out how to use that power to their benefit a long time ago.
This is prominent in how I view the world right now because we just emerged from two intensely-narrative driven events: the Trump presidency, and the COVID pandemic.
Likely the most well-known example of the narrative shifting over time: Fauci originally claiming that masks did nothing and weren't an important element of fighting the pandemic; then the narrative shifting to "cloth masks help to fight the pandemic and if you don't wear one you are an idiot;" to "cloth masks likely don't do much if anything, but KN95 masks definitely do" - and so on.
For me, personally, the predominant example is the COVID "lab leak" theory. Like many, I believed that theorizing that the coronavirus emerged from a Chinese lab was nothing but a racist fever-dream, driven by people who couldn't understand complex systems and needed to find a "bad guy," preferrably a foreign one. There was "no evidence," we were told, for any man-made origin.
But then, months later, I found out there's an actual lab in Wuhan that specializes in...creating new strains of the coronavirus?
And then many scientists and politicians, including in the Biden administration, came forward and said that the lab leak theory couldn't be discounted out of hand.
Recently, I've seen things start to swing the other way again, with many people back to arguing that an animal-origin is most likely for the virus.
I'm not arguing that masks do nothing, or that the coronavirus definitely emerged from a lab. I legitimately have no idea what's true in these cases, though I have my opinions (masks probably help; the virus probably came from an animal).
The takeaway is not truth or falsehood but the realization that media narratives are just that: narratives. Whether through political manipulation or sheer group-think, human beings tend to rush to conclusions and then reinforce those conclusions via the media they consume.
We ALL do this. You are not immune because you are educated, or liberal, or whatever. This is a human universal, and the only antidote is very careful application of healthy skepticism.
I say all this now because I'm about to give you five things I've read over the past week about the conflict in Ukraine. I have a pretty clear opinion about it: invading other countries is bad, as are totalitarian states. This is hardly a "hot take."
But it would be foolish of me to assume that a.) I understand the situation thoroughly (I don't), b.) I have all the pertinent information (I don't), or c.) the narratives I'm consuming are the "right" ones (they likely aren't).
It's important to stay up to date on global events. AND, I think you should have an opinion on those global events, and the courage to stand for what you believe.
But it's also important to remember the lessons of the past, and approach the chaos and noise of the present with a healthy skepticism.
By all means, swim; but be aware of the waters you're swimming in.
Five Interesting Links For The Weekend:
"There can be something a little distasteful about Western onlookers (myself included) cheering on Ukrainians for a cause that our countries are not willing to join, a stance that risks raising the price of a peace that will be paid only with Ukrainian blood. Nevertheless, it is possible to recognize this, to be inspired by what Zelensky represents, and then to be shamed by his example."
"The more you knew about the situation, the more likely you were to get it wrong."
Really incredible essay from someone with both Russian and Ukrainian heritage and a deep understanding of both countries on how. You rarely see people question their own assertions or face their own biases in this way. This is an example of intellectual bravery.
"For 40 years in the first half of the 20th century, nightmare regimes stormed across the world, wreaking devastation on anyone without the strength to resist them. But the world came through that crisis, and the great powers of the time developed norms that stopped the destruction. In the wake of that great act of responsibility and wisdom, the world for 70 years enjoyed the greatest flourishing of prosperity, culture, and human achievement in all its history. Now those norms are gone, torn up by jealous, petty men who never lived to see what a world ruled by the law of the jungle is like. We may yet reestablish the norms of inviolable borders and the rights of small countries, but this will take risk and effort and blood — the blood of the Ukrainians now the first to be spilled. The crisis of the 21st century is upon us. And we must go into this crisis with open eyes, discarding the illusions we spun for our own consumption when we took peace for granted. We can no longer afford to treat our wealthy liberal society as a fatted calf to be slaughtered and parceled out by faction."
"Part of Putin’s persona as president is that he is a ruthless tough guy, the strong man who is the champion and protector of Russia. And that’s why Russia needs him. If all was peaceful and quiet, why would you need Vladimir Putin? If you think of other wartime leaders — Winston Churchill comes to mind — in peacetime, Winston Churchill got voted out of office."
"I think the evidence is clear that we did not think [Putin] was an aggressor before February 22, 2014. This is a story that we invented so that we could blame him. My argument is that the West, especially the United States, is principally responsible for this disaster. But no American policymaker, and hardly anywhere in the American foreign-policy establishment, is going to want to acknowledge that line of argument, and they will say that the Russians are responsible."
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