Thursday, April 7, 2022

Letting Go of Simplistic Extremism Without Succumbing to Bitter Cynicism

A few weeks ago on Facebook I observed how disorienting it can be to spot and discount Ukrainian propoganda while strongly supporting the Ukrainian side:
Just a general drench of cautionary cold water to those who are quite properly rooting for the nice people of Ukraine amid this hideous invasion by an evil and psychotic monster with no shred of justification:

It's often reported that Ukraine is winning the PR war. And they sure are. But the downside is that we're the target demographic for this effortful persuasion.

I have heard so much flagrant Ukrainian bullshit reported - and coverage widely skewed by reporters who've abandoned any objectivity - that I'm having to work to stay focused on my principled support.

My mental defenses are set to activate and repel bullshit, and to target its source. But bullshit from the righteous - from the Good Guys - leaves me confused, like an upended centipede pathetically wriggling its feet.

The Good Guys can absolutely bullshit you. In fact, that's their job during a war! But it requires screening on our part. It doesn't make us pro-Russian to apply healthy skepticism.

As you chew and swallow Ukrainian propaganda (yes, Russian propaganda is 10 billion times worse!), maybe don't relish it utterly. Maybe don't make a feast of it. And while you can allow rage to be stoked inside you....maybe don't indulge it 15,000%. Maybe favor moderation?

I realize this is the black-and-whitest of all black-and-white conflicts, but we can view news and memes (oy, the memes) coming out of Ukraine with just a tad of skepticism, and apply critical thinking, and bear in mind that we are being spun. And just because the spinners are the Good Guys doesn't make it a healthy process. They're not doing this to improve our mental health. They have bigger problems. They're not wrong to do it!

And if you can avoid calling me a Putin propagandist, my cardiologist says that would be best for my blood pressure. So please tolerate the shade of grey I'm proposing without parsing it in terms of black/white.

Support Ukraine. Send money. But you're not flotsam, so resist being moved by everyone pointing a hair dryer at you.

That's all I ask. Just a proposal. Sorry. Ok.
None of my Facebook friends hollered at me for being a Putin fanboy (I'd strangle the guy with my own hands given the chance), but that's because they've stopped paying attention to me because I'm so incorrigible. There's only so much counterintuitive bullshit a person will force themselves to consider. It's exhausting already. I get it!

It takes discipline and clarity to see straight and maintain views and values. It's much easier to make the Ukrainians totally noble, because that's my team.

We ignore the complexity of the real world via confirmation bias. We overlook, ignore, or deliberately misunderstand inconvenient evidence (much as we overlook conspicuous flaws to idealize new romantic partners). When the evidence becomes insurmountable, many people flip 180 degrees. Stridently obnoxious conservatives become stridently obnoxious liberals and vice versa. Apostacy and converts. That old story.

Those who refuse both - overlooking and flipping - frequently turn to cynicism. "It's all crooked and they're all assholes!"

That's nearly correct, but the coloring's all wrong. We paint it rancidly bitter because of the come-down from the candy-colored happy-talk black hat/white hat framing. The real world feels fetidly swampy and grizzled when you're coming down from a simplistic comic book view. People settle into that fetid grizzle with the joie de vivre of a gruff school cafeteria manager grimly sucking cancer smoke on infrequent breaks as the sole micro-delight amid the burdensome endeavor of serving shitty slop to snotty little shits.

Show me a bitter cynic and I'll show you someone who had nowhere to go after being shaken from a childishly simple-minded perspective, i.e. a comic book view. Realism feels like a terrible come-down from lofty candy-colored conceits. This is why the mentally ill don't like to take their pills. It's all so drab without the creamy hallucinations!

Having amply prepared you, I offer a challenge. Read this report on Ukrainian atrocities. Absorb it. And don't deny it, rationalize it, or purge it from your mind. But also don't groan and feel yourself plunging into paralyzing ennui 'cuz EVERYBODY SUCKS SO WHAT'S THE USE. Don't be the lunchroom lady!

F Scott Fitzgerald said "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." I don't aspire to a first-rate intelligence. I'll settle for the firm recognition that the world isn't clean while opting out of the view that it's irredeemably dirty. It's unfashionable to point out that there's a middle! And just because there's no simple good or evil doesn't mean it's not worth trying to snake our collective way to marginally better outcomes.

That's the ballgame: seeking marginally better outcomes. Not framing things as childhood fairytales where baddies get smitten while we goodies bask in our nobility. Privileged First-world aristocrats have lost our foothold. Everything seems two dimensional, distinctions are glibly drawn, and every transgressor is deemed pure wickedness, ripe for pitiless smiting.

The good guys are never that good and the bad guys are never that bad (except for a few genuine psychopaths like Putin). And here's the clincher: you and I are not so great, either! AND THAT'S OKAY! We can humbly keep our heads down while seeking marginally better outcomes! It sounds puny and non-monumental, but such modest incrementalism is the source of all nobility.

Support Ukraine! Reject Ukrainian propoganda! Do both! They're not irreconcilable! In fact, the discipline and maturity required by this subtle endeavor represent the ideal antidote to precisely what ails our society! In the widest framing, we've lost our capacity for subtlety.

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