When Ignorance is Reassuring

Billboard shows two outlines of Crimean peninsula, one with swastika and one with Russian flag
A billboard reading “On March 16 We Choose” was part of the propaganda effort waged by Russia after it invaded Crimea and then held a plebiscite in 2014 to confirm its takeover. (Photo: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty)

As long ago as Ancient Greece the poet Aeschylus said that the first causality of war is truth. But what has not been considered enough is why, in the modern age of myriad sources of information, so many people still subscribe to beliefs that are challenged in so many ways.

Amidst the horrors of the totally pointless and evilly destructive war crimes that characterize the Russian invasion of Ukraine, one small but significant added distress are reports from Ukrainians that their relatives in Russia do not believe them when they describe the devastation that the Russian army is inflicting upon them. Accounts and pictures available to those in contact with their friends and relatives, which show rampant destruction not seen in Europe since the Second World War, are dismissed by Russians as either caused by the Ukrainians themselves or faked and misleading.

Of course, there are well-informed Russians who recognize the truth of these images. The growing body count, as with the Russian debacle in Afghanistan, is also beginning to reveal to those in Moscow and elsewhere, that the ‘special military engagement’ is not going as much according to plan as the Kremlin claims. This is generating courageous challenges to Putin and his cronies, as well as leading to an exodus of professionals and others from Russia. However, there are still so many who accept what Putin is claiming that such groundswell of support is limiting any real challenge to his authority.

An easy explanation for the acceptance of the fiction that the Russian media portrays is that sources of accurate information are difficult to come by precisely because the Kremlin now so totally controls all publications and broadcasts, social media. Serious prison sentences are threatened for anyone who dares to challenge the official accounts of the military operation. Putin has clearly learnt a lot from Hitler’s conscious manipulation of any accounts of what is really happening.

But, as mentioned, unlike in the 1930s and 40s, there are now so many sources of information that it might have been expected there would be more understanding of the nature of the Kremlin’s propaganda. Yet when a Ukrainians declares that they can no longer converse with their sisters or parents in Russia because they will not believe what they are being told. There has to be more than a passive acceptance of official accounts.

It is possible that their Russian relatives do not want to admit that they accept what their Ukrainian contacts are telling them for fear of reprisals by Putin’s authorities. But there are enough indications from those in Russia who do understand what is actually going on, that it seems plausible that there is a more profoundly psychological explanation for why the propaganda is accepted as the truth.

Throughout the history of modern psychology there has been a recognition that we all distort what we think to fit in with our actions, or to help us cope with otherwise distressing possibilities. Sigmund Freud wrote of ‘reaction formation.’ The development of beliefs and actions that are the opposite to what we really feel as a way of dealing with the distressing consequences of those genuine impulses.

More recently Leon Festinger developed a theory that has found its way (often confusingly) into popular discourse, which is not that different from Freud’s. Cognitive dissonance is the process of adjusting what is thought to be case so that those attitudes are compatible with your actions. If you’ve tried to tell a dedicated smoker or alcoholic that what they are doing is wrong, not only will you get a defense of their actions with some re-interpretation of their actions or their consequence, but importantly, there will an emotional charge to that response. Other terms, such as self-serving bias, or George Kelly’s recognition that there is a search to keep our ways of understanding the world, ‘our construct system,’ coherent. Challenges to this generate emotional responses.

The central perspective in all these psychological theories is our search to keep an apparent, rationality or logic to our experiences. This is what Putin’s propaganda plays on. If you see yourself as a devoted Russian, identifying yourself with the glories if the great society in which you live, then any challenge to that is profoundly distressing. It is psychologically easier to believe that Putin’s army is on a noble mission. Indeed, those who recognize the lies in Russian broadcasts have declared the challenge that recognition makes to their identity. They have declared they ‘are ashamed to be Russian.’

I other words, those friends and relatives who refuse to believe what they are hearing from their contacts in Ukraine, are drawing on their need to stay sane within the conflicting information they are receiving. Natural, often healthy, psychological processes are doing the main work for the Kremlin.

Following George Kelly, construct systems that are limited and simple, that only recognize right and wrong, black and white, good and bad, with no gradations, are vulnerable to new information. They can collapse under the pressure of trying to stay coherent and internally logical. That is one of the hopes for this terrible war. That the Russian people will realize they cannot hold onto two totally conflicting views of what is happening. Just as the Soviet fiasco in Afghanistan helped to undermine the existence of the Soviet Union, so eventually will the disastrous invasion of the Ukraine cause the citizens of Russia to understand how totally they have been misled. The psychological coping with this radical change in their ways of understanding the world, will require a complete about turn in their support for Putin.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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