Hear Me Out: What If We *Didn’t* Treat War Like Entertainment?

The conflict in Ukraine has captured everyone's attention, but too many of us are treating it like a dramatic story, not real life

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Stacy Lee Kong

Mar 04 2022

12 mins read

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Image: instagram.com/zelenskiy_official

‎Like basically everyone I know, I’m having a very hard time looking away from news coverage of the war in Ukraine. I’ve found myself crying over the videos of little kids talking about having to leave their dads in Kyiv and teachers grimly heading to the frontlines to join the fight, and cheering for the Ukrainian woman who threatened Russian soldiers with sunflower seeds. I feel a deep admiration for Russian people who are protesting this war at great risk to themselves. And while I knew next to nothing about Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky before last week, it’s hard not to appreciate his leadership—and one-liners—now. (Just… not like this, okay?)

Even as I’m horrified at what’s happening to Ukrainians and scared about just how far Putin will go to win this war, though, I’ve been noticing something else. When Westerners talk about this invasion, they’re doing so as if it’s a dramatic, exciting story, not real life. And honestly, it’s… not great.

It’s like we’ve forgotten everything that came before this war

Case in point: I keep seeing this recurring idea that what is happening in Ukraine right now is somehow exceptional. Sometimes this comes from pundits claiming there hasn’t been a war on European soil since World War 2 (there have been dozens of military conflicts in Europe soil since 1945, just FYI), other times from Twitter users declaring this is the first time we’ve ‘seen’ the true reality of war thanks to social media (in fact, it is neither the first time we’ve seen the reality of war nor the first time social media was key in that process). Regardless of who’s advancing these ahistorical claims, though, the result is the same: people are giving in to the impulse to ignore history and context in favour of a simple, emotionally resonant narrative.  

I think the most obvious way this happens is when white, Western journalists extend empathy for Ukrainian refugees that they just do not have for the racialized refugees who've been displaced from their homelands in recent years. For example:

‎Last week, CBS News international correspondent Charlie D’Agata offered this analysis: Ukraine “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”

‎ITV News correspondent Lucy Watson, in Poland: “Now the unthinkable has happened to them. And this is not a developing, third-world nation—this is Europe.”

‎Al Jazeera anchor Peter Dobbie: “What's compelling is looking at them, the way they are dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from the Middle East... or North Africa. They look like any European family that you'd live next door to.”

‎Daniel Hannan, writing in the Telegraph on Feb. 26: “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone.”

These comments don't offer much helpful analysis of the actual situation in Ukraine, but they are very revealing about other things... like what these journalists subconsciously believe about people who are not white and Western: that they are not as human as those blonde-haired, blue-eyed Europeans, that armed conflicts in their homelands are natural and expected, that they are complicit in their own oppression and degradation. It's worth considering how these subconscious attitudes have shaped coverage of previous refugee crises (the countries with the most displaced people in 2021 were Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar). After all, this kind of racism seeps into the belief systems of regular people, shoring up their perceptions of racialized refugees as drains on society versus these ‘civilized’ versions who deserve care and compassion.

(Side note: several of the journalists who faced backlash for their insensitive characterization of non-Ukrainian refugees have since apologized, including D'Agata and Al Jazeera on behalf of Dobbie. Also, journalist Alan MacLeod has rounded up even more examples, if you need more to be enraged about.)

I don't want to downplay how horrible this war is for Ukraine or Ukrainians. I do want to unpack why so many people believe what's happening here is unique and novel, and why they're so resistant to incorporating history into their understanding of this conflict. Because imperialism, colonization, and invasion are not new, and they're horrifying no matter who is subjected to them. Pretending otherwise devalues the lives of Black and brown people whose homelands have been colonized and upholds the ideological distance between developed and developing nations.

I'm also really interested in how these statements reflect a collective desire to narrativize this conflict. Journalists, whose literal job is to contextualize the news, are instead contributing to a simple storyline devoid of wider geopolitical, much less intersectional, context. To be fair, this probably always happens when talking about refugee crises. It's just that this time, the narrative is inclusive instead of exclusive. These refugees are just like us. These refugees could be us. You know, depending on who counts as 'us.' This approach to the news is also massively hypocritical because it ignores the role the West plays in sowing conflict across the globe. (This is why it’s particularly infuriating when media allows politicians to make these kinds of racist, dehumanizing statements, as they’ve also been doing in their coverage of Ukraine.)

But this narrativization is happening in sneakier ways, too

Here’s the thing, though—the above examples are so obvious. Anyone who misses the racism is doing it because they want to. But there are also many subtle ways that the discourse around Ukraine is being stripped of important context.

‎Take, for example, the early disbelief over whether Black and other racialized people were actually facing racism at the hands of Ukrainian border agents while trying to flee the country. These reports began popping up on social media over the weekend, but when host Sunny Hostin brought up allegations that African, Indian and Caribbean students were being denied passage out of the country on Monday’s episode of The View, Ana Navarro disputed it, saying, “Yesterday, it gave me some comfort to see José Andrés, who tweeted out he was there with a Nigerian woman. He said he had spoken to people from India and Congo, African countries and Jamaica, that that was not happening. I don’t know what’s true.” When Hostin replied that she’d been talking to people on the ground who said it was happening, Navarro shot back, “But listen, Sunny, my point is that war is chaos. José Andrés is on the ground—he’s not in a suit, he’s on the ground. He’s meeting with people, he’s interviewing with them, he’s not saying that’s happening!”

‎Of course, Black and Indian students were being stopped from leaving Ukraine so that white women and children could get to safety first, which is only the latest in a long history of tensions between international students, especially those from African nations, and Ukrainians. But, Navarro—and plenty of other people’s—disbelief is a clear example of how strongly people will dispute information that doesn’t fit into a straightforward narrative.

This also applies to everyone who was praising countries like Poland and Denmark for being ‘pro-refugee’ after both countries announced their borders were open to Ukrainians fleeing the war. Except, that only seems to apply to white refugees. In January, the UN Refugee Agency criticized Denmark for its asylum policy, which only guarantees asylum to Afghan refugees for two years, at which point they would need to reapply to stay in the country. Its government also recently told 100 Syrian refugees that they were no longer allowed to live in Denmark, as it was safe to return to Damascus. And of course, there's the controversial ‘jewellery law’ that has been on the books since 2016, which “allows police to confiscate cash and valuables above 10,000 kroner from arriving migrants and asylum seekers,” according to The Local DK. A government spokesperson told media that the law would likely not be applied to Ukrainian refugees, though. Meanwhile, Poland has been refusing to allow hundreds of asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraqi Kurdistan into the country since last August. Instead, they have been hiding in the forest at the border with Belarus, sleeping on damp sleeping bags in small tents. As of Feb. 8, the Guardian reported at least 19 of these refugees have died while waiting for help.

‎I should note here that there is legitimate concern about Russian disinformation campaigns, especially since the country used social media to “exacerbate racial tensions in the U.S. and suppress Black voter turnout” in 2020 and 2016, according to the Washington Post, using strategies that “borrowed heavily from the Soviet-era strategy of seeking to exploit American racial division to deepen unrest during the civil rights movement and after.” We've already seen other examples of Kremlin-backed media attempting to shift attention from Russia’s actions by using ‘whataboutism.’ According to journalist Idrees Ahmad, a viral infographic that purported to encourage people to “condemn war everywhere” was actually propaganda from the Kremlin that contained half-truths. For example, it condemns Israeli airstrikes in Syria without acknowledging that Russia has carried out more bombings in that country, including targeting hospitals using coordinates provided by the UN to help Russia avoid hitting them.  

But it's not whataboutism to acknowledge that multiple things can be true at the same time. What is happening to everyone in Ukrainians is heart-breaking and Ukrainian border guards are discriminating against racialized people. Ukrainian refugees are deserving of the resources they're receiving to deal with the situation they've been forced into, and so are racialized refugees, who generally do not get them. Western media should be empathetic to the plight of Ukrainians and they should also be empathetic to the plight of Black and brown refugees. If the act is deplorable, it has to be deplorable for everyone, not just those who look like you.

This discourse is putting a new spin on an old impulse to romanticize war

‎All of these editorial decisions and political communication strategies are connected to how ‘regular’ people are talking about Ukraine, too. I don’t know if it’s the simultaneous closeness and distance that the internet imparts or the way social media is designed to encourage takes and quippy one-upmanship, but it has been pretty weird to see people tweet about how ‘every woman’ has a crush on Zelensky now (pls chill), turn him into memes or try to fan-cast Jeremy Renner to play him in a (non-existent) movie about the war. Former GQ Russia editor-in-chief Michael Idov recently offered a very generous take on this impulse to relate to the news as if it's a movie: “There is a morbid edge to it, too. This is the first time in my life that I am writing about a country’s president hoping he will not be murdered by the time I’m done. The current bout of Zelensky worship is different from our normal fawning over a politician, because this time we want it to work as a protective spell, too. We are making a pop idol out of a man who may be sacrificing his life as we speak, if not live on air, then something very close to it. We’re throwing up jokey tributes as insulation against a scarier truth: Zelensky is not a superhero, not a meme, not a vessel for our revenge fantasies against Putin or Trump. He is a human who rose to the occasion. All we can really do is look at him and hope that, if we are called to such unimaginable duty, we have it in us to do the same.”‎

And I don’t think any of that is untrue. But along with that protective spell, this discourse indicates a desire for an easy story that just doesn’t exist. I guess what I’m trying to say is, we all have a responsibility to seek the truth, not just the comforting narrative. I think this applies most to journalists, whose job is to help people understand not just what’s happening, but also why it's happening and how it relates to the rest of the world. But we should all be acknowledging that the outpouring of support Ukraine has received, while fully deserved, also highlights the way the west devalues Black and brown lives. We should all be paying attention to the countries that see Ukrainian refugees as valuable but don’t extend that same respect to the millions of Black and brown refugees who have been displaced from their homelands. (Canada, for example, has announced it will welcome an 'unlimited number' of Ukrainians. This is excellent news—but it is not how the government, or Canadian citizens, tend to talk about refugees.) And we should all feel a bit icky about talking about a real war that is leading to real people's deaths as if it's an inspiring movie.

Because what's going on in Ukraine is not a story with plot points that will be neatly tied up at the end—and it's a privilege to pretend otherwise.


And Did You Hear About…

Vice’s spot-on review of Jeen-Yuhs, and what it loses by not tackling Kanye West’s long-running obsession with whiteness.

The Ringer’s very funny investigation into all the times Robert Pattinson lied in interviews.

Jessica Valenti’s thought-provoking newsletter about Euphoria’s big problem: the sexualization of teenagers.

Singer Joseph Solomon’s gorgeous acoustic covers. (I MEAN.)

This excellent Soraya Nadia McDonald essay on the history, meaning and power of Black names.

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Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine