When headline ‘News’ becomes ‘Normal’

I’m interested in how front page news becomes almost no news as we get used to any new situation. 

When I think back to last August and Britain’s catastrophic and deeply distressing withdrawal from Afghanistan, or February this year and Putin‘s horrific invasion of Ukraine, the shock and terror of the implications of massive personal tragedy and widespread devastation had me glued to the radio. The ‘News’ from countries far away infiltrated my world, influencing my days and above all my state of mind. 

It is with some shame that I have to confess I have now slightly switched off the news. Not out of lack of interest or concern, nor simply because I’m extremely busy in the run-up to the publication my book in July (hence apologies for any typos etc… I am constantly on the road at the moment.) No, I am making a deliberate choice not to turn on the news in order to preserve a positive state of being; so I can feel the excitement of my long journey reaching its end and a new chapter starting; and so I can fully immerse myself in the flower-power of the blooming wonders of nature in all their technicoloured splendour. 

I am sure I am not alone in noticing how quickly and completely the un-normal can become normalised. I imagine it was always thus. History feels more intense than the present because history isn’t experienced on a moment-to-moment basis. It is captured in snapshots – letters, diaries, family albums, military or journalistic reports – and concertinaed into a narrative by skilled historians. The multitude of in-between times that make up the everyday are all missed out. 

Right now – and without wanting to be a doom-monger but we can’t ignore that it is a possibility – we might be witnessing the build-up to the Third World War. Or a climate catastrophe of proportions we can’t imagine. Or world famine. Or intense poverty. Or worst case scenario, all of the above. These times too will one day be reduced to a sequence of significant events and decisions. Yet for many of us, still not directly impacted by them, the business of life continues, to a large degree, as usual. 

Anybody who regularly reads my blogs knows how I frequently get frustrated by the lack of agency, influence or clout I feel in the face of the shenanigans and all too often crap decisions of politicians or world leaders. I never want to not feel justified rage or become guilty of the passivity of ‘looking away’ that so many Germans living in Nazi times are accused of. But thinking back to those times, I find it much easier to comprehend how even then, the ‘News,’ as horrific as it often was, might have become normalised. The majority of people would have read or heard about things, argued about whether they were right or indeed even true, and then probably just got on with the intricacies of their daily lives. Just like most us are probably doing now. 

Maybe it’s because I find it overwhelming trying to imagine the challenges, traumas, upheavals, fears and worries of each individual caught up directly or indirectly in all that is going on in the world right now that I am choosing to surrender to the things I am impotent to do anything about. Maybe it’s ok to want to give myself the best chance of maintaining a level of optimism, vision, hope and love so I can contribute positively to the world in whatever way I can… kind of along the lines of the Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and used in Anonymous groups.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Then again it may just be an age thing. That I have reached the stage where one sits in a chair and writes grumpy letters to newspapers. Or in my case, where I rail against the endless stream of transparently self-serving, superficial and frankly dangerous tweets by our foreign secretary, Liz Truss, all accompanied by ghastly selfies. Oh here we go, I clearly haven’t quite grown out of my healthy rage at the world!

Happy end of May and beginning of June and next time I write, it will be a countdown to publication day…

When words become weapons of war or peace

Happy Spring Equinox! I am writing this on the banks of the River Severn, one of my favourite spots in the world. The sun is shining in a cloudless sky, a breeze is dancing through the long grass. I can hear the outgoing tide making its way back to the sea. Within this natural order and peace, it is almost impossible to imagine the horrors of war.  

Like all of us who are far from the fighting front, I feel the combined rage, helplessness and deep sadness of seeing and hearing the heart-breaking scenes and accounts of the millions of Ukrainians fleeing their homes or defending their country, their freedom and their lives. Words seem to be my only weapon against this appalling aggression. But what words would help? And which ones won’t? There is such a fine line between the impactful bravery of calling something out, of revealing the truth in the face of lies, like the Russian TV employee who ran onto the set of Russia’s main news channel bearing a placard saying ‘Don’t believe the propaganda, they’re lying to you here’ while shouting ‘Stop the war. No to war,’ and the potentially catastrophic naming, shaming and blaming of an individual.  

Russian TV journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, protesting on a live Russian news broadcast

I know that I want to use my words to help bring about peace. Which is why I choose not to use those that I feel add both to the divisiveness that lies behind all wars and to the ‘othering’ of the enemy, which in turn nurtures the erroneous belief that violence and force are the only ways to achieve aims and justify actions. It’s also why listening to Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour on Thursday 17th March left me unsettled. 

I am not usually one to come down on the side of politicians’ typically evasive methods of answering a question. But in this case, I was behind the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, in her response to presenter Emma Barnett’s questioning. It went something like this: 

Barnett: ‘Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal Foreign Secretary?’ 

Truss: ‘I think there’s very, very strong evidence that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine and that he is instrumental to those war crimes taking place.’ 

Barnett: ‘Is that a yes?’

Then, citing USA’s President Biden’s recent declaration that ‘he is a war criminal,’ she continued to push Truss. ‘Why don’t you want to cross that line? That line has been crossed by America and I am wondering why we’re not.’ 

Truss then repeated her noncommittal answer. 

And I was glad she did. I didn’t think that style of political grilling was appropriate here.

Some might see Truss’s line as weak. Maybe you do too? I actually don’t. For what, other than an escalation of diplomatic tensions and danger, is to be gained by shoving Putin into the ‘war criminal’ category, even if he is one? By branding him with what is potentially the worst label there is, do we not put him on the defensive rather than encourage constructive conversation? Hitler was a war criminal. And Putin is a million miles away from allowing himself to be equated with him. 

A Kremlin representative’s inevitable response was to call out Biden’s statement as ‘unacceptable and unforgivable rhetoric on the part of the head of state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world.’ Of course we all know he has a point when you look back at certain episodes of American history. And that is my point. Such statements do nothing other than to add fuel to an already raging fire. 

None of this is to say I don’t abhor what Putin is doing as much as anybody. I am just aware that words are absolutely crucial in the dealing with a person whose psychological makeup is so volatile, so proud, so convinced, so terrifyingly dangerous. Because while our acts may be indisputably heinous, we human beings, in all our complexity and contradictions, are never just one thing. So to stick a supremely negative label onto someone – even if they have qualified for it a thousand times over – is in my view counter-productive, especially when, however mad it seems to us, they see themselves in a very different, invariably more heroic light.

While working in prisons, I saw the negative dynamics of labelling people ‘murderer,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘child abuser’ – even when they were guilty of these crimes. Like the locked door of their tiny cells, there was no way out of that ‘bad’ box. Impotent, ostracised and with no obvious path leading back into the world of ‘good,’ many gave up trying. Some killed themselves. Some continued to numb the shame and sense of separation with drugs or self-harm. Others turned to violence in a futile attempt to punch their way back to the acceptability and respect that ironically often lay behind the motivation to commit their original crime. Shame has a hideous way of making people infinitely more dangerous.

We only have to look at the Germany of the 1920s, 30s and 40s to see what grew out of the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty and above all the ‘war guilt’ clause, which forced Germany to accept all blame for World War One. Or to be reminded, as I was on a recent trip to Hamburg and the blackened ruins of the St. Nicholai church that had so fascinated me as a child, that every nation and each of us are capable of descending into horrific violence, even potential war crimes.

St Nikolai Church, Hamburg

If we are to believe that conflicts begin in the hearts and minds of individuals, then it follows that peace does too. Of course I don’t know for sure, but my feeling, at least from a psychological point of view, is that at this incredibly precarious and dangerous moment in time where the course of the war in Ukraine could escalate in so many directions, we should be doing everything to enable Putin to withdraw, retreat or feel sufficiently victorious to end his war with at least a perception that enough of his dignity and integrity are intact.

I totally understand both the temptation and justification of condemning Putin and his actions as outright evil. But the stakes are currently too high to play the ‘we’re right, you’re wrong’ game. For to do so is to accuse and other the perpetrator in the same way they have accused and othered their foe. Like negotiators communicating with hostage-takers, albeit on an infinitely larger scale, maybe we need to keep in our view the man behind the monster. As many in the west are now admitting, this is possibly what we have neglected to do in the past. And he who feels unheard, unseen, disrespected often feels impelled to stamp louder, punch harder to get themselves noticed. 

I think our personal choice of words is one of few things that each of us have as a tool to diffuse rather than escalate a situation. I just hope we can all find the right ones.

On another note, exactly this time last year, I was giving my Tedx talk. You can watch it here… again or for the first time if you haven’t seen it already.

And yesterday I received the printed proofs of my book In My Grandfather’s Shadow. Still not the final product, but another exciting step towards publication in July. You can pre-order on Amazon here or wait until July to buy in a bookshop.

Related Links

Woman’s Hour Interview with Liz Truss – start at 13.30 mins