‘Truth is the first casualty of war, they say. In fact, it’s more often freedom and reason.’ (Brendan O’Neill)
I was wrong. I didn’t imagine that Russia would actually launch a full-scale assault on Ukraine. I felt sick, shocked and dismayed as the news unfolded this week. I can only imagine how it must feel for Ukrainians to find their country under attack and for Russians to discover their country has started a war. I felt near-despair too as I listened to rhetoric in the UK Parliament and media in the immediate wake of the invasion, denouncing neo-fascist Russian nationalism and imperialism whilst, at the same time, silencing any voices of dissent here with words like ‘appeasement’ and ‘treason’.
There are insights from various psychological fields that can help us, yet we know from arenas such as cognitive and human givens therapies that our receptivity and ability to reason is impacted profoundly when overwhelmed by feeling. Emotions like anger, resentment and fear are running high at the moment; and understandably so because this crisis and all that it could mean are very real and being experienced by real people, families and communities here-and-now – and that makes it hard to think clearly. Yet we must think, and pray, and act with wisdom, and quickly.
I can only guess what’s in Putin’s mind. The geopolitical dimensions to this conflict are complex and well beyond my ability to know or understand. I can, however, speak as a citizen or the West. I spent many years working closely with an anti-Nazi activist in Germany. I learned that we need to pay very careful attention to the conditions in which otherwise insane decisions will appear and feel rational. Hitler and the Nazis were supported and elected in Germany by many with great enthusiasm against a specific contextual backdrop: in Gestalt psychology, the ‘ground’ that gives rise to a ‘figure’.
The ’ground’ out of which the current crisis has developed is very complex indeed. It includes: a long cultural history in Russia of autocratic leadership; the brutal and devastating Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union from (geographically) the West; a loss of Russian power and self-esteem following the collapse of the Soviet Union; the subsequent expansion of the NATO military alliance eastwards towards Russia’s borders; the expansion of the EU economic block eastwards to (potentially) incorporate Ukraine; a corresponding and growing sense of vulnerability and resentment in Russia.
Does this suggest that the West has somehow caused the war in Ukraine? No. Correlation of these factors does not mean causation. Putin has made his own decisions. Does it suggest that the West has contributed to creating the conditions under which Putin’s decision became more likely? That’s a question I believe, in the midst of our justifiable outrage at Russia’s unjustifiable actions, we would do well to consider with prayer, humility and critical reflexivity. We stand at the edge of a dangerous precipice and, to move forward, we need very different thinking to that which brought us here.
The brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher in France on Friday, spun freedom of expression back into the media spotlight. Freedom of speech is, after all, a bedrock of Western democracy – not only the safeguarding of the expression of thoughts, feelings, and opinions but also, critically, the right and opportunity to be exposed to those of other people and groups too. The same principle applies in liberal education: learning, development, creativity and innovation emerge from the interaction of diverse insights, experiences and ideas; sometimes awkwardly or angrily if they clash, yet vital for healthy growth.
Emmanuel Macron has described the current Kairos moment as an existential crisis: a fundamental conflict between secular, liberal European values and those of radical Islam. A broader cultural backdrop is, however, a struggle between freedom of speech and freedom from harm, where the latter includes freedom from offence. Brendan O’Neill commented last weekend that, in France, “cancel culture turned murderous…the (teacher’s) beheading was a militarised expression of (it).” The silencing of a voice, the no-platforming of a dissenting view, can lead to dire unintended consequences.
Coming from a very different place politically to O’Neill, Douglas Murray struck a strikingly similar chord in, ‘The Madness of Crowds’ (2019/20): “We are going through a great…derangement”. Cultural and technological upheavals are driving humanity at breakneck speed into uncharted territories where many hitherto beliefs, values and assumptions are being stress-tested to their limits. Grasping at simplistic and polarising stances – no matter how irrational – is one way to feel safer and more purposeful in the world. So, question: What do these feverish times call for from us, as leaders, coaches, trainers and OD?
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