The Ukrainian Invasion and the Problem of Binary Thinking

One of the things I appreciate about the late Mary Midgley’s work is her attention to how myths and symbols influence the popular imagination. She showed that symbols, often in the form of simplistic tropes, form much of the taken-for-granted background to how people make sense of their world. Often our myths and symbols have a symbiotic relationship to our technologies, as when the age of steam power implicated the idea—still present in much of the popular imagination—that humans need to “vent” in order to feel better.

In our own age the computer has provided the underlying mythos by which we navigate the world. The effect of the computer—a device that promises to demystify the complexity of our world through ones and zeroes—has been to solidify the imaginative appeal of binary, to offer the promise of organizing the world into rigid dichotomies, to eliminate complexity through the all-encompassing hegemony of either/or, this vs. that, us vs, them. 

American politics has always been strongly prejudiced in favor of binary perspectives, with the result that it has become commonplace to neglect the full complexity of situations. Under the allure of simplistic binaries, it’s easy to imagine that reading a few articles, or listening to a few podcasts, gives me the status of an expert commentator.

All this was impressed upon me earlier this week when I observed how various friends reacted to the news of Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine. Immediately everyone began taking sides and using simple tropes to disambiguate what is actually a very confusing situation.

“Whose side are you on?” one friend asked, as if the conflict in Eastern Europe were some kind of sports match that demands we pick teams. “Are you pro-Ukraine or pro Russia?”

Another friend exclaimed, “I’m pro-Putin because I’m against whatever Biden wants.” Then he raised his hands in the air and yelled, “Go Putin!”

Such approaches are distasteful to me since I have loved ones on the ground in the Ukraine and who are suffering the effects of war. But more generally, I find these approaches problematic because binary approaches, while useful in the context of digital technology, don’t transfer over so well to culture and politics. To try to squeeze the complexities of geopolitics into the grid of rigid dichotomies merely solidifies a culture of ignorance masquerading itself as genuine knowledge.

Such ignorance was on full display after I questioned the aforementioned individual who identified as pro-Putin. It became clear that he understood almost nothing of the history of the Ukraine, nor the tensions leading up to the current crisis. Like so many Americans, he was content merely to situate the conflict within the existing categories of American politics, interposing those categories onto Ukraine-Russian relations.

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Another problem with binary interpretations is that they prejudice us towards exaggerated antitheses. Have you noticed how increasingly Americans treat their political conflicts–from healthcare to border security to race relations–as utterly obvious apocalyptic clashes between the forces of light and darkness? But as I pointed out in an article for my Salvo column, the problem with absolutizing every conflict is that it “absolves us from the difficult work of really trying to understand our opponents’ positions, let alone perform careful due diligence on whatever issue is under debate.”

What if the recent war between Russia and the Ukraine alludes the simple binaries that Americans have grown accustomed to? What if it is not straight-forward enough to be reduced to the simple binaries of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong?

Just to show how complex and non-binary the situation in the Ukraine actually is, here are a series of questions by which you can test your knowledge of the historical background to this crisis. If you can’t answer these questions, then perhaps you should do some study before jumping to simplistic conclusions.

  • Did you know that the inhabitants of the Ukraine have a long history of fighting for independence against empires, including the Mongol empire, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Austria-Hungarian empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Tsardom of Russia, and the USSR?
  • Did you know that Russia’s sense of entitlement over Ukraine goes back to 1654 when the inhabitants of the country sought protection from the Russian tsar following threats from Poland?
  • Did you know that since the 18th century there has been a series of Russian invasions into Ukraine, which have included land confiscations and population displacements?
  • Did you know that the last remnants of Ukrainian autonomy were erased in 1764 under the expansionist policies of Russia’s Catherine the Great (1729–96)?
  • Did you know that as part of the project of cultural assimilation, Tsar Alexander II (1818–81) issued an edict in 1876 banning the publishing of all literature in the Ukrainian language.
  • Did you know that Russia’s foreign policy is dominated by the remembrance of multiple invasions from Western powers that began with Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812?
  • Did you know that if Ukraine joins NATO in the future, and Ukraine then attempts to capture Crimea from Russia, that Ukraine could force America into a war with Russia through triggering Article 5 of the NATO treaty?
  • Did you know that the Russians gave Ukraine a path towards avoiding the current war (and the ongoing civil war), through asking them to enter back into compliance with the Minsk accords?
  • Did you know that since 2014 there has been an on-again off-again civil war within the Ukraine, known as “the war in the Donbas”, in which 14,000 have been killed in this war and around 1.5 million people displaced?
  • Do you know that Russia has been one of the players in the war in the Donbas and that the present conflict is a continuation and extension of that?
  • Did you know that if Ukraine is ever incorporated into NATO, then American missiles would be able to reach Moscow, which is only 500 km away?
I will finish with a quote from Solzhenitsyn:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart…even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains…an uprooted small corner of evil.”
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