This week marks the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and journalists across the globe are helping to narrate and spin this grim milestone.
What do we know about the conflict so far? What possible trajectories might the future hold for this war? What are the geopolitical implications? The media has been saturated with reports and opinion pieces about the invasion, all trying to make some sense of the situation as it now stands. Though despite the endless stream of information, many of us still struggle to give the war the attention and concern it undoubtedly commands. This is not the result of a callous and uncaring disposition for most people- it has more to do with the limits of our attention as we grapple with the information ecosystems which envelop us. This anniversary, among other things, gives us reason to reflect on this.
Most of us would have had arresting images and alarming headlines about the Ukraine invasion appearing on our news feeds over the last year. We may have noticed that as weeks turned to months, we engaged less readily in the stories; pausing fleetingly before scrolling down to the next story. This is not just about sustaining attention (which is particularly challenging in an age of distraction), but of engaging with the negative emotions that accompany such stories. Such fatigue was already being written about after the first hundred days of the war, as British researcher and author Nathan Mladin comments in this piece for Theos Think Tank: “We do not have an endless capacity to attend to and engage with everything that is out there”. All the more so then, on day 365. We also, somewhat inevitably, have become desensitized to the horrors that endlessly pour through our screens. Though perhaps another feature of an endless news cycle is that we are bombarded by new information which we struggle to weave into a meaningful narrative.
American tech critic L.M. Sacasas, who writes about our relationship with technology, has explored the problem with sense-making through what he calls ‘narrative collapse’. Sacasas observes that “one effect of our digital media environment, then, is to immerse us in searchable databases of information rather than present us with comprehensive, integrated, and broadly compelling narratives.” We are meaning-seeking creatures, and we are currently struggling to create meaning out of the overwhelming information landscape we are part of. Ukraine is a case in point here; information is heaped upon information, without any authoritative narrative coming through (beyond the odd helpful op-ed piece that reminds us of the fundamentals). As a result, many of us find ourselves scrolling through the internet distracted by entertainment and clickbait, rather than anything that will help us to make sense of the conflict.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere
There are a number of reasons that we should be troubled by a lack of engagement and awareness in the conflict. Let me offer two. One is simply the sense that it is morally incumbent on us to care and respond when great injustices are being perpetrated elsewhere. This sentiment is brought out by Martin Luther King’s famous utterance that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. If we bury our heads and turn away from what is going on, as we frequently do, we would do well to be reminded of Pastor Niemöller’s haunting WWII poem, ‘First They Came’.
Secondly, understanding is crucially important to responding appropriately. In Dr. Fiona Hill’s BBC 2022 Reith Lecture entitled ‘Freedom from Fear’, she focused on Putin and Ukraine when she pointed out that “dealing with danger requires paying attention and asking questions. And no great achievement by individuals or humanity throughout history has ever been possible without this combination of elements.” We must be informed and aware in order to deal with our collective and individual fears and to respond appropriately to them. However, given our limited capacities and the complex media landscape touched on above, how to attend appropriately is not entirely clear.
On the 24th of February, the UK, among other nations, will mark this anniversary with a customary moment of silence. A moment’s silence might feel like a feeble and token response to the magnitude of the events it recalls, but the silence is only a signpost towards a reflective and prayer-like posture. From such a posture we have a chance to pay attention to how exactly we are paying attention. The anniversary is a reminder to take heed of the way we are being shaped by information and technology that mediates it; is it making us wiser, more informed, and more caring? If not, then perhaps we need to find different ways and habits of attending, of being able to listen more closely for the signal in the noise.