Would you rather travel to the past or to the future? A few years ago, I would have said “the past” with no hesitation, justifying it by my desire to see World War 2. It was only after I came across the book “Last Witnesses: an oral history of the children of World War II” by the Nobel Prize for Literature winner Svetlana Alexievich that I understood how daunting and horrifying the war really is. Yet, mass-scale conflicts are still present, and the ideology that promotes peace is often neglected by the mass media.
The perception-altering oral stories
Before diving into details about pacifism and war, an overview of the book that changed my perspective on war is absolutely needed. The author Svetlana Alexievich compiled 100 different stories from survivors and witnesses of World War 2 of countries belonging to the former Soviet Union, such as Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, etc.
While every story is different, the stories all involve very frightening and emotion-inducing descriptions of the events that changed the lives of millions of children. Even the stories’ titles of the stories give a real and fearsome representation of what being an innocent civilian during the war was like. “I screamed and screamed… I could not stop” and “Whoever cries will be shot…” are just a few titles that already portray images of the grim reality of the past.
Something so horrific should never happen to someone.
When awarded the Nobel Prize, the Swedish Academy described that Alexieviech’s work is like a new literature genre- “history of emotions… history of soul”. Before reading this book, I thought that most wars are necessary and unavoidable. The moment I finished the first story, my stance changed tremendously, as I believed that something so horrific should never happen to someone. Yet, the status quo of the idea of war is different. Many describe it as the result of the imperfections of humanity, and inescapable and inevitable reality, with little efforts being made to promote peace.
The history of pacifism
Pacifism, a principal opposition to war and violence while settling disputes and commitment to peace, has a long history as a political philosophy. The first real pacifist movement dates back to when Buddha demanded his followers to completely abstain from violence of any kind against fellow creatures. While pacifism has come a long way thanks to anti-war protests post-World War I or the missile crisis in 1962 in the Cold War, the idea has still not gained widespread popularity amongst world leaders and the public.
The philosophy has received many critiques, such as being naive and too idealistic. Often, critics point at the “human factor” and the conflicts of interest, ultimately resulting in the conclusion that war in our civilization is unavoidable. War is depicted as a realistic, practical, normal, and irreversible matter of human nature. This is where the problem arises.
The issue with mass media
The problematic nature of the acceptance of violence or war as normal is multilayered. Firstly, even in this day and age, it is apparent that the media is biased to the status quo. When the status quo states that war is inevitable, the media, whether consciously or unconsciously, has no incentive to actually condemn war. This is closely related to the agenda-setting theory, where, over time, the media agenda influences the public agenda. While the media has a significant effect on the public agenda, there has been a growing number of protests arising against the status quo, showing that the public can resist the pushed agenda.
Notwithstanding, research about changes in mass media coverage of political protests since the 1960s has found that five mass media newspapers, such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, portrayed protests, both violent and non-violent, as nuisances not necessary functions to democracy. This is a questionable practice because it delegitimizes protests, giving them less leverage than they should receive. Thus, even if anti-war protests are present, they are less likely to be portrayed as something positive, which is detrimental to the idea of pacifism.
Moreover, the way the media presents information about war causes concerns. While there are more oral stories that shine a light on these horrific instances, the news media often do not focus on that. When reporting violent activities, there is a tendency for journalists to report the numbers or percentages of wounded, dead, the amount of money spent, etc. This is linked to the media logic, where the media follow certain formats, processes, and routines and have the desire and need to be competitive in the struggle to capture people’s attention. What is more, it is important to notice that the media is gaining this attention by focusing on conflict, naming victors, utilizing elites as sources, and using victimizing language. On the other hand, some might say that these horrifying oral stories could be very attention-grabbing, so why aren’t newspapers printing them out?
When we open digital newspapers or watch the evening news on television, there is a significant amount of negative news, such as crime stories, famine in countries like Yemen, and ongoing wars. Some scholars even point to the phenomenon that there is disproportionate attention to negative news compared to how little amount of violence actually occurs.
Reporting numbers and percentages and glorifying soldiers, whether they are dead or alive, are what make war not as problematic as it truly is, leaving limited room for pacifism to excel.
While there could be more reasons for the prevalence of this value, two strike out. Firstly, it could be utilized to scare the public; secondly, it could be to get people acquainted with the idea of violence and normalize it. When considering the reporting of war, the first reason is not usually the case. Reporting numbers and percentages and glorifying soldiers, whether they are dead or alive, are what make war not as problematic as it truly is, leaving limited room for pacifism to excel. Numerous researches conclude that war journalism is more salient in the news than peace journalism, ultimately proving that conflicts are being normalized.
The collateral damage inflicted on innocent civilians, the lost soldiers in war affecting their loved ones at home- are all due to conflicting interests of governments that place their own citizens at war. While very few wars may have been necessary in the past, it is appalling that the media, seemingly, neglect pacifism and does not condemn war in the grim and dark light that it deserves.