Standpoint War

Normal war. How mass murder changes people’s consciousness and their ideas about the norm

After February 24, 2022 and October 7, 2023, for many people, the war ceased to be part of the news that was not directly related to their lives. Against the background of these events and very different attitudes towards them, the Research Center “Collective Action”, known for his research in urban policy, held an open discussion on “Normalizing Evil.” The invited experts in the discussion were urban geographer, co-founder of the company HabidatumAlexey Novikov, visiting researcher at Ariel University, former dean of the Faculty of Sociology at the Moscow Higher School of Social and Economic Sciences (Shaninki) Victor Vakhshtainand teacher of communication, public speech and foreign languages, former head of the PR service of one of the largest oil companiesGrigory Ogibin.

We wanted to understand what actions and what practices lead to the fact that war seems not only a phenomenon from which It’s impossible to leave, but it’s also a normal phenomenon, and sometimes even necessary,” explains Artem Nikitin, a member of the Collective Action team and the leader of the meeting. – On the other hand, I wanted to understand how war from an extraordinary event becomes routine, everyday life, what happens in society and whether it is necessary to resist the routinization of war and getting used to it. We saw how, in small steps, cameras in the Moscow metro turned from a tool of security and comfort into a tool of surveillance and surveillance. Unnoticed actions, small steps often lead to global consequences. It seems to me that the war between Russia and Ukraine was made possible by anti-democratic practices, political repression, political assassinations, surveillance and total control, including over the media.

Norm, routine, war

Alexey Novikov, starting the discussion, called for separating the hardships of war for a specific person and the existence of war as a norm in general:

War is a sad social norm to which we are accustomed. It is not for nothing that it is enshrined in international agreements and conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners and the rules of warfare in general.

But this, in the speaker’s opinion, does not mean that we consider the death of people or the bombing of cities to be the norm. Alexey reminded the meeting participants of Ilya Ehrenburg’s observation in the book“The Extraordinary Adventures of Julio Jurenito and His Students” about the parallel existence of war and peaceful life. In wars right up to the First World War, battles could be fought without interfering with the communications of peaceful life: passenger trains and crews calmly passed near the front line. Even during the First World War, German insurance companies regularly paid compensation to the Russian government, which insured its fleet in Germany in advance, for every Russian ship sunk in battle by the German fleet. The honor of fulfilling business obligations was higher than military patriotism. Now such a situation is almost impossible. The war takes on a total character, the armies become similar to each other not only in the types of weapons, but also in the uniform, which, with its color and cut, does not separate the warring sides, but disguises them, making their differences barely distinguishable. Well, and most importantly, weapons of mass destruction appear, which are intended to destroy not only troops, but also civilians.

Alexey Novikov

When discussing the normalization of war, in the opinion of Alexei Novikov, it is worth highlighting three topics. The first is the routinization of war. A good example for this, according to Alexey, are the twelve Russian-Turkish wars, which took place with short interruptions from the 16th century to the 20th. In Russian social salons these wars simply ceased to be noticed; even if they were a topic of conversation, it was not tragic, but routine. In Europe the situation was similar. Eckermann in “Conversations with Goethe” admits that during the protracted positional war in In the Netherlands, he visited many Dutch museums and dramatically advanced in his understanding of art. This routine of war may have turned it into a kind of “normal” life circumstance, he explains.

The second is the glorification or romanticization of howlus. First of all, this happens with liberation wars.

— In Russia, it so happens that all the most significant and difficult wars took place either in the east or in the west of the country. And they turned out to be destructive for the regime existing in the country at that time. Such wars never became routine, like the War of 1812, the Russian-Japanese War of 1905 or the Patriotic War of 1941-45. The romance of liberation or the bitterness of loss transformed the war into a legendary epic.

And third – war as a natural disaster. Simplified pacifist practices are based on this idea: war is abnormal, unbearable and inconvenient – it must be urgently stopped, regardless of who is right or wrong in it. In such a setting, it does not matter who is on which side, and that the “forces of good” may lose, the only main thing is that the war ends as quickly as possible. According to Alexey, this is a sad practice. This attitude is based on a simplistic view of war as a factor of inconvenience. That is, the main thing is to get rid of the inconveniences of war at any cost, including forgetting about the problems that caused it.

— What happens after the city is destroyed? The layout itself, the usual rituals, including commuting to work, going to the store, and so on, force the city to recover, Novikov gives an example from urban studies. — The sight of a destroyed and depopulated city is one of the most terrible. Have you seen the abandoned city of Famagusta in Cyprus? It scares no less than Mariupol or Grozny after the bombing. The rapid restoration of a war-damaged city is very important. But, on the other hand, enthusiasm for establishing a peaceful life can overshadow the desire to win the war and become a sign of indifference. In this case, we seem to lose sensitivity to the goals of the war, turning war simply into a factor of everyday inconvenience.

Grigory Ogibin is currently teaching literature at school and has been studying it for a long time. Therefore, when speaking about the normalization of war, he first of all turned to literature:

— It seems to me that in all those stories, books, works in which we learn about the world, ourselves and other people, there are always heroes. Heroes are found, first of all, in war. But in the First, with the advent of weapons of mass destruction, a watershed passed. In the books of Erich Maria Remarque and Richard Aldington there are no more heroes, there is an ordinary person, pulled out and thrown into the literary genre to which we are accustomed.

Grigory cited a recent meeting of a teacher at the school where he teaches as a vivid illustration of the split between reality and the expectation of a hero in war. The young teacher returned from Gaza, where he is now fighting:

The children who wrote to him are standing with balloons. The Red carpet. Someone is playing the xylophone. He experienced something, in our opinion, terrible. He is greeted as a hero. Although he does not feel like a hero, his experience is more ordinary, working…

Normalization or routinization?

Viktor Vakhshtein called for a clear distinction between normalization and routinization:

— Something has happened that disrupts your daily life, makes everyday routine actions impossible, and blocks your entire normal way of life. All the regulations, all the instructions that you followed simply stop working. After some time, no matter how monstrous this event may be, you will find the resources to rebuild this everyday life again. Extraordinary events disrupt routine. They burn through the fabric of everyday life. But the fabric of everyday life regenerates. This is routinization. Just because you’ve rebuilt your daily life doesn’t mean you think it’s normal. Maybe you are used to the fact that missiles are flying or at 6 in the morning FSB officers, accompanied by witnesses, are interested in you, but this is not the norm. Normalization did not occur.

Victor Vakhshtain

Victor reminded the audience that routinization refers to the layer of actions, and normalization refers to the layer of perception and communication. Our perception of what is normal or abnormal depends not so much on the event itself, but rather on the framework through which we look at this world.

As an example, Viktor Vakhshtain cited the Strugatskys’ story “The Second Invasion of the Martians.” There, the hero is awakened at night by noise, roar, flashes of light, for which he could not find any reasonable explanation. Later it turns out that this is the landing ofmartians who established a new regime. The main character becomes idealcollaborator. And a year or two later he remembers how then, waking up,he saw “spaceships passing in a column, bringing light and peace his home.” The sociologist explains:

We can explore normalization strategies. But routinization has no strategy! This is simply the restoration of some layer of everyday activities.

Many normalization strategies are well described. Victor reminds us of the work of insurance companies that make us think about death, thus normalizing an extraordinary event that has not even happened yet.

At the same time, Victor reminds that the struggle for the right to consider something normal and abnormal has been going on for centuries. And it may seem to us that everyone who does not shareour point of view is deliberately normalizing something that in itself is notnormal.

— This is a strategy of normalization and denormalization. The subject of the researcher is to observe how you will prove to people who think one thing is normal thatnormal is something else.

Is it necessary to fight the normalization of war? Viktor Vakhshtain began answering this question with a story about the criticism of everyday life. In his opinion, this phenomenon is well described by Pelevin. The hero of Pelevin’s story falls asleep during a lecture and wakes up in the army. He falls asleep in the army and wakes up at his own wedding. A critique of everyday life is the idea that we spend most of our lives without reflection, as if in a dream. Often, behind the usual everyday things there are political or business ideas. But we don’t even think about their influence. For example, Leningradsky Prospekt. As Vakhstein said, its width is not accidental. It was calculated so that if all the houses collapsed, there would be space in the middle through which a tank could drive. Few people know that the benches in Central Park were made by order of the New York City Hall precisely so that homeless people could not sleep on them. Marxist criticism of everyday life, says Vakhstein, has made its credo the thesis of “awakening,” “opening our eyes”: political will can shape everyday life, pushing us not to notice or think about certain things.

“When we talk about normalization, then this is already a struggle around narratives,” he emphasizes. “We have observed how in the three months that have passed since October 7, many people have reassembled the existing reality, their ideas about good and evil, and are now proving to each other what exactly can be considered the norm and what cannot be considered normal.” Now there is no united front, where all the “good people” are on one side, the “bad people” are on the other, and there are indifferent people who need to be taught what exactly is considered good and evil, normal or abnormal.

When frames shift

Explaining to the audience exactly when and how the idea of the norm changes, Vakhshtain suggested turning to a science close to sociologists – anthropology. For a member of the tribe, the whole world is divided into the sacred and the profane. The profane is something routine, something that can be discussed. The sacred is the sacred, that which lies beyond doubt. It, in turn, is divided into sacred pure, which is recognized as absolute good, undeniable good, and unclean – transcendental evil.

From time to time, regional boundaries are violated. Something that was considered the embodiment of the common values of the tribe can become desecrated, moving into the region of the unclean sacred. Such violations cause collective emotions of anger, indignation, and indignation. Moreover, Vakhshtain emphasizes, residents of modern megacities and inhabitants of social networks in this regard are not very different from members of tribes studied by anthropologists.

“We can only learn about the violation of boundaries when there is an “effervessance”, a collective seething,” explains Victor. — People can speculatively argue about the boundaries of good and evil in a cafe or in the kitchen, exchange opinions and arguments. But in a situation of desecration and subsequent uproar, they go out into the square.

As an example of a shift in the frame of perception of normal and abnormal, Viktor Vakhshtain citesThe Watergate scandal (related to the attempt to install listening devices in the headquarters of the Democratic Party in Washington during the 1972 presidential election campaign – editor’s note). It is described by the American sociologist Geoffrey Alexander.

It would seem that the publication of the fact that the president installed wiretappingat the opposition headquarters, should have caused a real scandal. But, after the publication, as Victor explained, the Republicans even managed to win the elections. However, work to denormalize what happened was already underway, many political (and not only) forces united to show that it is not normal for the president to wiretap the opposition, when he uses administrative resources to spy on his political opponents. As a result, an active discussion began and an inter-party commission was created in Congress. A special prosecutor is appointed to investigate this crime. And whom Nixon fires!

“For the Americans, an incredible, impossible action took place: in fact, the leader killed the priest of the tribe,” explains Vakhstein. “And only at this moment there is a surge of collective emotions. Then people who voted for Republicans just six months ago and did not think that anything out of the ordinary had happened come out demanding impeachment. The boundary between the sacred and the profane was crossed out.

The President from the embodiment of the values of American democracy (sacred pure) first turns into an ordinary corrupt gangster (profane), and then into a direct threat to democracy (sacred impure).

We, of course, may think that right now the war of norms has intensified, the relevance of the division of good and evil, right and wrong has sharply increased. But Victor Vakhshtein warns against such a perception of reality.

“This war is eternal,” Victor draws the attention of the listeners. – For example, wars between vegetarians and meat eaters. We hear a narrative from their side: “You eat meat, you think it’s normal, you are murderers!” This is an attempt to denormalize what is the norm for many. For supporters of vegetarianism, eating meat is a blatant abnormality.

— Opposition to the “normalization” of war should not be confused with rejection of the “conflict” as such. I think clashes between different opinions are very important for normal social life,” adds Alexey Novikov. “Avoiding these clashes is capitulation.” The culture of conflict in Russia is practically absent; people tend to be afraid of conflicts. This is visible even at the level of urban planning practices. “What kind of public hearings,” we hear, “will still get into a fight!” However, it is precisely this “fight” that is the meaning of public hearings; it is to identify the conflict and resolve it. It is clear that normal public hearings on urban development projects should take years with heated discussions, disputes, and the search for compromises. I think the culture of constructive conflict is the only environment for the existence of a modern city.

War as a routine

For discussions about routinization, de-rutinization and new norms, Alexey suggests recalling how eyewitnesses describe the beginning of the Patriotic War. For example, in his memoirs, the Soviet avant-garde artist Alexander Arkadyevich Labas recalls hearing a radio message about the beginning of the war on June 22, 1941. He walks through a city, many of whose residents have not yet heard about the war, and does not recognize his city, which looks completely different after the news of the start of the war.

“This is an example of that same de-rutinization as a result of strong emotions,” says Novikov.

Games with routinization and de-routinization in art are a separate story. In particular, Alexey remembered one of the founders of the Collective Action group, artist Andrei Monastyrsky. Monastyrsky and his art group implemented a number of performances on de-rutinization. For example, the performance “Let’s get one meter closer.” People in Russia and America simultaneously began to dig holes, each half a meter deep, as if towards each other through the thickness of the globe. That is, they became one meter closer, transferring solidarity and the desire for cooperation from verbal routine into practice and action. Or they unwound a giant coil of rope and pulled it for a long time in order to realize the routine of duration and time. These performances helped to take a different look at the norm and routine, as well as at how one can pretend to be another.

In turn, Victor Vakhshain shared other examples from the world of art. It is art that allows us to see how routinization differs from normalization. Here we are not talking about the struggle of norms, but about the breaking of routine, its problematization. The artist Anatoly Osmolovsky slightly enlarged the pack of Marlboro, so that it remained almost indistinguishable from the usual one. But she stopped getting into her pocket. “This is an attempt to unpack the routine by making small changes to it,” explains Victor.

In the second example, Everyday life, on the contrary, became denser.

— Imagine, you find yourself in a city and see ordinary life: couples kiss, grandfathers play petanque, grandmother feeds pigeons. The next day, the same people in the same place are busy with the same thing. Such “Groundhog Day” . Osmolovsky hired actors who, for eight hours, portrayed the routine in the main square of Ljubljana, and there were those who plunged into this routine by accident. Calls to the police began, paranoid disorders began, people tried to understand what was happening. Because routine cannot be so visually reproducible.

It is interesting that the same mechanism of “condensation of reality” that Osmolovsky used for performance was used by students at the University of Minneapolis 30 years ago to change the urban environment.

They put on T-shirts with the name of one of the most disadvantaged areas of Minneapolis and went there to spend time and hang out. The next day they repeated their campaign, and the next, and so on. Soon the police appeared in the area, then the press, trying to figure out who it was and why they were gathering there. Then the bohemians arrived: street artists, musicians. And the area began to transform. Now this is one of the most prestigious areas of the city. That is, by changing everyday life, they launched the processes of city regeneration.

The second example given by Alexey occurred in one of the Canadian cities.

— There were three parks: one was crowded, the second was averagely busy, and virtually no one went to the third. The mayor proposes to convert the third park into a mixed-use space, where there will be greenery, residential buildings, and public spaces. After this proposal, protests and demonstrations begin in the city, whose participants demand the resignation of the mayor. We began to understand the reasons for the discontent of the townspeople. It turned out that 15% of the protesters simply do not trust any government and its initiatives, regardless of their nature and content, another 15% are categorically against cutting down any trees in the city, even under the pretext of improving and beautifying the city space. The remaining 70% said that they had long wanted to go to the park, but now it is being demolished and they will not be able to fulfill their dream. At the same time, a significant part of these 70% heard about the park for the first time in their lives.

Photos of hostages, routine and propaganda

Grigory Ogibin recently discussed with his students why why there are photographs of hostages hanging at school. It seems that there is already a lot of this around, and in the school foyer they encounter it again.

— Can these photos be considered an attempt to normalize the situation or, on the contrary, is it a fight against it? Rather, it is a gesture-reminder of the abnormality of what is happening. But many in today’s Israel seriously argue that these photographs are an attempt to justify the invasion of Gaza.

Grigory Ogibin

That is, the same photographs are read differently by different people. Some Israelis believe that the traumatic experience was so powerful that people cannot stop thinking about it. And photos should be everywhere to prevent the situation from becoming routinized. Victor Vachstein compares these photographs with this perception to the raised bricks on the paths of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin – as you walk, you stumble and feel that something is wrong. But some residents see the photographs as a reminder of the capture, which helps justify the fighting. You can continue the chain further, for example, consider that military action is necessary so that Netanyahu can remain in office.

“This is one of the mechanisms of normalization – rationalization, placement in a context in which some action is a justification for another action,” explains Vakhstein. “At the same time, just a month ago no one would have normally accepted such a construction in the Israeli public consciousness.” Which of the two points of view you choose depends on what you believe.

Nevertheless, as Grigory draws our attention, in Russia there are no photographs on the streets of people injured during the SVO. In the Russian public space, the state is trying to either talk about the war heroically, or not talk at all.

Alexey Novikov notes that when discussing the current situation in Russia, it is still more correct to talk about propaganda rather than normalization.

“Maybe propagandists believe that they are creating new norms, but it seems to me that this is not so,” Alexey shares his thoughts. “I don’t see any evidence of this new normal.” We see the absence inpublic field of reflection on this matter.

A very interesting aspect was touched upon by the audience and Artem Nikitin with their questions. By asking what is the difference between Kremlin propaganda and photographs of hostages in Israel, are you rationalizing what is happening or promoting your point of view?

“This question is much more propaganda and manipulative than it might seem at first glance,” says Victor Vakhshtain. — These are questions from the series “What is the difference between the occupation of Crimea and the occupation of the West Bank?” or “What is the difference between the bombing of Mariupol and the bombing of Gaza?” When you ask to clarify the difference, you are not really asking about the difference. Against. You already know in advance that there is no difference, but there is a field of comparable actions. You are trying to force your interlocutor to look at the West Bank through the prism of the occupation of Crimea, and at the terrorist attack on October 7 through the prism of Russia’s attack on Ukraine. That is, you voice your narrative under the guise of a question.

After October 7 in Israel, according to Victor Vakhshtein, many groups of people are forced to reassemble their narratives. For example, women’s organizations.

After the European Union demonstrated complete indifference to the facts of mass rape, Israeli left-wing women’s organizations directly told their former comrades: “It seems that you are no longer feminists, you – anti-Semitic.”

— This is an attempt to reassemble the narrative in a situation where it turned out that it is not shared by those with whom you were on the same side just yesterday. We see the same “reassembly” in Western leftist youth circles. Dominik Geisler last year published a very interesting study on how the message is transmitted through Twitter: “If you support Palestine, you should support Russia.” Why? Because there is an anti-colonial struggle going on in both places, Russia and Hamas are doing the same thing. In this way, the left is also trying to reassemble its narrative.

But a very important difference between the attempts to reassemble the narrative that are taking place in Russia and Israel, according to Grigory Ogibin, is that in Russia trying to impose a single discourse on everyone:

— Moreover, it seems that even those who do it do not believe in it. In Israel, there is still no central, imposed narrative. We see a patchwork of narratives, each group trying to reassemble their reality on their own. People communicate, agree, a living process is underway. Language develops in the same way, constantly changing and developing. This can be observed as a miracle, as a derivative of several vectors. It turns out that Israel is an agglomerate of different opinions, different narratives, with greater diversity even than the much larger Russia.

Alexey Novikov believes that the important problem facing Russia is not even an attempt to impose one truth on everyone, but a crisis of truth:

— A crisis of truth is a situation when no one believes anyone anymore, when facts don’t mean anything, explains Novikov. – You can create new data. They may contradict what is already well-known and proven, but this does not bother anyone – the brightness of the thesis turns out to be more important than the truthfulness of its content. As a result, many practices, including corporate ones, are built on verification rather than trust: “Don’t trust, but verify!”

Alexey admits that the crisis of truth is not a new phenomenon. He recalls that similar manifestations in Russia were described by the Marquis Astolphe de Custine in his book “Russia in 1839.”

— Maybe this is part of the genetic code of Russian public culture? Don’t know. But, one way or another, Israel and Russia are two completely different countries in this regard. If during a lecture you try to describe a situation to students in Russia in the categories of “good” and “bad,” “decent” and “dishonest,” then perhaps many will not understand this approach and will ask for a definition of what “decent” is. Usually ideas about decency are the norm, but here they are not; evidence is needed. Russia is not like that. Many countries are going through ethical relativism.

A world without war

The discussion ended with a question from the audience about whether humanity can denormalize war.

Alexey Novikov thinks no:

— Political freedom has always been and will be under threat, and people will defend it by all means, war among them. Just one relaxed generation in the United States – and freedom was under the onslaught of powernew populist movements that are ready to undertake a constitutional revolution. So even in countries where there is a working system of checks and balances, even there you have to constantly fight for freedom.

Viktor Vakhshtein, answering this question, turned to the works of Thomas Hobbes. In 1651, this English philosopher tried to conduct a thought experiment that would answer the question of how freedom and political violence are related. He presented a human nature that does not have innate solidarity with other people built into it:

— For two thousand years it has been considered an axiom that a person is born with empathy, compassion, solidarity, a penchant for cooperation and peaceful coexistence with others. The Greeks called it “nomos agraphos”, the Romans called it “jus naturale”. Hobbes suggested that none of you is a social being from birth, no one is initially created as an ideal citizen of the polis. All that you have from birth is, firstly, the instinct of self-preservation, secondly, common sense (the ability to foresee the consequences of your actions) and thirdly, an interest in higher spheres. At that time it was possible to remove the social from human nature, but not the religious. And then he conducts a thought experiment about how a community whose members are not endowed with solidarity will be organized.

Open discussion “Normalization of evil”

In Hobbes’s thoughts, because of the inherent desire for acquisition in every person, people will begin to continuously kill each other – the famous war of “all against all.” But if you killed your neighbor, his two brothers will come and kill you. In this case, no private agreements work. Even a gang model that would impose its rules of the game on everyone else is impossible. After all, there is no solidarity among people, and within the gang they will kill each other faster than the gang subjugates the rest. How to survive? The only thing that remains is to conclude a total social contract. This requires from each the basic operation of delegation, the exchange of one’s natural right to kill for the civil freedom not to be killed.

—But at the moment when this alienation occurs, when you no longer have the natural right of self-defense, because you have exchanged it for the civil freedom not to be killed, the contract with the sovereign is indissoluble . Because you are not negotiating with a sovereign. People agree with each other that there must be someone, a guarantor, to whom, first of all, the restoration of justice is delegated. Therefore, this operation of exchanging natural rights for civil liberties is, first of all, an operation of exchanging the right to kill for the freedom not to be killed. Therefore, the connection between civil freedom and violence is direct. This is when one thing replaces another. Only from this moment does total violence cease to be the norm and society emerges.

Text: Yulia Chernaya


, , , , ,