Just this week I was flying with Ryanair and was sitting next to an older couple returning from a holiday. If you fly with Ryanair, you know how obsessed they are with being on time. When they land, they play a jovial tune to celebrate their punctuality and encourage passengers to applaud their service. This time, however, we were late. It was no secret since we took off 30 minutes after the scheduled departure, and the crew made an announcement just before landing, apologising for the tardiness on that occasion. Yet when we landed, the old man next to me trumpeted the tune, just like he must have been conditioned to do by previous Ryanair flights. He heard the announcement, he knew we were late but he could not help himself: “Tu-tu-tu-toooo!”
A deeper way to illustrate my point is to look at Russia. In his brilliantly written and meticulously researched book, The Invention of Russia, The Economist’s head of Moscow bureau, Arkady Ostrovsky describes the process of ideological warfare carried out by Russia's president Putin. In December 2011, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest against the rigged parliamentary elections. At that time Putin’s rating started to slide. The president was angry at the people who owed him for cleaning up the mess of 1990s and improving the standard of living. Thanks to Putin, Russian middle class of the 21st century could enjoy consumerism just like their Western counterparts: wear H&M and Zara, go on holiday to Spain and buy Jamie Oliver’s cook books. All of a sudden these well-to-do people were catching up with anti-corruption activists, became interested in politics and raised their concerns about Russia looking increasingly like a one-party nation again.
Kremlin turned to the ideology. “Putin countered the idea of Russia as a modern, European-style nation-state by inciting traditional values of the state and the church. By prosecuting Pussy Riot, the young women punk singers who performed obscenely in front of the altar of Russia’a main cathedral, banning the promotion of homosexuality and barring the adoption of Russian children by American couples, the Kremlin was able to present the liberals, who protested against all this, as a bunch of homosexual, blasphemous mercenaries ready to sell Russian children,” writes Ostrovsky. “He turned to anti-Americanism as the only ideological tenet that had survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russia no longer aspired to be like the West, or sought its approval and recognition. Instead, it trumpeted its difference.”
I grew up in Russia and never encountered homophobia while I lived there. We talked about gays openly with my contemporaries at school. Now the same contemporaries express very different views on social media. “Homosexuality is not normal,” they say, “it’s unnatural. Gay people need hormonal therapy.” I can only imagine that in the last few years people living in Russia have been conditioned towards such views by the state-controlled media.
“Propaganda feeds not so much on ignorance, but on resentment - a mixture of jealousy and hostility. Having an imagined but mighty enemy, America, makes people feel noble and good; it compensates for personal weaknesses and failures, and frees them from the need to justify themselves to anyone and above all to themselves.”
“Russia is running the risk of overdosing on hatred and aggression,” writes Ostrovsky. Of course, the Western media and their consumers are guilty of environmental conditioning as well. Here too often “Putin”, “Russia” and “Russians” are piled up and packaged as one dish, sprinkled with xenophobia and aggression. The problem is that we live in the environment of headlines and Twitter messages, when hardly anyone has time for a ‘long read.’ As a result, we end up shouting at strangers on social media, signing petitions we have not researched to understand and piling up onto any bandwagon we come across. If you are not guilty of that, pat yourself on the back for your superhuman resilience. The rest of us need to become less impulsive and more reflective before we drown in the whirlpool of our own creation.