Opinion: In every conflict, there is always more than one side to the story

Protests in UkraineIt is always tempting to view the world in black and white. When Good is pitted against Evil, who in their right minds would want Evil to succeed? We can all happily unite behind Good and therefore feel Good about that ourselves.

Sadly, the world isn’t like this. This may seem like an outrageously obvious statement, but it is not intended to be patronising. Reactions from various politicians to recent events have given the impression that many political conflicts are indeed black and white.

When the Arab Spring began over 3 years ago, it was greeted with almost universal acclaim by many Western leaders, but things haven’t quite gone to plan. We have just found out that 529 pro-Morsi protestors have been sentenced to death in Egypt. That is 529 people who took it upon themselves to demand the re-instalment of a democratically elected leader.

Of course, Morsi himself was a repressive leader. As was Hosni Mubarak before him. As is the current administration. All of which makes an absolute mockery of desperate attempts by numerous governments to cast all Arab Spring protestors in the best light possible in order to enhance further the contrast between the Evil leaders and the Good protestors.

It was an argument revived by those who advocated military intervention in Syria, apparently blind to the fact that by throwing money at the rebels, they would inevitably end up also throwing money at al-Qaeda and all manner of other nefarious characters. Similar policies in the past have led to the direct funding and arming of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and many others.

It is also happening with regards to Ukraine. It is difficult not to admire those protestors who do have noble intentions and spent months camped out in the freezing cold to register their disapproval and anger towards the actions of an increasingly belligerent and corrupt leader. But these people are not those who have formed a government. Yanukovych has been replaced by an unelected administration that has been welcomed with open arms by virtually all Western governments. History, both recent and older, tells us that we must tread carefully here. None of which is to say that the Russian government hasn’t acted with disgraceful impunity – my argument is that a more nuanced approach to this and indeed many other international disputes is absolutely vital.

It is particularly relevant and poignant that these events are occurring in the year of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I. The popular narrative often promoted in Britain is that the Good forces of Britain (among others) rose up against the Evil forces of Germany (among others) to defeat them. Yet in this war, as with any conflict, there were acts of both extraordinary heroism and extraordinary brutality on both sides.

When the world is painted in black and white, it displays either remarkable naivety or a willing and concerted effort to mislead the people in order to curry favour and support. It is vital to remember the many shades of grey that are always present.

* David Gray is a musician, actor and writer based in Birmingham. He is a a co-director of Keep Streets Live

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  • Eddie Sammon 25th Mar '14 - 9:57am

    I really fantastic article. I don’t quite know what I believe in yet, but I have a visceral dislike for extremism and looking at things as “good versus bad”. The article is simple and I would think common sense, but we don’t see enough arguments like this in politics.

  • David – Why do you think politicians seem to like to “paint the world in black and white”? I agree with you – that seems to be the tendency. I am well aware of the likelihood that many people stereotype others by race, nationality, religion, political affiliation etc, but many also are quite capable of thinking in a less automatic knee-jerk way as well. Gut feel tells me that nuanced argument ought to have a chance of being believed, if set out clearly. Is that the point, it is much more easy to speak in black and white?

  • Dave,

    that’s a good common sense article. The good v bad may have seemed clear enough in WW2. We had a psychotic megalomaniac in Hitler intent on subordinating Britain, who had carved-up Europe with another mass murderer in Stalin. When Hitler tuned on Russia the greater good necessitated us allying with the totalitarian regime that had given us the Holodomor in Ukraine, the paranoid purges and political show trials of 1930’s Russia and the slaughter and deportation to gulags of hundreds of thousands of East Europeans following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

    The soviet occupation of Eastern Europe and the cold war that followed WW2 pitted the Western democracies (good) against the communist bloc (bad) for the ensuing 45 years and virtually all foreign policy around the world was determined in the context of that ideological struggle – with many of the current members of the EU being in the (bad) communist bloc at that time.

    The break-up of the soviet union was the last of the great military empires of the 20th Century. With the rise of the large developing countries such as China, India and Brazil – competition between states has moved to the economic sphere and control/access to natural resources – oil, gas, minerals/raw materials, water and food.

    There will continue to be many shades of grey in international disputes. However, with 5 veto wielding permanent members of the UN security council, it is the realpolitik of economic competition for resources, influence and national or regional interest that underpins how good v bad will be defined by the respective global actors in the 21st Century.

  • Actually, the Ukrianian government has been elected by / received majority support from the Ukrianian parliament.

    Since when does being elected by your parliament count as being “unelected” here in the UK?

  • Thanks Eddie – it is indeed simple and in many ways stating the bleedin’ obvious, yet as Joe rightly points out, realpolitik often gets in the way and necessitates turning things into binary issues.

    Tim – I suspect a fear of looking weak has something to do with it – if a high profile politician takes a sensible, nuanced position on something they are all too often accused of dithering.

    Interesting stuff Joe – perfectly sums up the complexities of such conflicts. And on a bit of a side note, your comments on WW2 bring to mind an excellent sketch by Mitchell and Webb in which they play two Nazis who suddenly realise that they’re the ‘baddies’. Worth watching.

  • Simon Hebditch 25th Mar '14 - 4:24pm

    We are witnessing a return to “spheres of influence” international politics. I think it was in 1823 that President Monroe in the USA promulgated the Monroe Doctrine which basically described both Central America and South America as falling within the US sphere of influence. From that point on, the US has retained an interest in what happens in those regions and felt able to intervene to protect US interests. The Yalta conference at the end of World War 2 divided up central and Eastern Europe between the victors in terms of interest. For example, the Soviet Union would “have” Czechoslovakia and the West would get Greece. Putin, rightly or wrongly, is simply showing that Russia has an overriding interest in its “near abroad” with its reclaim of Crimea.

    There is nothing new under the sun.

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