Casting blame, not finding solutions

Psychological studies indicate that the way people react to stories depends in large part on the way that the stories are ‘framed’. For all the talk about ‘fake news’, control of the facts people receive is relatively unimportant; more significant is the battle to control the overall framework within which people interpret the facts. If you will allow me to be all postmodernist for a bit, it’s all about the discourse, not the details.

If we look at current Russian-Western tensions, the problem, it seems to me, is that both sides are trapped within discourses which encourage them to frame events in terms of blame, conflict, and threat and not in terms of mutual misunderstanding. Consequently, they frame solutions in terms like security, deterrence, and containment, and not in terms of negotiation or compromise. Political discussion thus turns into a struggle to determine who is to blame for common problems not into an effort to find mutually acceptable solutions.

This is well illustrated by the responses in both Russia and the West to the recent event in the Black Sea, when the Russian coast guard seized three ships belonging to the Ukrainian navy. The Russian media has framed this entirely in terms of Ukrainian ‘provocation’; the Ukrainian and Western media in terms of Russian ‘aggression’. Almost nowhere will you find anybody discussing ways to improve the situation and prevent future clashes, except in the form of recommendations to increase the level of coercive power being exerted on the other party.

Interested in seeing how the Russian media was addressing the incident in the Black Sea, I spent a lot of last week watching Russian political talk shows. It was rather depressing. Again and again, the shows descended into shouting matches between the Ukrainian participants on one side and the Russian participants (including the talk show hosts) on the other. The incident was framed by all parties in terms of guilt: somebody was guilty of behaving badly; the question was simply who. This framing turned all the discussions into competitive zero-sum games – the more guilty the other party, the less one’s own; and conversely the more guilty one’s own party, the less guilty the other. The framing encouraged all involved to cast the entirety of the blame onto the other side, and to avoid any intimation that their own side might be even in the slightest bit responsible. This tendency goes beyond just recent events, and extends to the entire conflict in Ukraine – it’s either ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Ukrainian fascists’. Anything in between is impossible.

Not once in all the shows I watched did I hear anybody from either side attempt to reframe the issue in terms other than guilt. Consequently, there was absolutely no talk of what could be done to improve Russian-Ukrainian relations beyond ‘regime change’ in the other country. One can see much the same thing in discourse concerning Russian-Western relations more generally. They are framed exclusively in terms of blame and of threat, leading to policy recommendations couched in terms of combatting the threat, rather than in terms of overcoming differences in mutually acceptable ways. The result is an escalating cycle of political tension.

How do we solve this problem? The answer is that we have to try to reframe the problem. When the issue is framed in terms of the ‘Russian threat’ or the ‘Western threat’, ‘Russian aggression’ or ‘Western aggression’, or any other similar wording, then solutions are inevitably going to be found in new security measures, increased defence spending, sanctions, and the like. Different policies will only become possible once people start framing East-West problems in ways which allow for win-win solutions. That means looking at things in terms of tensions which result from the clash of legitimate but competing interests, and from mistakes on behalf of all parties. Above all, it means framing matters in terms of finding solutions, not casting blame. Unfortunately, at present it’s the other way around – everybody is more interested in establishing the other side’s guilt than in finding a way forward. Until that changes, I don’t see how we are going to make any progress.

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31 thoughts on “Casting blame, not finding solutions”

  1. Hmm. It seems obvious to me that the only way “to improve the situation and prevent future clashes” is to follow the protocol when crossing through the Kerch strait.

    So, what’s the “a plague on both your houses” solution?

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    1. ‘what’s the “a plague on both your houses” solution?’ – I don’t have an answer, but we won’t find one unless we start talking about it.

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      1. I don’t think this is a “talking about it” situation. There was an unconstitutional power grab in Kiev in February 2014 that destroyed state of Ukraine established in 1991, and created new geopolitical entities (including the one they call ‘Ukraine’ now) that are still undetermined, still fighting for their survival and territory. Until this gets settled in a definite way, “talking about it” won’t make a difference.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. i think this is thoughtful commentary and i commend you for discussing this, as you have… ” Above all, it means framing matters in terms of finding solutions, not casting blame. ” i am curious how this would look, if someone was to try to frame it in a way to find a solution…what is the way to state either sides position verbally in a way that encourages a friendly or conciliatory manner? i am truly curious.. how would it look on paper?

    here is one suggestion… russia could re communicate the importance of getting the ukraine ships to state there intent beforehand… if they fail to do this, they will not be allowed passage… i could see them sticking to this line… what would ukraines approach to communication here be??

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  3. No doubt you are absolutely correct–but what major diplomatic or even political issue these days is NOT framed in terms of “blame?” Casting the other side as representing unmitigated evil has become the norm in political discourse, and any proposed solution that can’t be sloganized on a bumper sticker is ignored.

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    1. I disagree. It does happen often, but not always, and some other matters are indeed framed as seeking solutions rather than confrontation. Among the more recent trending stories an example of such would be Putin-Abe negotiations over peace and Kurils.

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      1. “Among the more recent trending stories an example of such would be Putin-Abe negotiations over peace and Kurils.”

        No doubt that it was trending… like it did in early 2015… and before that… and before that…

        Wanna bet, Aule? In six month time there won’t be any progress on the issue (by then totally forgotten) and all those who breathlessly promised a “breakthrough” will conveniently forget their own words.

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      2. To Lyttenburgh:

        I won’t bet, cuz you are probably right. I was just answering the question “what major diplomatic or even political issue these days is NOT framed in terms of blame?”

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  4. “Different policies will only become possible once people start framing East-West problems in ways which allow for win-win solutions. That means looking at things in terms of tensions which result from the clash of legitimate but competing interests, and from mistakes on behalf of all parties. Above all, it means framing matters in terms of finding solutions, not casting blame.”

    🙂

    ***

    Once upon a time in a forest far away there lived mice. Everyone preyed on them or just trampled with their hooves. So one day they decided to come to the old wise Owl and ask his advice.

    – Oh, wise Owl, help us! Everyone makes us suffer! Soon we all will perish. What should we do to survive?

    The wise old Owl thought for a minute then said:

    – Mice! You must become hedgehogs! Thus you will be prickly and a hard prey for the predators.

    The mice were literally jumping with joy:

    – Hurray! Let’s become hedgehogs! Let’s become hedgehogs!

    Suddenly, one little mouse stopped jumping and asked:

    – Erm, does anyone know how to become a hedgehog?

    No one knew. So the mice ran back to the wise old Owl.

    – Oh, wise Owl! Bu how do we become hedgehogs?

    – Mice! – shot back the wise old and now very annoyed Owl. – Go and f@^k yourself! How do I know “how”? I am not a tactician, I am a strategist!

    ***

    This blogpost is utter rubbish. A non-advice framed in the form of handwringing “oh, humanity!” mainstream feelgoodism. At the same time, the appearance of such blogposts (and articles) is a sure sign that the West, after loosing Russia, have now proceeded to the Stage 3 – “Bargaining”. In respect to Afghanistan the West had already, years ago moved to the “Depression” stage. So I’m perfectly willing to wait for the Western final acceptance of the fact without entertaining its own internal political schizophrenia.

    Strange thing – when the mainstream narrative in the West is full of victorious self-congratulating reports, there is zero desire to respect “both sides”. Why the change now? Because the West is not winning anymore – that’s why.

    As typical for many Westerners, Professor here mistakes form with substance. That’s all just framing device – not the thing in itself. Change in the way you talk won’t solve the issue of Russia and Western competition/rivalry/antagonism in many spheres of socio-economic and political activity. What – take out competitiveness from the capitalism system ;)? USA does not want Russian gas in Europe – it wants to supply its own. USA and Russia support different sides in the Middle East. USA is dead set that it needs numerous “allies” across the world and any threat to its allies is a threat to the US lead “liberal world order” for which there could not be alternative. The West does not respect the sovereignty of the unhandshakable “Regimes”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i think what you articulate very well is how one side here is not interested in ”finding a solution” but instead are always casting blame and that would be the west… i fully agree with you in this.. any neutral observer watching what has happened in regards to all the events where russia are mentioned can see just how lopsided the west are in framing everything in a manner of blaming russia and clearly the west are not interested in finding a solution…

      so, i am curious what the host of this site actually thinks russia can do, to change the direction the west has taken on everything here… my impression is that there is nothing russia can do, as russia is guilty before they do anything according to the west!

      professor???

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    2. Often when I read your comments I wonder exactly whom you are trying to “enlighten”- remember the old adage “it’s easier to catch flies with honey than vinegar.”

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      1. David, I will be the first to admit that I’m not a nice person. I was brought up not to pussyfoot around the issue and try to sugarcoat things. Besides – this is Internet. Why not be honest here?

        I’m kinda like that:

        Note the cane. Its not only to assist locomotion – it’s also for student’s enlightening.

        I guess this alone disqualifies me from belonging to Olgino’s propaganda corps 🙂

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      2. What to say? My point is a simple and general one- if you really wish to influence Western public opinion then you need adjust your approach. Paul has a chair in a Western university and operates in that cultural and political environment, and his blog is unique in many ways. It is the only one focused on contemporary Russia that I can refer my (academic) friends to, with the confident expectation that it will change their image of Russia and cause them to question Western media. In truth, few people who comment here are cut out to be diplomats. How many of us, for example, could have imagined the success of Russian diplomacy in the Middle East? (By the way, my old music teacher had a “shillelagh” much like yours- it was labelled “Board of Education”, and was best avoided.)

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      3. David, this assumes that I indeed “wish to influence Western public opinion”. When did I ever said that? Because I don’t – I don’t “wish” to do this neither am I obliged to do that. Sometimes cigar is just a cigar. Likewise my comments are just my comments – a voiced opinion of a person with his own views.

        I’m not an “influencer” by profession – let them do it because they are professionally trained, have already effective methods (and, hopefully, generously monetary refurbished) to do just that. Not me. I’m here for conversation and exchange of opinion. One can dislike what I write or how I write. That’s fine. Feel free to call me an asshole, David, if you think that I’m one. I promise not to lace your cereal with the Novichok in revenge 😉

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      4. Sorry, Lyttenburgh, but I’ve never thought that you are not a nice person, let alone an asshole- argumentative certainly, and often unable or unwilling to distinguish friend from foe. You are not a great believer in the socratic method. (i sometimes wonder whether Paul is disappointed that more students have not become involved in the discussion. You, of course, would eat them up.)

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      5. “often unable or unwilling to distinguish friend from foe”

        […]

        I’m most profoundly humbled by these words, David.

        Yet I can’t see myself resorting to the white polite lies for such things are unthinkable among the friends. Beings friends, at least as it is understood here, are a serious business and for a long haul through the life. Being crass, direct and even occasionally rude does not turn your friends into foes – provided they were your friends to begin with.

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  5. You know Professor – have you spent a week watching US or UK or Canadian responses to this issue?

    You actually show your own bias by choosing to watch and critique the talk shows – which by the way is not the government.

    Looking from the outside (from the UK) the Kerch issue Is not a “both sides issue”

    Ukraine decided to conduct a provocation- look at the film and how those ships were sailing around like fools.

    Next you will be saying the continuous shelling of Donbas, ingniring Minsk2 is a both sides issue!

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  6. Putin constantly tries to reframe the confrontation with Western imperialist countries and calls them “partners’. Gorbachev tried it, the idiot Yeltsin tried it, and we have seen, how Russia was pillaged by the West. Only realist Putin was able to pull Russia back from the abyss.
    ……..
    A history of betrayal and Russia still should keep the door open and let the thieves and robbers in? Imperialism is about conquest and not partnership. Native Americans welcomed Columbus and following conquistadores with hospitality. They got glass pearls for their precious gold and in the end they were driven from their land or killed right away.
    ……..
    Russia has the largest territory of the worlds nations (17.1 million square kilometers), but only 144 million people. USA territory is 9.8 million square kilometers, occupied by 320 million people. Russian territory includes prime forests and an abundance of untapped natural resources. Global warming will devastate many countries and make some areas near the equator (for instance the Arab Peninsular) uninhabitable, but it will leave Russia nearly unscathed and even ease living conditions in Siberia and other northern areas.
    ……..
    The exploitative and wasteful economies and societies of the West have reached their limits, vital resources like drinking water become scarce, inequality is increasing and with it social unrest and political instability. Russia has everything what is needed to keep consumerism and extreme wealth accumulation in the “developed” Western world going on for a little while longer.
    ……..
    It looked so good after the collapse of the USSR, when drunkard Boris Yeltsin presented Russia’s riches to the West on a silver platter. A comprador class emerged (the oligarchs) and the St. Petersburg intelligentsia indulged in imitations of Western style vanity and folly.
    ……..
    Yeltsin’s successor Vladimir Putin was not taken seriously for some time and when Western leaders finally realized, that he systematically tried to reign in the oligarchs and block Western interference, it was too late. Putin had solidified his position and had turned things around, Russia left the nightmare of the Yeltsin years behind and ascended again.
    ……..
    But the empire never retreats or compromises, and it will try to destroy Russia again and again until it succeeds or collapses itself. This is the big picture one never has to forget or ignore in any discussion!

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  7. I watched a talk show over here on the issue too. Although framed in party politics.

    The female candidate for the position of party chairman Merkel passes on was present. Hawk vs Realist were present. The hawk was an “Atlanticist”, a journalist, the realist was a prof of political science.

    Some of the Social Democrat apparently still have Brandt’s Eastern Detente initiatives in mind. Entspannungspolitik, in German. In the case of the SPD’s European Election candidate it may or may not have shown vaguely. Before reaching a conclusion, she said, one had to know all facts first. But her suggestion to sent NATO peacekeepers into the Ukrainian Eastern provinces sounded a bit helpless. Reminded of the Balkan. Or let’s say the ME?

    I leave out the representative of the Left, after all he studied in Moscow, as “Wessi” as we call the Western vs the former Eastern “Ossi” party members.

    The only one shouting and fiercely anti-Russian was the journalist. More sanctions seem to be on his mind. At the very, very least he demands that Northstream II must be stopped immediately.. When someone pointed out to him it wasn’t a state but a private investment project no doubt with support from political layers. No problem there for him, speculators can fail after all. Vs the candidate of the Left this guy partly studied in Warsaw. … I had to look that up. Didn’t know it. But he was obviously driven by an Adrenalin rush, most of the time.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christoph_von_Marschall
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Herfried_M%C3%BCnkler

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  8. Framing is indeed importan, and sometimes matters more than facts. Not this time, however. That the case is an Ukrainian provocation is an established fact at this point, proven by everything from the initial behavior of the ships to documents found on board to the immediate passing of the martial law, evidently prepared before the provocation. What solution to misunderstanding could be found if there is no misunderstanding in the first place?

    Also, I would like to note the presense of Ukrainians in the russian talking shows. So far I have not seen Russian side represented in the Western media at the same level.

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  9. Mr Robinson, I think you take Russian political talk shows too seriously. The framing occurs higher up, so what exactly do you expect? That the usual participants will suddenly change their tune? It’s a given that no moderate smart Ukrainian nationalists will ever be invited lest they make the Russian audience sympathize with them. Shows are no genuine exchanges of opinions in Russia, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned. I’ve given up on watching them since the faces are all the same. Your week was wasted because the very notion of framing that you discuss in this article should’ve made those political shows predictable for you long, long ago. It’s a carefully arranged theatre.

    As for the point about both parties needing to change their framing, there’s a little problem: one or the other has to make the first step, right? Russia did it before, multiple times, and looking at the results, had better never do it again. So we’re left waiting for one of the following things to happen:

    1) Russia finally collapses, having remained defiant till the end. No need to change any framing
    2) The west collapses first, no need to change any framing
    3) Russia makes the first step again, is taken advantage of again, collapses. So much for changing the framing.
    4) The west makes the (meaningful, no peregruzka buttons) first step, Hell freezes over.

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      1. I don’t know 🙂 Theoretically they should exist. At any rate, certainly someone could be found to represent pro-Ukrainian views better than those who regularly appear on TV now. But ultimately no one wants or needs it.

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      2. Many Ukrainians on Russian talk shows are self-identified Ukrainian patriots: Pogrebinsky, Skachko, Volga, and so on. It’s just that they’re on the opposite side of the russophobic group.

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      3. “At any rate, certainly someone could be found to represent pro-Ukrainian views better than those who regularly appear on TV now. But ultimately no one wants or needs it.”

        I knew that the question was “tricky” – sorry for that. But I think you are wrong, Valentina. There was a time when Russian talk shows were attended by much more “adequate” representatives from the Ukraine – not just by various Yakhno and Kovtuns. Remember Oles’ Buzina? It was on Russian TV in (late) 2013 that I first saw him. I didn’t know then that he won’t become a regular very, very soon. Remember Olga Bondarenko and other ex-Party of the Regions and ComParty members? It’s simply not safe for them attending such shows with accusations of “collaborating with the aggressor country” (c) flying left and right. Only brain-dead maidowns who come to the Den of the Beast and SUGS their way showing their svidomost’ are safe. They are heroes – to them is glory!

        P.S. Also, yes – have you noticed that UkrTV also ceased to invite OUR demshiza and oppos – but for different reasons? Because after all is said and done – they are still moskals.

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      4. Well, the Ukrainian TV is in a league of its own, so to say… not in a good way. But what I meant by “moderate nationalists” is not exactly adequate people. They just should not be, as you put it, brain-dead – the kind of people whom it is so easy to beat in an argument. I believe that views of any kind can be defended quite successfully no matter how awful they are, and that it would be interesting to see articulate and knowledgable Ukrainians defend their anti-Russian ideology, to make the discussion more serious, make our hosts argue with their opponents on a more equal footing. I understand all this is hardly ever going to happen for a number of reasons, and you may find my reasoning strange, it’s just that sometimes I feel like even total absense of talk shows focused on foreign policy would be better than what we have now, complete with constant shouting, audience clapping when appropriate and insults flying back and forth. I like the format of Международное обозрение more (how do I translate it into English?).

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      5. Uhm, “International Review”?

        I’ve stopped watching talk shows since 2016 – even the ones not talking about the Ukraine. But I think they serve a very important role and should remain. It was specifically for these reason, I assume, that our gracious host Mr. Robinson spent a week of his busy life watching them and engaging in Kremlinology v. 2.0. I understand why Professor didn’t watch analogous Western shows – he already knows what to get there. He was dispirited to the point of borderline treasonous appeasement of the dreaded Russian Bear (™) because his hopes for Russia to be willing to step back and kowtow to the West were nowhere to find. And, naturally, it is Russia who are always thought to be the one to kowtow – not the Civilized West, for whom it would mean the lose of face to prostrate itself before the Eastern Despot.

        Besides applied modern age Kremlinology, these shows serve as good internal propaganda tool – and I’m totally fine by that. State ought to have its own propaganda aimed at its own populace, telling and spreading (“propagating”) certain views and ideas. If not, then doubtless someone else will do it instead – most likely, people antagonistic to that state. It’s patently naïve to think that there is possible a “propaganda free” world. One can dislike that, or think oneself to be much smarter and “above” such things, but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter – individual means little compared to the masses. Loss in ratings and auditory doesn’t mean that such shows must be canceled outright – only improved.

        That there is a certain “mental fatigue” from such talk shows expressed by the “thinking people” – okay, that’s inevitable. But ain’t it surprising that said “thinking people” were previously glued to such talk shows and it took them literally years to kick their “addiction”?

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  10. General Mattis after the G20 said the President of the Russian Federation that he was a “slow learner” 😐

    Such rudeness – I only hear from one side. The Americans have no sense of diplomacy and just indulge in crude bullying. There is no both sides, the American political class think there is only there side.

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