Provoking thought

No More War

Daddy, will there ever be a third world war?

It’s just over two months ago that one my sons (five years old) asked me this question during breakfast. There was nothing in particular that triggered asking it at the time. There were some developments around Ukraine, but nothing that seemed too alarming to us.

The topic of war and weapons is an recurring one in our household. Those who know me a little bit will not be surprised to learn that neither me, nor my wife particularly take to violence. We barely fight between us, even verbally. I have not been in a physical fight since childhood, and even then it was just with my younger brother (always initiated by him, of course). I have no interest in weapons, the army or war.

Because we don’t feel that promotion of anything related to violence is going to be particularly valuable to the upbringing of our kids, me and my wife have always put effort into keeping toy weapons out of the house. We have fended off requests for toy armory of any kind for birthdays, and negotiated with Santa to not give in either.

Sadly, this has not lead in this topic becoming of less interest to the kids. In fact, it has been a significant source of creativity for my older son. He, a year or two back, proudly presented a crossbow he made out of a clothing hanger, rubber band, with arrows made out of sticks that he sharpened using the one “weapon” we have allowed: a knife (because his teachers argued it would be good for his coordination skills to cut branches with it).

That said, we also don’t want to divorce our kids from reality altogether. Wars exist, they have happened, and still do. However, my assumption was, two months ago — apparently naively — that at least in the “civilized world” — meaning “around here” it wouldn’t happen again. Too many lessons were learned after the second world war, and the cold war that followed.

“Don’t worry,” I said comforting, “there will be no more war here.” (I try to slip in this type of phrasing in everyday conversation, even when grammatically incorrect.)

A few weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine.

I live in Poland, on the west side of the country, about a two hour drive from the German border. Ukraine is on the east border, about 500km from here. We’re at a safe distance, and unless Putin would go next-level insane and expand his “special operation” to Poland or Europe as a whole, we’re safe.

That said, I should add that we’re happy to have Dutch passports for the whole family, and we try to keep our car’s tank filled sufficiently to make it to the German border if we need to. I say this only half seriously. For a Dutch person born after the second world war, having to worry about anything of this type is completely foreign. For Polish people, with recent experience with Russian invasions, subsequent communism, which only really ended about thirty-odd years ago, this is all much more top of mind.

Nevertheless while still far from the heat, it still feels we’re all at war. For Poland this is understandable. The connection with Ukraine is strong. There is not a huge amount of immigration in Poland, but the Ukraine community has been growing. As a result, we know a lot of Ukranian people. I’ve worked with them in many of my previous companies, I consider them friends. On top of that, as you will be aware, Poland has been extremely welcoming to Ukranian refugees. I think there may well be over 2 million Ukranian refugees here, on a population of about 38 million. That’s significant, and it’s visible, also in my city. They’re staying in event halls on bunk beds, in people’s homes. I know that some of the people reading this right now are donating their spare space to refugees as well.

This is a pretty terrible situation. It’s terrible for the Ukranian people first and foremost.

And to be cognizant of that, I stopped writing weekly Zef+ e-mails when the invasion started. It did not seem appropriate to send out e-mails about how people are all fascinating creatures with funny anecdotes when some crazy dude in Russia is bombing children’s hospitals. Especialy, because I know some of my readers are personally affected.

However, I feel there’s something to be said on current events. So let me make an attempt anyway.

I’ve written at length about topics like the decency of people. How do you reconcile the view that “people are decent, and if they don’t seem to be, that’s probably based on misunderstanding” with a Putin that is bombing children’s hospitals?

There’s different ways to approach this problem.

One would be the investigative approach. Is Putin really evil? Is there any conceivable reality in what he’s doing is a good thing? What trauma led him to become this way?

But that is not a helpful in a time like this. Sometimes it’s better to simply go black and white. Let’s simply label Putin as bad. I think that’s not a controversial statement.

Also, as Rutger Bregman has said “most people, deep down, are pretty decent.” Most people. Not all.

However, what happened at the human level when this invasion started is something I did not anticipate. My big fear, in fact, when this “conflict” was about to escalate, was that the world would not care. I feared that Putin would take over Ukraine piece by piece. Similar to how it took Crimea years back. All these moves would maybe not be sufficiently outrageous for the world to take real action, ultimately leading to a type of boiling frog effect.

But that’s not what happened. Putin went all in. And as a result, the vast majority of the world united as one front against Russia. All other problems faded into the background. Pandemic — over. Polish people being unhappy with their government — less of an issue since they actually seem to being doing the right thing regarding Ukranian refugees.

They say that a common enemy unites. Boy, we sure see that in action today. While the context in which this happens is terrible, the unity that results is pretty amazing. Countries opening their borders. People organizing events to collect stuff to send to help. People opening their houses to refugees. It shows that when push comes to shove, people show up, and the vast majority turn out to be beyond decent.

So, what should our approach to Russia be going forward? Right now the strategy is isolation. On the other side, from what I gather, Putin is working hard to isolate the Russian people from the outside world as well. The Russian people seem to have shockingly little knowledge about what its government is doing. This is highly problematic.

While isolation may work in the short term, I think the opposite should be the solution long term.

My theory is that the root cause of this whole issue, as is probably the case for many conflicts, is siloing.

We fear what we don’t understand. And we don’t understand what we don’t know.

One of the requirements to get a doctorate at the university where I did my PhD was to come up with a set of “propositions” — statements that are both opposable and defendable. Ideally, some of them on topics outside of the scope of the PhD thesis.

I just looked them up. This is my 8th proposition:

If every family had one or more family members married to members of a different culture, integration problems would disappear.

The inspiration for this was two-fold:

  1. I married a Polish woman while being from a Dutch family myself. This has resulted in a significantly more favorable opinion of the Polish people in my family than average. A lot of Dutch people tend to see Polish people as cheap labor, and make little effort to learn more about this group. Similarly, on the Polish side I’m sure Dutch people are perceived as pot smoking, euthanizing, tulip growing and cheese eating people. Which, of course, is completely accurate. Except I don’t eat cheese, because of allergies (that’s why they kicked me out).
  2. In The Netherlands “integration” of immigration groups is a big problem. Many groups tend to largely live within their own siloded communities and as a result, there’s little understanding and appreciation across the “borders” of those groups, leading to fear and conflict.

Looking at this proposition ten years later, I still fully buy into it.

I believe that our path to avoid or dampen conflicts at any scale, ranging from conflicts with your neighbor to conflicts with your neighboring countries is desiloing.

Get rid of those borders. Remove all barriers to communication. Travel. Intermingle. Intermarry. Interwork.

I joined Mattermost a little over a year ago. In my team I have people from The Philipines, South Africa, United States, Germany, Peru, Mauritius, Spain, Canada, India, Turkey and Bulgaria. I always liked to tell myself that I have no biases towards nationalities, I don’t discriminate, I’m enlightened. Of course that’s not actually true. When we think of people in any of these countries, for many of them we probably have a stereotype in mind. We all know this is not productive, but what to do? How do we overcome such biases?

By getting to know people, by creating relationships.

Every week I talk to people from all of these countries and hear their stories. Every day my understanding of them, who they are, and their culture grows.

Right now, working this way is a privilege and not the standard, but let’s imagine that it would be, because for many people in our industry this is and becomes increasingly common.

What do you think would be the effect?

I can already see it now. Make a generalizing, nasty remark about people from any of the countries I just mentioned, and I will put them in perspective. In a completely nonviolent way of course.

Now, imagine a critical mass of us networked this way. Do you not think conflicts would be far less likely to happen?

Sadly, as this Ukraine war shows, all it takes is a single nutcase for the world to blow up. So you can likely never completely avoid this type of problem.

But still.

To all my Ukranian friends out there: stay strong. We stand with you.

Let’s hope this ends soon.