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How to Free Your Mind from Toxic War Propaganda

How to Free Your Mind from Toxic War Propaganda

A Neohumanist Analytical Method for Navigating the Media in Times of War

– Didi Ananda Devapriya, president of NEA and AMURTEL Associations

Heartbreaking Testimony of Babies Left to Die

On October 10, 1990, Nayirah, a young 15-year-old girl from Kuwait, stood before the United States Congressional Human Rights Caucus. She told the representatives of Congress that she had been volunteering at a hospital when Iraqi soldiers armed with guns entered. “They took the babies out of the incubators, took the incubators, and left the children to die on the cold floor. It was horrifying,” she said, eyes full of tears and voice breaking with emotion. Indeed, this gruesome image of inhumanity shocked and horrified everyone who heard it.   By evening, a recording of the testimony had reached between 35-53 million Americans.  This eyewitness account provided indisputable evidence for the numerous reports that had been coming out of Kuwait of Iraqi soldiers looting hospitals of valuable equipment and committing human rights violations.   The story also dramatically influenced US public opinion in favor of supporting military action in Kuwait.

Selling a War

However, two years later, an investigative journalist of the New York Times, John MacArthur, published a piece revealing that in fact, Nariyah was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US, Saud Nasir al-Sabah.  In December 1992, the CBC program called “To sell a War” exposed even more details. The Kuwait embassy had also formed a fake grassroots “astroturf”  committee “Citizens for a Free Kuwait”, which was principally financed by the Kuwaiti Royal Family. “Astroturf” operations refer to the practice of obscuring the actual sponsors of a message or organization to make it look as though it is originating at the grassroots level, in order to enjoy more credibility. Citizens for a Free Kuwait had hired the Hill & Knowlton public relations firm, investing in a $1 million study to determine the best way to influence American public opinion in favor of war, and decided that news of atrocities, in particular towards defenseless babies or children, would have the most impact. The firm had also provided coaching to Nayirah and filmed her story to make the video news release that was then distributed to Medialink, serving 700 television stations in the US.

Fabrication Designed to Incite Sentiments

When independent human rights experts and journalists later were able to enter Kuwait and search for evidence and other eye-witnesses to the events described by Nariyah, the story fell apart. Premature babies and other patients had died at the hospital she mentioned, but due to nurses and doctors fleeing the war and abandoning their posts at the hospital, not due to soldiers. Hospital equipment had also been looted, but not incubators. No proof was ever found that Nariyah had actually even been present in Kuwait during that summer. Rather, the growing evidence indicated that her story was entirely the fabrication of the public relations company. In fact, independent human rights investigations did find plenty of evidence of actual war crimes when they did finally get the chance to enter and analyze the situation.  The Kuwaiti government, however, wanted to gain immediate support for their cause from the US, and apparently were ready to take short-cuts and invest considerable resources to achieve that aim.  Interestingly, neither Nariyah, nor Hill & Knowlton, though publicly exposed in an embarrassing way,  were ever legally or financially penalized.

Media Literacy and Civic Education Project for Romanian Highschools

Currently, in Romania, I am involved in leading a project named “SCOP”(Solidarity in the Community = Stronger People), in partnership with “The Center for Equal Partnership”. The project is providing a civic education and media literacy program to high school teachers in ten underprivileged rural communities. As I was developing the media literacy component of the program, I was working daily on the Romanian border with Ukraine. I was directly involved in witnessing the traumatic impact of the war on ordinary people’s lives when participating in the interventions of AMURTEL’s emergency psychologist.

Why both Ukrainian and Russian Children Need Strategic Support

Meanwhile, during an informal conversation with Liane Ghent, the executive director from the European early years network, ISSA, she was pointing out how in partner countries, there are already worrying reports of bullying towards Russian children, and that we would need to think strategically not only about how to support Ukrainian children through the traumas of war and dislocation, but also, equally importantly, how to support and protect Russian children from harmful, unfair discrimination.

Seeds of Hatred Multiplying

I was similarly struck by Yuval Noah Harrari’s commentary on a TED interview “The War in Ukraine Could Change Everything”. He pointed out that “the seeds of hatred and fear and misery that are being planted right now in the minds and the bodies of tens of millions, hundreds of millions of people… Because it is not just the people in Ukraine, it’s also in the countries around, all over the world. And these seeds will give a terrible harvest, terrible fruits in years, in decades to come. …Every day this continues, plants more and more of these seeds”.

Supporting Students in Learning How to Think

So the media literacy component of the teacher training I was preparing, took on a new significance. Focus group discussions that my partner had led with the students at the end of 2021 had already revealed the alarming extent that social media and disinformation had distorted their opinions on the COVID-19 pandemic. In those discussions, it became clear that there was a lack of skills to discern between facts and opinions, credible sources of information and distorted sources, and that sentimental appeals held more influence than any attempt at engagement in more serious, critical analysis.

Traditionally, the Romanian educational system has been more focused on transmitting “what” to think, by accumulating information through techniques often based on rote learning and memorization, rather than “how” to think by providing systematic frameworks to train students in independent, analytical, and synthetic thinking skills.   The project provides an important gateway to introduce teachers to the power of non-formal experiential education, how to encourage active citizenship, and how to stimulate children’s ability to think carefully and critically so that they can become responsible and discriminating media consumers and citizens.

Deciphering War Propaganda

Now, with a brutal war right on our doorstep that has reawakened deep fears, dormant since  Communism fell in Romania, I knew that it would be more important than ever to equip teachers and students with media literacy tools as the barrage of horrifying news from the warzone began watering those seeds of hatred. I decided to dedicate a part of the media literacy sessions to the deciphering of war propaganda. The aim was not only to develop their ability to detect distortions and question narratives but also to use an ethical framework, based on Neohumanism to move beyond limiting sentiments towards a perspective that prioritizes the welfare of all.

Truth is the First Casualty

US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson said in 1918: “In war, the first casualty is the truth.” Nayirah’s role in shaping public support for the Kuwait war was a perfect example of this. The fact is, that though her story was fictitious, there were indeed many examples of actual atrocities that were later documented, on both sides of the conflict.  Why then resort to fabrication? When a small country’s survival depends on attracting the sympathy and support of more powerful allies, does that desperation justify the use of such “atrocity tales”?   The fact though is that in a conflict, all sides use these types of stories about war crimes, both real, exaggerated, and fabricated because they are extremely effective strategically in rallying support by dehumanizing the opponent.

Indeed, Harold Lasswell, an American specialist in communications theory and political science wrote, “So great are the psychological resistances to war in modern nations, that every war must appear to be a war of defense against a menacing, murderous aggressor. There must be no ambiguity about who the public is to hate.”

It is an interesting and perhaps encouraging sign of increased sensitivity that there are great psychological resistances to war. In the not-so-distant past war was glorified and seen as something natural, that has always existed and always will.  Now, according to Yuval, “War is a possibility but it is not an inevitability. Ultimately, war is decided upon by humans. And scholars who try to present wars as natural, they are excusing criminals who start wars and make it more likely that wars will happen.”

Indeed, my understanding is that as human consciousness evolves toward greater awareness of our intimate interconnectedness with all beings, this sensitivity will continue to increase to the point that  war is simply an unacceptable and intolerable option for solving political conflicts.  Education that starts from the earliest years to encourage deep love and respect for diversity, critical thinking, self-regulation,  emotional intelligence, inner peace, and conflict resolution skills can accelerate this movement. Indeed this is the aim of Neohumanist education.

Social Media Battlefields

Due to the psychological resistance to war, at this moment, one of the important battlefields is the one taking place on popular social media platforms and mainstream media. The Telegram channel “IT Army of Ukraine” currently has more than 7000 volunteers on its English group and another 18,759 on its Ukrainian group that have dedicated themselves to fighting in the information and cyberwar. This is, however, not even the tip of the iceberg.  Many, many more highly trained professionals and volunteers are engaged in this war on all of the sides, using sophisticated, psychological tools to inflame powerful sentiments to override distaste for war, and its inherent violence and inhumanity.

In Russia,  “web brigades” of state-sponsored social media commentators have been in existence since the early 2000s.  Vitaly Bespalo, who worked at one such operation called the Internet Research Agency talked about his experience as a “content manager”, setting up fake accounts and making comments on social media sites according to instructions, in this Times article published in 2018.   Russia is not at all alone in this strategy, however.  In the 2017 “Freedom on the Net” annual report, 30 out of 65 countries surveyed, including China, the Phillippines, India, and Mexico, used government-paid social media commentators to influence public opinions. As the technologies of micro-targeting, bots, deep-fakes, etc., have become increasingly sophisticated, the capability for creating convincing, well-disguised disinformation has increased exponentially.   Armed with memes, videos, and posts, these internet warriors galvanize support,  overcome resistance, as well as demoralize the opposing side by all possible means.

Understanding What Feeds the Seeds

In order to be able to protect ourselves and others from the seeds of hate that these tactics employ, and that threatens to poison decades of progress in creating greater interconnectivity, understanding, intercultural dialogue, and cooperation across traditional barriers, it is important to understand psychological dynamics that helps grow hate.

Understanding Nationalism: Social Construct vs Geo-Sentiment

In 1983, Benedict Anderson published the book “Imagined Communities”, a term he coined to describe the phenomenon of nationalism as a social construct, rather than having any innate basis. He attributes the rise of print and widespread literacy in local languages and its evolution into our current mass media as the causal factor for constructing nationalistic identities. He explains that mass media fosters the creation of shared narratives, values, myths, and a sense of a collective identity.

However, Shrii P.R. Sarker goes deeper than considering nationalism as simply a socially constructed concept. Rather, he invented a new term, “geo-sentiment,” to encompass not only nationalism, but also other similarly powerful forms of identification that arise in connection to our “home,” our city, our region, our nation, our continent, etc. These feelings are amplified by the inherent beauty of nature and the love and attachment that it inspires in us.  Similarly, socio-sentiments arise from our fundamental psychological need for safety, connection, community, and belonging. These ingrained sentiments are deeply intertwined in our sense of identity, and thus hold a much more powerful influence on us than mere ideas.

Social constructs, on the other hand, such as the color pink being associated with girls and blue with boys, are simply conventions whose only meaning is that given to them by people.   While a football team is in a sense an arbitrary social construct, the intense feelings of loyalty, pride, and identification a football fan will feel with his particular team are an example of socio-sentiments. It also shows how easily they can form, creating not only positive feelings of belonging to the in-group but also strong out-group sentiments used to often characterize the supporters of an opposing team as lesser in various ways.

In-group – Out-group Bias

We tend to attribute more positive qualities within our in-group, and we tend to create simplified stereotypes and more negative qualities to the out-group. In our in-group, we may characterize our own nation positively as creative, independent, and freedom-loving, whereas someone looking at us as an “out-group” may see those same characteristics as indisciplined, disrespectful, lacking loyalty, and arrogant. We will also more easily tend to feel empathy for those that look like us, share values or customs, and are closer to our in-group.   We see this reflected in the much warmer reception in Europe towards the white, Christian Ukrainian refugees, versus the fear that arose when brown-skinned Islamic refugees from Syria similarly fled.

Patriotic expressions deepen and strengthen the sense of commonality, pride, shared history and shared destiny. However, geo-sentiments don’t only create positive sentiments of that in-group belongingness.  The darker side of geo-sentiments is that they can also foster “out-group” sentiments about the “other”, which can harm our progress towards a more inclusive, neohumanist consciousness.  Having a common “other” to hate, can be one way to increase cohesion in a group, as expressed by the old adage “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”.   Nationalism gets formed and reinforced by association with strong expressions of emotions like pride, shame, love, and hate that whip up geo-sentiments. These sentiments can motivate people to be willing to lay down their lives for their country. They also can lead to blinding us to the irrational distortions they create about other nations.

How to Regulate the Power of Sentiments

The ubiquitousness and strength of these sentiments should not be underestimated. Rather, we all need to learn to identify their expression and master them, as the alternative means to remain unconsciously driven by them. In his seminal work “The Liberation of Intellect”, P.R. Sarkar outlines not only a detailed analysis of sentiments but also offers a pathway to regulate them and develop what he calls “rationalistic mentality,” through three steps: 1. study, 2. analysis and 3. the application of the ethical filter of “Blissful or Non-Blissful Auxiliary” (a unique term which I will explain later). At the same time, he recognizes the need to use even more powerful sentimental strategies than the ones used to create divisions: the first is to awaken anti-exploitation sentiment and the second is to awaken universalism, a deep sentiment for the whole planet as home and all peoples as brothers and sisters. In addition, by consciously cultivating a more and more universal sense of belongingness as a citizen of the planet, or even the universe, one can reduce the hold of narrow sentiments by expanding rather than contracting the sentiment to one that is without boundaries of us and them.  It is this expansion of sentiment that can lead toward the inclusive, Neohumanist sentiment of oneness.  This perspective can transform our worldview only when it transcends the conceptual level and becomes an intuitive experience through the practice of meditation and contemplation on oneness.

How does this apply to the teaching of media literacy for war propaganda? In a media landscape, riddled with deceitful disinformation designed to purposely mislead, the step of “study” requires careful training in the ability to discern reliable sources from unreliable sources of information, “analysis” requires critical thinking abilities, and finally, ethical filtering requires firm anchoring in universalism and cultivating the ability to resist and deconstruct the inflammation of sentiments that obscure it.

Sentiment: Fast but Wrong, Rationality: Slow but Correct

In the meantime, it is essential to understand that sentiment is a much more powerful force than ideas. Daniel Kahneman in his book on “Fast and Slow Thinking” describes the difference between System 1, which is rapid, impulsive, and primarily sentimental. System 2, on the other hand, is slow and requires careful analysis.   However, often System 1 thinking, uses mental shortcuts (heuristics) that can seem reasonable and intuitive but are actually leading to flawed, faulty decisions, masquerading as logic.

How does this apply to the teaching of media literacy for war propaganda? In a media landscape, riddled with deceitful disinformation designed to purposely mislead, the step of “study” requires careful training in the ability to discern reliable sources from unreliable sources of information, “analysis” requires critical thinking abilities, and finally, ethical filtering requires anchoring in universalism and cultivating the ability to resist and deconstruct the inflammation of sentiments that obscure it.

Weeding Out the Fakes

First of all, how to distinguish unreliable sources from reliable ones?

It is important to know how manipulable information is these days.

“Deep fakes” refers to phenomena such as videos that have been modified with sophisticated editing tools that enable facial movement and soundtrack changes that make it appear that the person is saying something which they never said. For example, in March, a Ukrainian news channel, Ukraine 24 was hacked, and President Zelensky appears to be saying that he is surrendering and advising all Ukrainians to do the same. The video is convincing, and only by observing that the head is disproportionate to the body and more pixelated than the rest of the image can one see the way it was superimposed. The video was quickly debunked, with Zelensky confirming that he never made the statements, but it is a chilling reminder of the power of deep fakes.

Similarly, there are fact-checking sites that seem quite convincing and use the strategy of mixing authentic fact-checking to establish credibility with fabricated facts designed to fit a biased narrative. These can be similarly difficult to spot, as the cleverly constructed fake information may be cloaked in seemingly sophisticated specialized technical information that only an expert would be able to detect as suspicious. Your average reader, on the other hand, would tend to attribute increased authoritativeness to a source that seems very technical and will often then rely on the apparent expertise of the author.  This is why it is important to consider the context and look at the information more broadly.


Vertical vs. Lateral Reading

Lateral reading is an antidote to the confirmation biases that we are all prone to.  Vertical reading refers to our usual default mode of rapid information gathering by looking at one source and relying on the source itself to determine its reliability.  However, if evaluating information only on the coherency of its internal logic, we can leave ourselves quite vulnerable to manipulation by deliberately camouflaged disinformation that is designed to simulate logical arguments but using invented material when actual facts are inconvenient.  Cleverly constructed disinformation may cloak a fabrication in seemingly specialized technical details that are obscure enough that most ordinary readers would be unlikely to be able to evaluate the veracity of the information, preferring instead to rely on the expertise of the author.

How to read laterally:

  1. Distinguish good journalism from faulty journalism and facts from opinions: Good journalism will point to documents and sources of information that can be objectively verified, will refer to facts, and will include a diversity of viewpoints on an issue. Poor journalism will use sentimentalizing language that mixes opinions with facts and does not provide a diversity of viewpoints.   Looking into the reputation of a journalist or a media source can also help. A reputable source, that has high standards of journalism and integrity will be relatively more reliable than a source that produces tabloid-style sensationalistic material regularly. Even then, it is important to understand the biases in different sources. New York Times tends to be left-leaning, whereas the Wall Street Journal is more conservative for example.
  2. Corroborate: Look for corroborating proof to back up claims made in the piece. Search and see if other reporters have found similar evidence. If the piece is referring to any original source documents, look them up directly. In writing this article, for example, I came across a claim in the Guardian that there were 300,000 volunteers on the telegram channel “IT War for Ukraine”. However, when I directly looked up the channel, there were far fewer, so the claim appears to be either purposefully exaggerated or misinformed, despite coming from a reasonably credible source
  3. Is the source authentic? Sometimes disinformation will be posted on websites that mimic the logo and branding of legitimate sites. Carefully look at the branding and URL and do further checking to make sure they are legitimate.  There are also fake websites and blogs, that are actually platforms for paid “content managers” to populate with seemingly grassroots opinions. Lateral checking by googling the URL of the website itself can sometimes lead to that conclusion.
  4. Verify the source: if you google the name of the source, what do you find?   What other types of information are present on the source? Are there any claims that the sources may be manipulative? If you also add in words like “reliability, credibility” you may unearth more. Do any political biases or other types of bias surface in looking into the funding etc. Similarly, research the writer of the article, and find out more about who the person is, what types of ideas they promote, etc.
  5. Be aware of your filter bubbles and echo chambers. Remember that the internet currently uses complex algorithms to micro-target content to you that will feed you constantly with more and more of what you like to hear. In order to develop more complex, wider, better-informed views on an issue, it is important to consciously endeavor to go outside of these filter bubbles and look for sources of information from other viewpoints than those which most easily resonate with your own.
  6. Look for expert sources: are there any independent investigative bodies that have looked into the issue in question. Bodies like Human Rights Watch, reports from human rights commissions, and organizations like Amnesty International work to provide independent investigations that must meet certain rigorous standards. While again bias can creep in, overall the processes that they must adhere to tend to weed out the most obvious levels of bias

Using this sort of process will already help to weed out a lot of disinformation, and also gain a broader understanding of issues. If something seems shocking and inconsistent with reports that are coming from a wide diversity of independent sources, it is then especially important to use lateral reading strategies. A typical strategy, however, of disinformation, is that it will try to cast doubt on legitimate media sources that will naturally contradict their narrative, by discrediting them.  If successful, this will lead readers to avoid lateral reading, and become increasingly vulnerable to the “single story”  being told which is often presented as “the truth they won’t tell you”.  Conspiracy theories similarly thrive due to our “system 1″ tendency to seek out only information that confirms our pre-existing biases and discredits actual reliable sources of information, thus keeping people within the filter bubble of the conspiracy theory.

 
Sentimentalizing Strategies 

Another approach is to become aware of the sentimental strategies and logical fallacies that are commonly used and to be able to identify them, and their effects on listeners. If we understand the blinding effect that geo-sentiment can have on rational analysis, then when able to notice attempts to trigger geo-sentiment, we can remain more detached and make a better objective evaluation.

In particular, for identifying war propaganda, it can be very useful to become aware of Anne Morelli’s work, published in French in 2001, entitled “The basic principles of war propaganda”. It was designed for use as an educational framework for media analysis. Indeed, one of the exercises I designed for the sessions with the Romanian high school teachers was to identify how the use of those principles are visible in the transcripts of speeches by some of the major world leaders involved in the current conflict: President Volodymyr Zelensky, President Vladamir Putin, and President Joe Biden.

The 10 Principles of War Propaganda are:

  1. We don’t want war, we are only defending ourselves!
  2. Our adversary is solely responsible for this war!
  3. Our adversary’s leader is inherently evil and resembles the devil!
  4. We are defending a noble cause, not our particular interests!
  5. The enemy is purposefully committing atrocities; if we are making mistakes this happens without intention!
  6. The enemy makes use of illegal weapons!
  7. We suffer few losses, the enemy’s losses are considerable!
  8. Recognized intellectuals and artists support our cause!
  9. Our cause is sacred!
  10. Whoever casts doubt on our propaganda helps the enemy and is a traitor!

It takes some effort to find the actual original transcripts of the speeches, as usually the media reports only on fragments taken out of the full context of the speech. However, it is important to try to fully understand the positions of leaders by not reading what other reports say they are saying, but their actual full arguments in their own words. The results of the training were that once exposed to this list of principles, the teachers were easily able to identify almost all of the principles reflected in the speeches from all sides.

Here are a few examples that were taken directly from the first speeches of three world leaders at the very start of the war:

rule #2: Our adversary is solely responsible for this war!

I have linked the full original transcripts to their names.

President Joe Biden:

  • “The Russian military has begun a brutal assault on the people of Ukraine without provocation, without justification, without necessity.”
  • Putin is the aggressor.  Putin chose this war.  And now he and his country will bear the consequences.”

President Vladimir Putin:

  • “They did not leave us any other option for defending Russia and our people, other than the one we are forced to use today.”
  • “I reiterate: we are acting to defend ourselves from the threats created for us and from a worse peril than what is happening now.”
  • ” I want to emphasize again that all responsibility for the possible bloodshed will lie fully and wholly with the ruling Ukrainian regime.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky:

  • “We emphasize that Ukraine did not choose the path of war. But Ukraine offers to return to peace.”

This is just one short example, but it is easy to see how all of the sides place responsibility only on their adversaries, in line with that principle of propaganda. In their speeches, all of them omit to mention any contribution their own political stances have made to the escalation into conflict.

President Biden is also using his speech to justify devastating sanctions, some of which will punish ordinary civilian Russians, whether or not they actually support the war.  So it is also an action that can unfairly hurt the innocent.

President Putin, is, of course, justifying the invasion as inevitable and seeking to justify and gain support amongst the citizens of Russia, by positioning himself as fighting a defensive rather than offensive “military operation”.   An interesting side note is that his choice to frame it euphemistically as a “military operation” is not a unique strategy.  During the Iraqi war, the Republican party referred to it as “The War on Terror” and framed its justification around protecting our vital national interests of oil, that it was “winnable” and authorized based on “the best available information”.  The opposing Democratic party simply negated those arguments saying it was not serving national interests,  “unwinnable” and based on false information.  However, negating an argument only further empowers the existing framing. (Lakoff 2004). “Calling the War on Terror an ‘invasion’ and an ‘occupation’ gives a much different image, because an invasion sounds criminal and an occupation does not sound ‘winnable.” (4) So word choices matter.

President Zelensky’s country on the other hand is actually defending itself from an invasion. While others may be posturing themselves in a defensive position because that tends to be perceived as the moral high ground, in the case of Ukraine, on the practical level, they actually are literally in the position of defense.

So here it is important to also mention another fallacy that can distort our thinking, called the “moral equivalency” fallacy.  A classic example of this is that two children are fighting and the teacher enters the scene, separates them, and punishes them both on the premise that fighting is wrong. However, if one child was a bully and abusing the other child, and that child was fighting back in self-defense, it is clear that these two types of fighting are not morally equivalent, and to treat them as such will not result in a fair solution.   However, geo-sentiments can also bias the way we see a conflict for example.  We may then tend to feel that our own side is more justified in using aggressive tactics because our purpose for doing so is more principled, noble or just than the opposing side, and therefore not morally equivalent.  This is the psychology for example behind the problematic stance of American exceptionalism.

 

Is the Truth Really Somewhere in the Middle?

With so many powerful forces at work behind the propaganda, and its darker cousin, disinformation, it may seem quite overwhelmingly difficult and impractical to conduct an elaborate analysis of all the news that we are continuously flooded with.   In the face of such complexity, it is tempting to decide that it is impossible to get to the truth and to look simply decide the truth is somewhere in the middle. However, yet another logical error that it is important to guard against is called “Middle Ground Fallacy” which “argues that because compromising is good, finding a middle ground between two extremes must be reached to produce the truth”.   Rather, it is more productive to develop the stamina and determination to persist until one can reach greater moral clarity, even if it is time-consuming.  Part of that process is to use lateral reading to look persistently for objectively verifiable facts instead of simply settling for a “compromise”.  Because if one or both sides on an issue are using disinformation, this will not work. The middle ground between two lies is still going to be a lie.  Becoming adept at lateral reading is especially necessary for those that are in positions of leadership in society, including those of us that are teachers, as our students look to us as authorities and often give great importance to our opinions.

So, although tempting, just because in some cases, it may be very difficult, even impossible to really know the “truth” objectively doesn’t mean it is better to not engage at all. In fact, in the information war, one of the tactics is to create confusion in order to keep some people “neutral” and prevent them from forming strong ethical opinions. Unfortunately, in the face of injustice, “silence implies consent”. As John Stuart Mill said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

Neohumanism Arouses Anti-Exploitation Sentiment

One of the important components of establishing a Neohumanist society is to first become deeply rooted in a strong human rights perspective, and even broader, an all-beings rights stance, known as sama-samaja tattva, or the principle of social equality.  When this realization of our inherent oneness generates a deep, unshakeable bond of solidarity with all others, it transforms into a principle.  When that principle is yet even more deeply assimilated into our consciousness,  it can transform into a sense of mission, giving us a sense of purpose and direction in life.    The correlate to this principle of oneness is  “anti-exploitation sentiment”.   When all beings have the same existential value and the same rights, then “anti-exploitation sentiment”  follows naturally.  This is a strong conviction, backed by the power of sentiment,  that “I will not exploit anyone, nor will I allow anyone to be exploited nor will I allow myself to be exploited.”  So, if a smaller power is being dominated by a stronger power, this is a classic example of exploitation, and arousing anti-exploitation sentiment to fight against such domination would be in line with Neohumanism. Neohumanism, while it emphasizes love, compassion, and connection, does not encourage passivity but rather takes an active stance towards injustice.  For example, from this standpoint, defending one’s home, family, and country during a war is a moral necessity.

Using Blissful or Non-Blissful Auxiliary to Navigate the Information War

So in the first steps of study and analysis, it is important to look for reliable sources that can be objectively verified, but it is also important to seek to form a wide understanding of the issue by looking at a variety of perspectives, including those that may be purely propagandistic, from different angles.  Many people, once aware of the biases that exist in the media, may become cynical, and conclude that it is impossible to arrive at an objective, factual understanding of events.  Cynicism can then lead to hopelessness and helplessness.   However, it is the final step of the rationalistic process, described by Shrii P.R.Sarkar as the “blissful or non-blissful auxiliary” that will provide more clarity on how to come to conclusions even when in the midst of a morass of propaganda and disinformation.  It can serve as a strong moral compass, however, this term is novel and thus needs some unpacking. “Auxiliary” means helping force. So this step means applying the ethical filter of whether the impact of something is leading towards “blissfulness” or not for all. Blissfulness isn’t the same as happiness. Happiness is a more fleeting emotional state that humans experience on occasion. Blissfulness, however, refers to a state in which a being can express its core, innate nature freely and without restriction. Even the water can be “blissful” if it is pure and free of pollution and thus able to express its cleansing nature. So this ethical filter applies not only to what is in the best interest of human beings but more broadly to all beings. It is what leads our thinking towards “samasamaja tattva”, the principle of social equality, previously described.

The Subjective Side of Analysis

So, returning to war propaganda. In deciding the justness or unjustness of different positions, we must take into consideration this auxiliary. So information is first analyzed objectively, but then ultimately it must also pass through a subjective filter to arrive at a Neohumanist perspective. So when evaluating a piece of information, if we can determine that it contains an intention to incite the dehumanization of opponents and would increase tendencies of polarization, division, and even outright hatred, then on the Neohumanist level, the information is flawed, even if it appears to be objectively valid.  Further lateral research is needed to broaden the perspective.  Even when exploitation is revealed, the anti-exploitation sentiment is not one that generates hate, but rather that is grounded in solidarity and oneness with those being exploited.  It is a way to separate the person from the action.  We can hate the action or the system, and we may need to limit the damage that human beings that are dangerous or selfish can inflict on others, but we act out of compassion and the spirit of collective welfare, rather than contracting into group interest or hate.  

According to this filter, can a war of aggression be justified against a smaller power? Perhaps according to political logic, yes, but if we apply samasamaja tattva and the blissful / non-blissful auxiliary, is war itself a legitimate tool for achieving political ends that serve the interests of the few, at enormous costs of suffering to innocent civilians, and also widespread environmental destruction?

Atrocities – the Rule Rather than the Exception

For example, all wars lead to situations where soldiers, especially in moments of frustration, and anger, abuse the enormous power over life and death that has been entrusted to them when given lethal weapons to wield. Rape, torture, purposeful killing of civilians as well as unarmed prisoners, and other atrocities, while they may be exaggerated in order to enlist support against enemies, or demonize them, are nonetheless the rule rather than the exception of warfare, and are to be expected. So when reading reports of atrocities, we can be aware both of the tendency to exaggerate in opportunistic ways, but also, if being corroborated by numerous independent sources, such reports are very likely to contain truth. However, is the conclusion that the nation responsible are all sub-human beasts that should be annihilated?   The individual soldiers, and more importantly those that give the commands, or are responsible for the prevention of such abuses, indeed should be held accountable for horrific war crimes. Impunity is what encourages such actions in the first place.  It is war itself that should be hated as an outdated strategy for solving human conflicts, rather than entire peoples.  It is the very context of war that engenders atrocities, and as the expert mediator and author Ken Cloke said to me in a recent email, “it doesn’t make sense to set up a competition over whose atrocities are worst when war is the source of dehumanization on both sides.”

Uniting Humanity to Fight against the Right Threat

Taking into account the pressing need for all of humanity to work cooperatively and unitedly in tackling the existential threats facing our species and planet, war, or anything that indulges divisive hate-filled tendencies is clearly counterproductive.  Rather,  Shrii P.R. Sarkar continuously hammered the message that Neohumanists must fight against all kinds of “fissiparous” (divisive) tendencies and injustices. He actually encouraged the fight against injustices that create such divisions as a necessary step in cultivating our ability to correctly discern right from wrong and our courage.  He indicated that these same qualities are essential for our inner spiritual evolution as well. He encouraged all to work tirelessly to unite humanity on the basis of our common bonds. So when deciding which conclusions to accept or not accept, question whether the conclusion would lead towards unity on the basis of justice and equality for all  (samasamaja tattva) or would follow a line of reasoning that leads us towards division and self or group interest.   Most of what we will read and see is not designed to foster unity, so that means we must be prepared to do our own study, analysis, and moral filtering intensively in order to be able to arrive at truly informed positions that have the power to lead us towards a better future.

Sources:

1.Andersen, Robin (2006). A century of media, a century of war. Peter Lang. pp. 170–172. ISBN 978-0-8204-7893-7

2 Anderson, Benedict R. O’G. (Benedict Richard O’Gorman) (1991). Imagined communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism

3 Delwiche, Aaron. “Domestic Propaganda During the First World War”. Retrieved 12 November 2012.

4 Maheshvarananda, and Price. Tools to Change the World: Study Guide Based on the Progressive Utilization Theory (Prout). 2019. Proutist Universal: Copenhagen)

5 https://restofworld.org/2022/in-ukraines-cyber-war-with-russia-who-is-a-civilian-and-what-is-a-war-crime/

6 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/15/volunteer-hackers-fight-russia

7 https://www.hrw.org/reports/1992/WR92/MEW1-02.htm

8 https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevedenning/2018/10/29/the-myth-of-moral-equivalence-the-battle-for-the-soul-of-america/?sh=1c434bc92b38

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Why should access to early childhood education be prioritized during the pandemic?

 

PRESS RELEASE –  October 26th 2020

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of closing early childhood programs on the long-term well-being and development of children aged zero-six needs to be taken into more careful consideration.  In the immediate urgency to prevent the spread of the pandemic, long term risks and impacts are being ignored, whereas the benefits of such closures have not been able to be clearly demonstrated by emerging research.  The following arguments offer important points in support of keeping early childhood care programs open, so policymakers can take into account the specific needs of very young children. 

It is well established that the early childhood years from zero-six,  are an extremely important formative period for neurological development and life long well being.   During this period, positive, meaningful relationships, active play, and exploration are essential to children’s well-being and development.   

Already, studies in the past years from researchers around the world are finding evidence that screen time damages young children’s developmental outcomes.   The World Health Organisation officially recommend no more than an hour of screen time for children between 2-4, and that less is better. However,  with early childhood programs closed, many children are now be exposed to far more than these recommended limits. 

While online learning may be a viable option for older children that are able to work relatively independently, it is clearly not a developmentally appropriate option for the early years.  An NIH (National Institute of Health, USA) started in 2018, already has been collecting data that shows that children that spend more than two hours a day in front of screens score lower on language and thinking, and those spending more than seven hours daily experience a thinning of the brain’s cortex which is related to critical thinking and reasoning.  More importantly, the highly addictive, dopamine stimulating effect of games that have short reward feedback loops damages children’s neurological ability to develop patience, reduces their attention span and self-regulation abilities. 

Parents that cannot access early childhood services because of closures, must juggle work responsibilities with supervising their own children, often leading to increased exposures to screentime, or even leading to neglect. Many are not in a situation in which it is feasible to hire a nanny or involve grandparents. 

In addition, the closure of structured early childhood care options forces many parents to find ways of integrating their children into their work lives.  For example,  in  Bucharest, Romania, in the past week when kindergartens were closed, many parents were found bringing their children along with them to work, to go shopping, or to public playgrounds, all of which present a lot more risk factors than bringing their child to a stable early childhood environment that must carefully respect hygiene requirements.

Meanwhile, the rate of unemployment is much higher amongst women, who are disproportionately involved in childcare.  In Romania, two-thirds of those currently unemployed due to the pandemic are women. This has a negative economic impact on the country, but it also represents a backward step in obtaining greater gender equality in the workforce.

The period of the pandemic has created additional stress on vulnerable families that are already suffering from domestic violence, alcohol abuse, physical abuse, or neglect.  Indeed, the number of cases of domestic violence has increased considerably since the beginning of 2020 until the present moment.  Closing childcare programs both reduces or eliminates the time away from a potential perpetrator while simultaneously increasing pressure on the volatile family units, putting such children at increased risk for traumatic experiences, or even potentially endangering their lives.

Keeping safe, appropriate early childhood care programs open during this period is essential for guaranteeing the long term well being of an entire generation of children.  Early childhood programs, that are strictly following the health recommendations for the prevention of the spread of the pandemic, offer a safer, more protected environment that ensures children’s overall development, than when they must stay at home in situations in which parents are not able to offer them the same level of attention, stimulation, and socialization available in a structured program. 

Indeed, there is a study from – Enric Alvarez in Spain analyzing data following the reopening of schools across five communities in Spain which did not find any consistent correlation with a spike in cases, as would be expected,   had the reopenings accelerated the spread.  A study from Yale University also did not find a higher rate of infections amongst early childhood care workers that continued to work with children in the first three months of the pandemic versus those that stayed at home.   As young children are at low risk of developing severe symptoms of COVID0-19,  these findings would seem to indicate that the benefits of face-to-face early childhood programs, especially in terms of long term impacts, may far outweigh any short term potential benefits in reducing the spread of the virus.

We request policymakers and the emergency committee in Bucharest to keep early childhood education programs open – not only daycare and after schools, but both public and private kindergartens, with, of course, all of the necessary hygienic precautions that have already been defined, and closures to happen on a case by case basis if hotspots emerge in a particular institution. 

For more details, you can contact:

Denise Deshaies

President of Neohumanist Education Association

didi@neoumanism.org

www.neoumanism.org / www.gradinita-rasarit.ro

0744565252

 

 

 

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Video: Children in Permaculture

What is permaculture, why is it vital in the quest for viability on planet earth, and how can it play a key role in the education of children? This short video offers a succinct glimpse of the vision that guided the “Children in Permaculture” project, as well as introducing practical resources now available for free online.


 

 

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First International Children in Permaculture Conference in Prague

The international Children in Permaculture conference was a great celebration of a learning journey, enriching teamwork, inspiring networking and a precious seed for the future steps.

This event which took place in Prague, Czech Republic 4-5 May 2018, brought together more than 150 people from different countries and fields, such as educators, school and kindergarten teachers, head teachers, permaculturists, trainers, children’s and outdoor learning NGO, families and children of course. Several Czech and international volunteers supported the conference with their active and lively contribution. All shared a dream of including children in permaculture and embedding its ethics and principles into education. Read More

New C.I.P. Manual ! Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education

At last, after several years of intensive collaboration during the Erasmus Plus project “Children in Permaculture”  – the C.I.P. manual has been published!  “Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share in Education”  was co-authored by Lusi Aldersrowe, Gaye Amus and Didi A. Devapriya (the president of the Neohumanist Association of Romania) but many more were involved in the three year process that included seven partner organizations from five countries – including the U.K., Romania, Slovenia, Czechoslavakia, Italy.
The manual is the fruit of a rich exchange of best practices and theory between permaculture experts, experienced practitioners of outdoor education, forest kindergarten leaders, educators and Neohumanist education experts.  The manual is now available in entirety online, as well as in printed form for participants in C.I.P. trainings!

The manual has received excellent reviews from  by some of the leading experts in the fields of outdoor education, nature education and permaculture  including Richard Louv, Dr. (Fil lic) Anders Szczepanski,  Rosemary Morrow, Janet Millington and Carolyn Nuttall. You can find more details below and in the manual itself:

Read More

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Children in Permaculture Training

 

 A fresh, innovative approach to ecological education in the early years

  • Are you inspiring or educating children between 3-12 years old (as a teacher, parent, grandparent, child-care worker, etc)?
  • Do you love nature and want to find ways to share that passion with children?
  • Are you concerned about the future of the planet and want to be part of long-term, sustainable solutions?

This two day workshop offers practical tools for embedding ecological attitudes and love for nature into the education of young children Read More

CiP Peer Learning in Scotland!

The Children in Permaculture partners met in Scotland, in September 2017 for a practical peer-to-peer learning experience. Each partner organised a learning experience in the outdoors for children from the local schools of Gatehouse and Twynholm.  It was an opportunity to test out activities designed within the “Children in Permaculture” curriculum and receive feedback from peers, teachers and most importantly, the children.

Activities organised by the CiP team included creating a rainwater catchment system on a greenhouse, learning about birds, storytelling and play in the forest, puppet play, making a wormery and many more. Many of the successful activities will be included in the teacher’s manual that the team is busy editing.

The event was covered by the local newspaper:

cip news article

aen CIP erasmus plus logos

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Video: Children in Permaculture Romania trip “It was the chance of a lifetime!”

As the group of 19 Scottish school children from the “Children in Permaculture” (CiP) project, all wearing matching green baseball hats, waited in the Otopeni airport in Bucharest for their delayed flight home, they decided to use the opportunity to interview each other about their experience over the previous five days in Romania.

“It was the chance of a lifetime,” enthused one of the boys, “I hope to come back, and meet all my friends again.”

“I really loved the Romania trip” another girl said, then proceeding to list her favorite memories of the trip.

“I got to learn a lot about permaculture and the ethics and principles. It was great fun!”

“I hope to come back with my family, because I think they would really like it too.”

What made the experience so memorable?

Every day was packed with learning through novel adventures, exploration and hands-on outdoor activities in nature.  It was not your typical touristic trip, visiting monuments and museums. Rather, the children had an experience from the “inside”, playing alongside Romanian children their own age at the “Fountain of Hope” afterschool center in Panatau, a small rural village in the mountains of Buzau county.

Read More

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Article about Romanian Scottish School Trip in Green Report

From May 15- 19, the Neohumanist Education Association hosted an exchange experience for 30 children from Gatehouse and Tynholm Scotland, to learn more about permaculture and experience Romanian traditions and agriculture. The project was part of the “Children in Permaculture” project, funded by Erasmus Plus.

Ana Racheleanu published an article about the experience in Green Report.

aen CIP erasmus plus logos

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YiP: Youth in Permaculture begins

Youth In Permacultue (YIP) is a new initiative to support and empower young people to create resilient, fulfilling and fun lives inspired by permaculture.  Didi represented AEN at the first visioning meeting in Spain with organisations from many different countries in Europe and beyond.

Encouraged by Children in Permaculture (CIP), young people involved in permaculture and leaders from the permaculture community gathered, creating a team from over eight countries to begin this exciting project.

We have a web page with resources, tools, opportunities, networks, youth projects and voices. We’ve begun the planning stage of organizing events, activities, workshops and exchange programs and will send out surveys to people interested in supporting this project. For more information visit www.youthinpermaculture.org