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By Sofia José Santos, Alexandre de Sousa Carvalho

This article is part of the UNPOP series – Unpacking Populism, published on a monthly basis and edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes.

Common sense across times has insistently told us that war is fueled by military weapons – the echo of their shootings, the dread, the horror, the piercing joy of conquests and the helpless shriek of the losses. As if when arms were to turn quiet, the war would disappear in its stillness. Nevertheless, as we expose and debunk the idea of war, we realise that it does not reside solely in the military might. That is only a parcel of what it feeds on. Despite devoided of military ammunition, narratives and imaginaries are the other fundamental pilar of waging war. Through coherently uniting events, identities and ambitions, war narratives seek to activate imaginaries of dreams and terror, of “us vs them”, trying to give political substance to the military, provide the appearance of coherence and purpose to war horror, and inject pathos to the war mobilisation – most times  through combining text with instrumental emotions such as hatred, proud, hope, anger and repulse.

In producing and disseminating successful narratives in a war context, representations are pivotal. Controlling the possibilities concerning how the Other is depicted and silenced is equally central. Not by chance, for example, that the censorship of RT became official in the European Union soon after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. In spite of us living in the current digital information Era, war efforts in the 21st  Century still promote centuries-old logics, of which the monopoly of the use of propaganda seems to be one among many. Despite the power of war narratives, the creation and dissemination of narratives that support and contest the war do not necessarily occur in a linear model from a single transmitter to multiple receivers that are diluted into an anonymous and uniform mass, nor is everything produced by one person, at one time or in one place. There are several actors. Several elements feed these dynamics. Amidst this logic,  the media plays a central role. They are fundamental pieces in this game. It was not for nothing that Kissinger created the “shuttle diplomacy” (an embryonic figure of the current embedded journalism model) or that, in the Rwandan genocide, Radio Television Milles Collines was a key player in inciting the Tutsi’s genocide in 1994 or that, more recently, Facebook was instrumental in promoting the persecution and genocide of the Rohingya in Myanmar.

However, in spite of the polarisation, the creation and dispute of narratives should not be seen at all in a Manichaean way. It is dynamic, always under construction, always in dispute and complex, always emotive and rational. In other words, on the narrative war board, all parties to the conflict are present without exception. The war narrative can be co-opted by those who do not occupy decision-making positions and, not agreeing with the war, were sent to fight it, or those who suffer from the war may also need these exact stories. Without them, the war would be nothing but horror and despair. Those who contest war and those who seek peace also look at the terrain of narratives as a dispute board where war can be politically dismantled, deconstructed and overcome using arguments moved by solidarity, empathy and enthusiasm.

This narrative potential for political dissension is mainly due to two dualisms that feed and define both narratives as such and narratives as a space for dispute. The first dualism points to the weight of the past and adaptability to the present. In other words, the narratives draw on foundational identity structures while constantly facing renegotiations. That is, rootedness coexists with plasticity and the challenge and aspirations of the moment. Even when narratives unfold and linger in present times, they combine elements of the past and ambitions for the future, making them remarkably effective in political terms. They are based on such structuring elements of a given society or community that only through the use of specific names, adjectives or labels, conceptual connections such as “democracy” or “security”, for example, or simple processes of connotation can they be activated in the imaginaries that serve it are successful. However, they are also highly malleable and negotiable by updating or making some terms or connections unfeasible. The well-known example used by Stuart Hall, where he opposes “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” as two possible words (and thus lenses)  to interpret the actions of Palestinians, is illustrative of this. The second is that narratives and their construction – as has been widely discussed – always happen in a permanent tension between macro and micro, in which transhistorical macro-narratives offer a form of “rationality” that gains meaning by being rooted in the dominant culture and micro-narratives. Narratives from people’s daily experiences or alternative or marginalised political agendas feed, contest or gradually negotiate the macro-narrative. The relationship between the micro and the macro is, each time, a power relationship. Micro-narratives always occur in relation to or in tension with macro-narratives, co-opting them, subscribing to or challenging them.

In terms of the war in Ukraine, for example, one can consider the existence of two macro narratives. On the Russian side, the narrative is based on the denunciation of the hostility and self-interest of the West that is behind the regime change in Kyiv, coupled with the need to stop the fascist threat from spreading in Ukraine. This depiction and presentation of the conflict feeds and intertextually activates other historical narratives in Russia (such as the siege syndrome). Sticking the case of Ukraine to this macro-narrative is a successful way of building a threat and, therefore, an enemy that is vital to defeat. On the Ukrainian side, one finds the narrative of self-determination, resistance and self-defence. Much of the success of the Ukrainian narrative rests on its ability to omit its own flaws or inconsistencies, which echoes European discourses and mediascapes. Under the justification of being victims of an invasion, which almost no one disputes, the Ukrainian side is constantly represented in a superficial and whitewashed way and as “one of us”. There is no mention, for example, of Ukraine’s corruption problems or the weaknesses concerning the rule of law and rights protection. Between each macro narrative built upon the past and imagining a specific future, one can find multiple micro-narratives that coopt or contest them in many ways, particularly if looking at social media accounts or testimonies in alternative media.

In Portuguese media, the polarised narratives of the war in Ukraine also echo. This means that past, present and future are also negotiated here. Just like many other NATO countries, the propensity to demonise one side and to neglect micro-narratives tend to be the norm, failing to do justice to the complexity of the topic. Just as reality is never closed in just one story, neither are the stories that tell and underpin war. The other side, however flawed and wrong, also has a story to tell and must be heard and considered. Polarisation is seldom productive when aiming at building long-lasting positive peace. Depolarising does not mean, however, nor can it mean, depoliticising for politics is the centre stage of  depolarisation and building peace.


 Sofia José Santos is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at the Faculty of Economics of the University of Coimbra and a researcher at the Center for Social Studies where she is part of the UNPOP project team, coordinated by Cristiano Gianolla. She also integrates MEDIATIZED-EU and MYGENDER research projects and coordinates, together with Júlia Garraio, the research project UNCOVER which focuses on media representations of sexual violence. Her work has been published in different scientific journals, namely Media and Communication and Contexto Internacional.

 Alexandre de Sousa Carvalho is a junior researcher at the Center for Social Studies of the University of Coimbra. He coordinated the thematic area on “Populism and Extreme Masculinities” within the DeCode/M research project and is currently a member of the research project UnCover-Sexual Violence in the Portuguese Media Landscape. Since September 2023, he is part of Observatório, where he is the Observatory’s communications coordinator and member of the EMiNC. His work has already been published in different scientific journals, such as the European Journal of Women’s Studies and COMMONS.

Source: Alice News