…or rather how biased do you have to be in order to expect a balanced reporting of the issues to always result in a conclusion that makes neither side out to be the bad guy?
I have long been disturbed by what I perceive as a spreading idea that unbiased reporting (I am taking reporting in the broadest definition) on an issue will yield a result that is “balanced and fair.” I’ve recently heard this in relation to the Circassian genocide in 1864, the Russo-Chechen War in the 1990s, and in reference to Uighur history in Chinese Xinjiang.
The argument usually goes something like this: “So and So’s book/think-tank, etc. is so unbalanced and incredibly biased, because they only show one side to the conflict”. This really just comes down to an inherently biased expectation that readers seem to be infected with from high school: unbiased and fair reporting always means that both sides are wrong/both sides are in the right. We expect unbiased reporting to mean that there is no clear bad guy, no villain, no unjust, rather both sides have a justified and credible story to tell.
This is so far off point it is just plain stupid. I am sympathetic to the fact that every problem of substantive impact is complicated with overlapping concerns, histories, and motivations. I am also sympathetic to the fact that it is sometimes too simple to just cry wolf and run away from the complexity of problems (I do it myself for short blog postings!). What I am not sympathetic to are those that find it even simpler to assume that there is no one in the wrong in the first place. This, as far as I am concerned, is academic escapism, designed to perpetuate the status quo and inherently coercive in that is denies rights to victims by avoiding identifying a victim and perpetrator in the first place.
The Chechen War in the 1990s is a good example, where people will often accuse a number of writers of being unbalanced in their assessment of the conflict because they point the war crimes of the Russian side more often than those of the Chechen side. More often than not this will come from students of contemporary Russia, who seem to feel that anything that paints the Russian government and Russian military as the perpetrators of mass killings and war crimes is somehow biased. If a recent facebook argument involving myself and a Russian acquaintance is any indication, it is as if such people feel that accusing a Russian institution of criminal activity and actions comparable to genocide is the same as accusing the whole of the Russian people of this action. Well, lets just be clear that I do not blame the entirety or even the majority of Russian people for tragedies in Chechnya. But lets also be clear that all the evidence I have come across shows pretty clearly that in Russo-Chechen relations, it is more often the Russian side that has taken the more deplorable approach first.
The logic will then invariably turn into something like this: Yeah, well let’s talk about the American crimes against its own indigenous peoples. This statement is not meant to lead to any debate, but is rather meant to silence the so-called biased party. Let me be clear (again) that this is a major question that needs to be addressed in US society, but also lets point out that the US has admitted to these crimes, rather than shy away by shifting guilt to someone else. It is a rare and ultimately inconsequential psychopath that would try and justify American actions against indigenous peoples.
This brings me to my point: We have to stop assuming that a balanced and fair reporting of a story will always look a certain way, and leave the reader with the idea that there is no clear guilty party. The truth is that we are more comfortable without a guilty party, because it means we can write off an incident as just too complicated to take on. In reality, there do exist real cases where real crimes are committed against peoples. Americans have no problem with admitting our own country’s guilty in the genocides against Native Americans, and for good reason: we are clearly the guilty party. Lets not assume that incidents abroad will always be more “balanced” and “fair”, and lets not assume the balanced and fair reporting will always look a certain way.
At the end of the day, that is the worst bias of all.
I have started reading a book entitled Autobiographical IR, I and IR edited by Naeem Inayatullah, in which a number of IR scholars from around the globe present deeply personal autobiographies of their personal connections to their research, motivations, and moral points of view. In short, it is a rare, truthful look at the personal side of the profession- a side that is often covered up to present a lie of objectivity and the presentation of true fact. More on critical approaches to IR and Political Science later; for now, I thought I might try my hand at this exercise in a shortened version here. While the book might only take established scholars on for its material, I thought looking at my own autobiography as emerging scholar have completed only one semester of a PhD program at the young age of 26 might be informative and being the process of truthful and open research from an early point. That said, here we go!
“I’m Scottish, English, Italian, and Polish,” I proudly declared one day to my best childhood friend in 6th grade. We were on our way to lunch, and were waiting in line to wash our hands in the basement, before going to the gymnasium/cafeteria. It was one of those classic old school houses: two stories high, brick, with a steel tube-slide as a fire escape out the second story. I felt very multicultural, so a 6th grader in a school with a total of about 40 pupils, K-8th grade in rural Montana.
“Well, I’m part Mongolian and Estonian!” my friend replied. Now he could never be trusted 100%, and I was sure this was some crazy joke.
“Those aren’t even real places!” I confidentially declared. After all, Estonia sounded like a made up place, and Mongolia, that was only in storybooks, right?
Fast-forward 13-14 years, and suddenly Mongolia is incredibly real for me, maybe too real, even. I speak Mongolian, I lived in the country for over 15 months over 5 trips, and written two theses on the country’s foreign relations. Estonia remains a little more elusive, but has generally factored into my research as an example of a small and internationally engaged state. Surely the more than a decade in between must have been formative in this regard.
I’m sitting on a plane seriously doubting my decision to study aboard for a year in Russia as a high school junior. My mom had brought me to the gate, and she parted from me bawling, as mothers are want to do. It certainly was a strange decision to make, and I had no background or substantive education to prepare me for what I was up against. My impression remains that most students that study aboard at any point in their academic career, and especially high school students, come from at least modestly well-off families. Study aboard organizations are often proud to highlight the number of students that receive some sort of financial aid, but let us be clear, not being able to afford a $10,000 price tag for a year abroad (that was in 2004, I doubt the price has been stable) is a very different thing than not being able to afford the gas money to get to the airport. And yet, here I was going to Russia. Why? Two reasons: 1) I saw a Russian dictionary in a bookstore, and thought it looked cool; 2) It seemed far more interesting and unique than Spanish, which was the only foreign language offered at my high school, sort of post-comm chic, if you will. And so it began, a series of fortunate coincidences motivated by not excepting economic limits (often not as heroic as it might sound) and refusing to go with convention.
Mongolia was really just a continuation of that theme, at first. It sounded cool, I had access to student loans (regrettable, yes; unhelpful, no), and I thought it would make me stand out later in the job world. So, I paid an organization to let me work for free as a summer intern. Yes, that’s what I said, paid to let me work for them! In reality, I was terrible intern, so it might have been a fair deal after all. I thought I would spend a couple months in Ulaanbaatar, and then never return!
In no time at all, though, I had caught the Mongolian bug, and pursued every opportunity to get back. Eventually, I developed real research interests, but at first, it was all about hanging out, learning Mongolian, and making friends along the way. I became intoxicated (figuratively?) with the culture, people, countryside, and the general struggle of living in UB and traveling outside the city far earlier that I became captivated by nationalism, foreign policy, indigenous rights, and irredentism. There is a certain level of truth to admitting that our research interests can be real, even when our initial case study was the result of youthful chance and thrill seeking.
I’ll stop here for now, having come to an impasse. However, I think this might be a nice project to prolong a bit, so stay toned for additional installments.
I've been shamefully negligent in my blogging, and that is about to stop! I am planning a number of cool posts in the coming weeks, and should be back in full swing soon enough. Some topics to include:
-Radical/Critical International Relations
-Autobiographical IR experiment
-Is practicing Political Science as a separate discipline counterproductive?
-Draft of a syllabus for teaching Indigenous Rights and Ethnic Policy
Also hoping to get some more articles published on topics such as:
-Circassian Genocide and the Sochi Olympics
-Mongolian Foreign Policy
For Small Matters @MiliateMatters.com, I'll be bringing back the book review tab as a place to recommend publications to my readers, but also as a venue for me to practice the craft a bit.
Some of my readers might be happy to know that I am still compiling Foreign Policy Roundups highlighting the foreign affairs news of Mongolia over a two week stretch of time. In fact, they are all available on Mongolia Focus, for your easy reference. I am planning to make some changes to structure and content of these news updates, including restricting the number of stories per week and offering a little more analysis/context. We will have to see.
Analysis, Thoughts, Ideas
This blog will be an online publishing site for smaller analytical projects, news stories that I find relevant to small state foreign policy and indigenous autonomy, as well as a testing ground for new ideas and new projects that I may pursue.