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Turkey's social monologue

Turkey’s remedy to ethnic conflict claims to be social dialogue, however this so-called social dialogue can only be effective once a common vocabulary is deployed and the actors truly listen to one another.
Oguz Alyanak
31 August 2011

The pathology of the social disease known as nationalism has for long been under examination by mysophobic liberal social scientists. In Turkey, this research has been undertaken by academics and activists in a largely regulated and indoctrinated field over the last two decades. Without a doubt, the discussion has evolved over time, seeking new forms of treatment. Especially following the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink’s tragic assassination in 2007, certain topics previously considered as taboo, such as the state’s way of dealing with the Kurdish uprisings and its immoveable stance on the issue of the Armenian genocide have become more open for comment on public platforms. The overall debate, in its current stage, seems to have given us a tool with which to fend off the effects of nationalism. This remedial tool is called social dialogue: a communicative activity involving social actors such as citizens, nongovernmental organizations, state representatives and dissident groups.

The problem, however, is the following: How is social dialogue possible in a society where no one listens?

The day after the attack by Kurdish insurgents in Turkey’s eastern province Hakkari on 17 August was an undeclared, yet widely 'celebrated' national day of hatred. It was a day where everyone was right in their fury, and moreover, permitted to speak of it. The pathological responses of an impetuous society, agitated deeply by the loss of its soldiers, led many in Turkey to express their rage on the streets as well as in the social media.  Within the span of the Turkish state’s almost three-decade war against terror, one can find numerous such occasions in which hatred has blinded us all. What is worrisome, however, is not the past; nor is it the present. It is the future.

Twenty years from now, the newspapers will once again write: Turkey attacks Kurdish guerrillas in retaliation for the ambush by Kurdish insurgents. Bombs will be dropped on mountains; damage will be collateral. Following military action, in meagre attempts to learn from repeated past mistakes, the public will once again hear the same old clichés that military might is insufficient to heal Turkey’s open wounds and what is missing in Turkey is “social dialogue”. Politicians will act as if nothing has happened. Once again they will evade responsibility by arguing that the problem at hand is a social one that supersedes their managerial skills.

How can I be so confident in such a prophecy ? Am I not altogether too pessimistic? The fact is that we have not learned a single thing regarding the modes of communication with each other. For we have never understood the virtue of an utter silence where things turn reflexive and a person faces his/her moral self in its purest, ugliest yet also wisest form. In twenty years' time, we will all be asked once again to sit around an imaginary table and discuss matters. However, there will be as there is now a total lack of - to employ a term coined by the anthropologist Erving Goffman in the early 1950s – a  'common vocabulary' for reciprocal understanding, if, of course, we show enough courtesy even to attempt to listen to one another to start with.

Turkish society has never been eager to build a collectively agreed upon vocabulary on the social level, a vocabulary through which we could empathize and understand each other’s pain, suffering, alienation and loneliness.  Where the liberal paradigm fails in the Turkish case is that we do not know how to communicate, and we never did. Because we do not know how to listen and seek virtue in our self-reflexive silence. Hence, what many call the social dialogue is a monologue at its best.

Although many causes can be pinpointed for the recurrent cycle of insurgent activities, we should not blame social dialogue. The way we deploy it, social dialogue is a method of  escape, and not a way to deal with the issues at hand. Every day we take the pill, we hope to get cured. However, there needs to be more than hope to experience measurable recovery. Otherwise, under the rubric of 'social dialogue', hatred perpetuates.

Political actors blame the separatist Kurds organized under the insurgent group known as the PKK for hampering the possibility of social dialogue while the wider society continues to wonder what the term means to begin with. Kurdish political parties, magazines, artists and intellectuals are threatened with closure for advocating the rights of the insurgents, and using terror as a means to achieve their ends. These threats are held to be valid without our even knowing who the insurgents are or what their supposed ends are. Cease-fires are declared and retracted. And meanwhile, while we are thinking of social dialogue, we are speaking about bloodshed, once again.

What we witness in Turkey today is what we have long witnessed.  Not a bunch of ethnic conflicts being pursued by outdated methods which we are trying and failing to reconcile with our new age. But an abyss in our communication. A little less talking and a little more listening by politicians, would provide us, bewildered, perplexed citizens whose only means of self-expression is rage, with more time to think and make keen observation of our habits of social interaction. In order for a sceptic such as myself to believe in the glitz of social dialogue, I first  need to believe in the possibility of a tranquil state of contemplation, where silence begins to teach us; first how to listen, then how to think, and maybe, even to empathize with the other. 

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