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Sunday, July 14, 2013

In the Eye of the Beholder [3]

Malcolm Gladwell's BBC article on the issue of bias
Malcolm Gladwell's BBC article on the issue of bias.

Gladwell's point is that the ability to listen well - to be able to hear what someone says and not filter it through your own biases - is a gift. I call it being wise to those times when you need to "take a back seat" and just observe, but his view is that it is something you are born with, like having a photographic memory.

Gladwell also pointed out something more revealing: that we have a great deal of trouble with people who have this gift. There is something about all of us that likes the fact that what we hear is filtered through someone's biases. We find it very difficult to remove bias from our lives, because it is so integral to the way we think. We read news accounts from news sources we feel are impartial, but what does our choice of news sources say about our own biases? The BBC likes to believe it itself to be impartial, but although it is my main news source, it has its own editorial biases, especially when it comes to reporting on Turkish issues.

I have been criticised by some Turkish readers for my heavy use of BBC reporting, especially over the Gezi protests, but as someone who has lived in England all his life, who grew up with the BBC and as a taxpayer of their licensing fee, I am well aware of how the BBC was formed. From the British colonial bias and inherent jingoism with which it began - under the guidance of a puritanical founder, whose harsh nature many conjecture came from his repressed homosexuality - to the corporation it has evolved into today.

But as the BBC has its own unique editorial bias, so do I, so do you. Gladwell reveals his own personal biases in his article. The aim is to be able to recognise them, and face them. When we ignore them, as America did over the Vietnam War, things get worse and worse. This is good advice that Erdoğan's government and advisers could take - to start listening without bias and exert less energy on looking for political enemies behind the protests.

Governments should not be about telling people what to do; governments should be about listening to people. People must give voice through legal channels, but if those legal channels do not work, then protest is inevitable. Erdoğan's government needs to ask itself why the people of Turkey felt the need to take to the streets.

The Guardian's Fiachra Gibbons, writing in his signature irreverent style, has some pertinent points to make about the Turkish prime minister's refusal to build bridges, in favour of the confrontational behaviour that surprised so many abroad.

In reality the greatest danger to Erdoğan has always been Erdoğan himself and the company he keeps... As a hopeless nostalgic for the Ottoman empire, Erdoğan might be wise to remember that far more sultans died at the hands of their retainers than ever did in battle."

Erdoğan would do well to filter through his own biases, and not see anti-Turkish sentiment lurking in every corner, even if recent international events - like Edward Snowden - may help to reinforce his paranoia. If not his paranoia, that the people criticising him are no better, because in pursuing Snowden for leaking intelligence about covert operations, the US and some European countries have demonstrated a willingness to act outside the law when it suits them and their national security.

Furthermore, Erdoğan's detractors will have to accept that, rather than see him for the authoritarian he has become, his die-hard supporters will always remember Erdoğan as the reformer who allowed Islam to finally breathe in the secular republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And for all of Erdoğan's authoritarian attitude, at least his critics cannot ever accuse him of serious crimes against humanity. When we compare him to the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, for example, where charges of genocide have been reinstated against him in the Hague, it does put things into perspective.

Erdoğan may be a little Napoleon in his thinking, but we need to be careful that our biases do not inflate our criticisms to match Erdoğan's paranoia. Gone slightly mad from power, and caricatured as "Godfather" type image? Possibly. But equating Erdoğan with rulers that have killed people en masse is probably going too far for the rational individual. If, however, there is going to be a lasting resolution to the protests the events at Gezi Park inspired, then Erdoğan is going to have to learn to listen better than he has been doing of late. Ignoring the protesters because of his biases not only damages his impartiality, but his political legacy, too. He does so at his peril.

The BBC has questioned its own impartiality in recent years. The founding principles set out by its first director general have been revised, and the whole child sex abuse culture that was rife in the BBC during the seventies is under investigation. The corporation is having to do a lot of soul searching, while it continues its job as an impartial broadcaster.

After Turkish broadcasters were heavily criticised for not covering Gezi Park in the early days of the protests, the BBC suspended its partnership with Turkish broadcaster NTV following its decision not to transmit the BBC programme "Dunya Gundemi" (World Agenda). Ziad Dajani had instigated a petition on Change.org for the BBC to stop its partnership with NTV, which garnered nearly 10,000 signatures. The BBC was possibly more influenced by some Turkish authorities describing their reporters as "English agents", seeing it as an intimidation of the freedom of the press.

In taking the decision against NTV, BBC World Service director Peter Horrocks said:

Any interference in BBC broadcasting is totally unacceptable, and at a time of considerable international concern about the situation in Turkey the BBC's impartial service to audiences is vital."

If I were to remind Horrocks that the BBC, in 2011, stopped one of their programmes from investigating claims of child abuse in the BBC, and it took another rival commercial TV channel to reveal the decades of sexual abuse that went on under the auspices of the trailblazing corporation, wouldn't that sound a little like the pot calling the kettle black?

Even more recently, the BBC has had to defend its decision to censor anti-Thatcher campaigners after the death of Britain's divisive prime minister earlier this year. Another example of curbing freedoms due to cultural sensitivities, possibly, as in Britain we tend to believe it is a mark of respect not to speak ill of the dead out of due care for surviving family members. But it is also part of British culture to see that sort of sensitivity as pretentiousness. Some people would rather speak the truth about the dead, and have their freedom to do so respected.

Yet, the point I would make is that both the actions of the BBC and NTV were wrong - both misread public opinion - and two wrongs do not make one of them right. They do not somehow cancel each other out. Simply because we are all biased to lesser or larger degrees, it doesn't mean being biased is the way we should conduct ourselves, and that we shouldn't try to silence its voice when circumstances demand we listen to others. If bias is an integral part of our human make-up, then it is there as an incentive for us to constantly question our own beliefs and ideals.

As the world stands in the particular moment of this post, we are still very racially motivated in our thoughts. It seems we haven't come so far from the First World War, when the British distributed leaflets warning their soldiers not to allow themselves to be captured by "Johnny Turk" during the Gallipoli campaign as the Turks were barbaric cannibals and ate their prisoners of war. Many Allied prisoners of war were surprised and ashamed when the fairytale of the barbaric Turk turned out not to be true.

Today only the Turkish descendants of wartime foes can march on Anzac Day in Australia. This applies only to descendants of World War I Turkish soldiers, because they were "a very honourable" enemy, according to the Victorian RSL president, Major-General David McLachlan. The endorsement does not, so far, extend to families of German, Japanese, Italian or North Vietnamese.

Despite this, it is when we talk of a British perspective - and due to its reputation across the world and its ability to write history as the victor in many conflicts across the world - we see it as a reputable one. When we talk of a Turkish perspective, no matter how many of its regional and societal problems the country tries to resolve, for many across the world, the biased stereotype we have of the Turk holds stronger.

Talking to my American friend on the phone the other evening - before the Belfast riots - the conversation invariably turned to the Gezi Park protests. She told me she hadn't even heard of water cannons until the brutality of Istanbul's police (my words, not hers) hit the international headlines. I informed her that Britain's riot police have water cannons in their arsenal as well, but it is a well-kept secret that they keep their cannons in Northern Ireland. I had no idea the the recent Belfast riots would unfortunately prove me right.

I have a special affection for Ireland, so I will be biased, but no one can fail to see it is still struggling to come to terms with its historical partition. There was even a moment (one of many) in British history when the Victorians tried to limit foreign aid to the famine-stricken Irish, and an Ottoman Sultan broke that royal embargo to secretly send food, supplies and gold to the starving Irish. There has even been talk of this being made into a film with Hollywood actors, but Armenian and Greeks lobbyists in America have been pressurising backers to kill off the project - only their own biases know what for what reason. Religious, historical, political - take your pick.

But even if such a project were to be greenlighted, who would want to watch it? Could people in America get past their biases to watch it? Stuck in between the latest Greek mythology action movies and thinly veiled racist films like "Midnight Express", how could anyone see past what they have been bred on, to even understand what they were watching?

This is not to say the film "Midnight Express" is without any truth, but it is propaganda, like most of seventies Hollywood, for different ideals. In terms of cinema, the aesthetics and the imagery should be what is most important, not the facts of the drama, but a film needs to be emotionally truthful at its core, not emotionally biased. The plain fact of the matter is every film can be intellectually argued as pure technique in the service of one man's ideological belief, but we should try to avoid saying such sensitivity is "overblown" until we have lived in the skin of the person a film stereotypes.

I wasn't around when "Midnight Express" won its Oscar awards, but when I was of age, I watched the movie. Foolishly, I expected some kind of well-rounded criticism of the prison service, and the horrors of drug smuggling, what I was met with was Spanish actors garbling gibberish I couldn't understand (which was meant to be Turkish) and the infamous "Turks are pigs" speech. If we took that speech ad verbatim, and simply changed the world "Turk" to "Jew" that speech would be anti-Semitic, and it would be a crime in most Western countries - even those who purport to back free speech, because of cultural and historical sensitivities.

Any sensitivities notwithstanding, I would never do that anyway. I would never waste what little writing ability I have to write a speech that demeans an entire race, whatever dramatical context it happens to be dressed up in. Can you visualise a Hollywood movie about Amanda Knox's experience of prison life in Italy, which in her memoir she described her four years in a Perugia women's prison as a "trauma in an Italian hellhole of sex and debauchery", where Knox stands up and starts racially abusing the judges? Or a dramatisation over the increasing cases of imprisonment coming out of Dubai, where its cosmopolitan atmosphere belie deeply conservative roots that clash with Western visitors, depicting the people on trial cursing "the oil-rich Arabs"?

I could write a film script where a Palestinian mother has lost her entire family to the brutality of war and the immorality of a few corrupt Israeli soldiers, and still my conscience wouldn't allow me to put such racist views in a character's mouth. I would prefer to work in motifs of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation. But that is just me. A different man, of a different time.

Faced with such bias what I did do, however, at the age of 18, was to get the entire "Turks are pigs" speech printed out on a T-shirt. I wore it all the way through my university years. I discovered some people agreed with the speech and the sentiments, but I also discovered that many took offence - and they were from all walks of life. When I told all of them I was Turkish - indeed proud to be a "Turkish pig" - the ones that had initially agreed with the speech fell silent.

They discovered that being prejudiced, and having those prejudices spoken out loud are two entirely different things. When reality clashes with the stereotype, things get uncomfortable for our assumptions because they are based on an illogical fantasy - that we can truly know something without experiencing it.

This was not a splinter I was prepared to allow others to push under my skin, or to keep under theirs unwittingly. The people I came into contact with had to challenge their own biases, and I wore that Hollywood bias as a badge of pride, because my entire being, in thought and action, was in complete contrast to it.

As a result, I used that movie to debunk the assumptions of others, and I have Oliver Stone's script to thank for the opportunity. I challenged the bias I had seen by filtering it through my own and conforming to none.

Sometimes, because of the colour or creed or race of a person we think they know better. I may have a stronger grasp of the English language than my ancestral Turkish kin. I may have been brought up in a completely different culture and lifestyle to many of them, but why should my Western vantage point be an unfair advantage? Why should my particular circumstance, for example, make readers in America - and other people that share a certain viewpoint - take me seriously over any other Turk?

The reality is, I'm glad to say however, that although many may come with that initial bias, many others will return not because of my Western sense and sensibilities, but because of the sentences I construe. Conversely, it may even help to reaffirm their biases, but I must confess I have met many Turks more intelligent, more aware and more peaceful and respectful than I, and many of my fellow British citizens.

Indeed, because I was not nurtured in that region, I believe I sadly lack the characteristic warmth Turkish people of that region share. I am far more British in nature, but where British ignorance has the advantage of its imperial bias, Turkish enlightenment has the disadvantage of its own Ottoman heritage.

The subtle editorial bias that certain Turks may sense from the BBC is what I call their "Lawrence of Arabia" mentality; there are still some in the corporation that believe they live in a world where the British Empire still exists, the Suez Canal crisis never happened, and that they still own and hock a third of the world. A time when they were busy deposing the Ottomans from the Arab states for the oil, with the Arabs getting the worst of a bad deal. Blacklisting the Ottomans began even further back than British Imperial rule, they were just continuing a time honoured tradition. But what this tradition did was to leave many modern Turks bewildered as to why the world seemed so against them.

Turkish problemsA humorous look at Turkish culture
by three Turkish friends/Tumblr
Some treat it with self-deprecating humour by making fun of the eccentricities of their culture, illustrating that people can laugh at their own biases, and the biases of other people. Some try to challenge assumptions by example. It is for this reason I can understand the paranoia of people like Erdoğan to some extent - when we realise the level of anti-Turkish feeling in Germany is akin to its anti-Semitism in times past - but really admire Turks like Tarkan who have been able to rise above it. In an interview in 2006, the singer had mentioned how growing up in Germany he remembered the Germans had "looked down" on the Turks, and yet growing up in such a biased culture, Tarkan today is known just as much for his humanitarian efforts, as he is for his music. He has managed to become an icon for a peaceful, tolerant synthesis of East and West that attracts many of his fans. It is commendable he was able to rise above bias, and in doing so help break down many barriers in Turkish society.

Turks like Tarkan have accepted and dealt with anti-Turkish bias in a Western world, with what seems like the minimal amount of bitterness, retaining the friendliness and hospitality Turks are famed for. Turks are not pigs, nor are they cannibals, or at any rate no more or less than the average American, Englishman, Greek or Armenian. But in some circles, the Gezi Park protests have shown up biases that would have us believing different.

Does this mean the Gezi Park protests were somehow wrong? Not at all. I stick by my decision to back the environmentalist protest, and I still do. Five people have died, thousands injured, hundreds detained - these are issues that need to find a resolution. I have flown to Turkey on six separate occasions and took part in as many protests across the country. I am not anti-government, nor anti-Islam, nor is my point that the rest of the world "is just as bad" so why bother.

Apart from one protest, the ones I took part in were peaceful ones in the main, where the police did not intervene, violently or otherwise. These were silent "stand-ins" that continued throughout the closure of the park after the occupation was ended by riot police. Standing still in protest was a direct response to Erdoğan's accusations that all the protesters were "looting drunkards" guilty of stirring violence. This fallacy was exposed by these stand-ins, because it differed from rallying. You could not be accused of violence just by standing still.

G8 riot policePoster popularising the
standing man, in a parody
of the "Keep Calm and
Carry On
" slogan
I had written about my hope that the protests would take the form of civil disobedience, after some protesters decided to choose violence to express themselves, and, so, was naturally happy to see this emerge nearly a week later. When artist Erdem Gündüz walked into Taksim Square on 17 June, with no announcement, no signs, no explanation and silently stood there for a number of hours staring at an image of Turkey's founding father hanging from the AKM, his small but powerful act of defiance magnetised others to join in his peaceful resistance. I was one of them.

Christopher Burgess - a pro-Turk who spent some of his childhood in Turkey - used his own unique biases to cover these events, whilst chiding Erdoğan for missing his opportunity to "truly be the ultimate statesman" in the form of the country's founder, preferring to take "the tack of listening to some truly outrageous advice from his lieutenants" instead.

...While Erdogan [sic] looked about who to blame, the protests widen and the population engages, violence meeting violence until one day, one man says, I am going to stand. And on June 18, a lone man, Erdem Gunduz [sic] walked out to the newly reopened Taksim Square, and took a stand, literally. He stood motionless for six hours, with his bag in front of him. And with that a new form of protest came to be, that of *Duran Adam* (Turkish for Standing Man). Across the country mothers, wives, sisters, brothers, husbands, and fathers of Turkey stepped out of their homes and into the street in silent protest."

The Western press made light of these peaceful stand-ins, preferring to focus on the violent protests, because there was a minimal amount of fuss and the Turkish authorities had promised there would be no intervention. When violence did erupted in the Gezi protests, it often occurred when extreme left-wing groups were involved, or when bystanders and shop owners - angry at their loss of income - have resorted to a type of misguided vigilantism thinking they were "helping" the police stop the protests. This does in no way excuse the disproportionate use of violence by the police, but it does bring another perspective to the riots.

The point is that we need to see the Gezi Park protest beyond our biases, and support its democratic stance - not because it is a convenient attack on Islam, but because it is a testament to human free will. Unless we move past historical discrimination, we are in actuality hindering the progress of democracy in Turkey. They cannot fight an increasingly authoritarian government and the manipulations of anti-Turkish bias at the same time. They need to be given the supportive space to stand up for their rights, not given incitement and incentive to destabilise their country. Violence resolves nothing. People choose it in the absence of hope. No one wants another Egypt on their doorstep - not neighbouring Greeks, or Armenians, and Armenian and Greek Turkish citizens less so.

I have always tried to be careful, with all the anti-Turkish sentiment about, that my own biases don't start working. Turks also need to be wary they do not shout "anti-Turkish bias" without justification - like the boy that cried wolf. I challenge my biases constantly, and I treat everyone - no matter their colour or creed - in the same way, until I am given just cause to behave differently.

In my own childhood, although I am very concious of the fact I didn't suffer experiences as Tarkan did, my father told me that it was the curse and nature of a Turk to be hospitable in an inhospitable world, but I was never raised in an environment of hate. Even when I later discovered my family had been persecuted by Greek Cypriots in the seventies, rather than find someone to blame, I wanted to understand and see beyond the hate. I did not want the bias of others to make me biased; I wanted to see behind the bias and the history with which I had to deal.

It is time to investigate what lies behind the bias a Turk, wishing to connect with the greater world, has to contend with daily - and by extension all of us. Moreover, Turks have to face their own history, and listen to the biases and preconceived notions of others, if they are to respond to them intelligently. They have to realise their ancestors helped to create these biases. Armenians or Greeks didn't foster anti-Turkish bias in a vacuum to pass on to the British and Americans; historical and political tensions across the centuries have nurtured it.

The life of people that remain unreconciled will always be a history lesson. But the more we break down our (personal and regional) sensitivities, the more freedom we have to express ourselves clearly. If we don't know the past, we can't hope to understand the present, or envision our future. Each is a link that connects us to greater understanding. This is part of our future story - one that we will all write together, to outdo the last.

At least that is what I hope, but hope, too, like everything else, is in the eye of the beholder.

Main Index | Part One | Part Two | End of Part Three

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