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Thursday, July 11, 2013

In the Eye of the Beholder

Man with Ataturk poster outside Gezi Park
A man holds a giant poster showing Mustafa Kemal Atatürk
as he waits to enter Gezi Park at Taksim Square in Istanbul
on Monday, July 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

Have a real good look at the above photograph. The photograph within the photograph. To some it will be meaningless. To others it will mean a great deal. It might conjure up religious or political animosity, or stir passionate patriotism. But on any issue that happens to catch our eye, what ultimately dictates where we stand between indifference and interest?

One answer is bias, but why is it we see only what our biases allow us to see? And how should we react when our biases are held up against us?

Stick with me, and I will take you on an intellectual journey to open our minds. Together we will broaden our horizons, as I try to get us to challenge what we think we know, using examples from human history and pop culture.

I say stick with me, because I can understand how it can be hard-going reading posts that force us to question our assumptions. For instance, how many of us will read this post all the way through? And what does where we stop reading say about our own biases?

Do we simply want to read stuff easy on the eyes, and not heavy on the brain? Sometimes it just feels good to share in the superficiality of things that go no deeper than its visible beauty. And there is nothing wrong with that. But as the eyes help feed the soul, so too, does the mind - and a narrow one has neither the space nor the inclination for challenging thoughts, or to have its views challenged.

For me, simply writing about the same things, without questioning or wondering, gets boring and very restricting. The great thing about freedom of thought is that we can allow our minds the space to question ourselves and foster open discussion that educates. A narrow mind attracts a narrow readership. It relegates itself to pampering like-minded groups. It imposes more than it teaches, because it can't learn anything new.

As a result of my blog's particular situation, however, I feel I am lucky on this score. Initially basing this blog on the music artist Tarkan has meant I enjoy a unique readership in this regard. Over the years I've found that the majority of Tarkan fans share a natural affinity for acceptance. Tarkan fans like to challenged. They are bound by a common willingness to listen to something new, and to appreciate and show acceptance of cultures outside of their own borders. Most readers tend to come to my posts primed with an open heart and mind, and I feel blessed for that.

Even when I closed the blog in 2010, they kept returning in their hundreds to use the blog daily, and that was humbling. But more importantly, it was a testament to Tarkan. I always insist I am not a "fan" in the "fanatical" sense, but I look back with a certain amount of pride at having opened the first active blog on a young man destined to become an iconic singer of his generation. I feel a great deal of gratitude towards the artist and the fans who initially inspired me to open Tarkan Deluxe in April 2004 - which celebrates its 10th anniversary next year.

Tarkan's continued stance of peace and tolerance confirms I was not wrong to support or show appreciation for his talent and his humanistic views. It is thanks in no small part to him, that through this platform, I, and other guest writers, have been given the opportunity to present an alternative point of view on issues of interest. Speaking for me, it has been a rewarding experience trying to bring those looking in from a distance a little closer to Tarkan, with what little writing ability I have, and in doing so, shining a light on Turkish culture.

Yet, even those of us that come with our biases for Tarkan, or for poetry, or for music we can't understand the lyrics to, how many of us will skip over the serious issues, because we just don't want to read something different than what we are already interested in?

Gezi Park, which provided an unexpected opportunity for me to reopen my blog, has also made me re-examine my own biases. Due to some recent thought-provoking correspondence over the protests, I have begun to wonder about the portrait Gezi Park must portray to some people - or more specifically to the biases of groups and individuals looking at the protests from a distance.

After a month of unrest in Istanbul over Taksim's Gezi Park, what is it we saw looking at subsequent events? Did we see Istanbul's governor tweet on 6 July that Gezi Park would be reopened to the public that Sunday? Or did we just see, on the weekend the park was to reopen, the stories of demonstrators clashing with police once again?

Did we see that these were no longer the first peaceful environmentalists who captured our imagination? That these were extreme left-wing groups battling with police in a cordoned off area, which was a day away from being reopened to the public, after council workers had spent the last weeks replanting flowers and trees in the park?

Did we see any of that? Did we take notice of the court decision given on 8 June announcing the annulment of the park's redevelopment, which was what had turned the tiny area into the centre of weeks of anti-government protests in the first place?

And did we see that, when Istanbul's governor finally tweeted the park open after a day's delay on Monday, 8 July, due to the skirmishes over the weekend, he did so on the condition it was not to be used for more demonstrations or occupation?

Or did all we see was that the reopening of the park only lasted approximately 2.5 hours, after left-wing groups marched on Gezi later the same evening?

And what is it the authorities saw? Did they see not see themselves (or the legislation they have cited for use of their powers) in direct contravention of the existing constitutional right to freedom of assembly, which provides for the right to peaceful protest?

Did they not see the brutality of the police?

Did they not see the pain of the demonstrators? That these groups are still fired up over the deaths and casualties of last month, and there is a lot of sympathy towards them for this reason, and rightly so. Did they not see one demonstrator shout how their friends had died for this park, and it would remain open at all costs?

Indeed, there have been fatalities and serious injuries on both sides - when in death there are no "sides" at all. Police and civilian alike have lost their lives as a result of the protests, police and civilian alike have been seriously injured and maimed.

The saddest thing of all is the loss of life - because it not only minimises the victory, it empties it to make it feel hollow. Yet, today, more flowers have been planted in Gezi than was there before. More trees stand there now. A court decision protects it. If an appeal goes through and a decision is made in favour of the government's development pans, they have still promised to consult the people of the city via a referendum before any development takes place.

Did we see any of this? Did we see that the park was reopened again on Monday late in the same evening, after public peace was restored? It is open now. Did we see it in our headlines today?

Did we see that with the start of fasting for the month of Ramadan, the police have currently left the area?

And will we see that it is not over, because for some - for a large majority - this unrest wasn't just over some tiny park. It isn't what keeps it alive now. The trees of Gezi Park have merely become a symbol, and as all symbolism has been in the course of human history, it is open to abuse, to be twisted for personal agendas and bias.

In my first post on Gezi I mentioned this would happen. It is the way of the world. We have yet to change the narrative that speaks of violence, because we have made it so attractive - right down from the games we play, to the films we watch, to the news stories we read.

Now with a tenuous form of peace restored to Istanbul - and the country as a whole even though the protests continue - today I searched for follow-up news from the international press. What did I see?

I have yet to find any major news wire running with the story that the park reopened again on Monday after its temporary closure. No one has reported that the park is open to the public, or that the police have left the area. If any of my readers finds a major news article from the Western press, email it to me and I will gladly amend this post.

Consequently, I wouldn't blame any Turkish citizen if it felt to them that the international press are now doing a reversal of the very thing for which they correctly condemned the Turkish media.

Some might see this as part of an international conspiracy based on anti-Turkish sentiment, and naturally, for a few that will be the case. But personally I think it speaks volumes about how as a species we have become so indifferent to good news - even if it is as fleeting as the blink of an eye.

Do we see the bias? Probably, but I think it is more of a bias that speaks to the narrative of our times, where it feels as if only violence and unrest makes for headline news. And that is far worse.

But, as I said, it is the way of the world. Crisis and unrest in other parts of the globe have been quick to replace Gezi Park, leaving only the sense of violence portrayed. At any rate, some might see it that way. Possibly others will look and see that Turks don't have a monopoly on upheaval. It seems to be a current trend. Or that Turkish people have an environmentalist side, too, that they are willing to stand up for their cities, and for the beauty of trees.

What do you see? If you are like those of us looking in towards a country we have been introduced to by Turkish pop icon Tarkan, then what you see will be influenced in part by those biases, too.

His fans will already know that a Turkish person can feel strongly about nature and the place he or she lives, even before Gezi Park became a slogan for environmentalists in Istanbul, and a symbol for freedom of speech to the wider world. To fans looking in from the outside, I am sure it was not the peaceful protests over trees, but the police brutality which took them by surprise.

More than anything, it is a clear reminder that not everyone from the same race is the same. What we think, where we stand, what we like, depends on what we are open and willing to see.

So, stick with me, and discover that what we see, depends on bias of every degree - cultural, political, social, you name it - because bias, like beauty, is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.

In three parts:

Read more about the Gezi Park protests >>

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