Orwell at Taksim
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Orwell at Taksim
Last updated: June 2, 2014

This is the most original take on Turkey’s social media problem – and how to solve it.

Banner Icon Turkish writer Aslihan Agaoglu offers a theory that, well, is a bit different than most others out there. We think she might be right - read for yourself.

First it was Twitter, then YouTube and from the looks of it, Facebook is next. Social media is being banned in Turkey and I am not even going to argue why this is a problem. It’s one of those things: so obvious, it’s almost offensive to explain. Freedom of expression, censorship, autocracy… You have heard the debate a thousand times and can mumble it backwards in your sleep.

What I do want to talk about is one of the implications of this on-going censorship towards social media and what to do about it. After the Taksim Gezi protests of last summer, starting in Istanbul and spreading across the country like marbles on ice, one thing became painfully clear: the polarisation in Turkey. Those who want PM Erdogan to stay exactly where he is and those who wish he could vanish into thin air. There are various subcategories to this severe and alarming polarisation but I will not be entertaining the “name calling” game that is particularly popular in Turkey nowadays. Instead, I’ll ask this question: Can any good come from a nation that has no tendency or willingness to empathise with one another?

First it was Twitter, then YouTube and from the looks of it, Facebook is next.The first rule of dialogue is to listen, plain and simple. If both parties get together and talk all at once, without taking a breath to hear what the response is from the other side, then it is called a monologue. A dialogue, on the other hand, is a bridge. It requires some crucial set of skills such as patience, open-mindedness and willingness to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, also known as empathy. Without it, what we call dialogue is an enormous waste of our time. It changes nothing, it doesn’t move us towards a solution, in fact, it can even make things worse by creating more confusion and frustration, causing us to lose hope.

From what I have been observing since last summer, our chances of dialogue between these poles that keep moving further away from each other, is getting more and more slim by the day. Whatever the reasons may be, it is not the difference of opinions that baffle me, it’s the fact that there is so little willingness towards empathy. It’s as if we purposefully don’t want to understand one another. We don’t want to start a dialogue, we just want to be right. Perhaps it is only natural to want to win an argument (especially when it comes to politics, who doesn’t?) but it should not be natural to simply not want to understand the other person.

This lack of willingness to empathise and start a dialogue has been studied by many who are way smarter than I am and it has also been brought to attention by various politicians and journalists, who may or may not be smarter than I am. Obviously it would be erroneous to think there could ever be just one cause for this destructive situation but instead of going over their findings and opinions and give a worn-out summary, I wonder if there could be a subtle factor that is staring us in the face?

Last year Psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano, at the New School for Social Research in New York, proved that reading literary fiction enhances the ability to detect and understand other people's emotions, a crucial skill in navigating complex social relationships. They did this by conducting an experiment where 1,000 participants were randomly assigned texts to read, either extracts of popular fiction such as bestseller Danielle Steel's The Sins of the Mother and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, or more literary texts, such as Orange-winner The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht, Don DeLillo's "The Runner", from his collection The Angel Esmeralda, or work by Anton Chekhov. The researchers then used a variety of Theory of Mind techniques to measure how accurately the participants could identify emotions in others. As it turns out, the scores were consistently higher among the fiction readers, than those who read non-fiction texts or those who do not read at all.

So reading literary fiction enables you to empathies with other people, in other words, helps you get a better understanding of those who think, act and believe differently. Brilliant. Now lets look at some statistics from Turkey: According to the numbers provided by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, 30% of Turkish population is illiterate while only 0.01% of the population read regularly. In 2012, 480.257.824 books were published, however, this number includes everything from texts books for classrooms to various kinds of non-fiction. When it comes to literary fiction, only 15.034 books were published. Turkey’s population is almost 75 million, according to official numbers, which gives us this conclusion: when it comes to literary fiction and Turks, it is a broken, dysfunctional, tragic relationship.

We, as human beings, are hardwired for stories. We have been telling them ever since we found ourselves in a dark cave with some red paint and began drawing animals on the walls. It’s one of the first things we expose an infant to and it’s one of the greatest tools man has perfected to make sense of the chaotic world around him. There are many reasons as to why Turks don’t read novels: our literary traditions goes back to oral literature, and with the late arrival of the press, the written word is relatively new for us. The military coups of our more recent history is another factor: books found in houses were used as evidence to arrest, even torture people. Reading was considered to be an extremely dangerous habit and books were items to get rid of, burned or buried. All this and more may have contributed to our collective consciousness and may be preventing us from reading today. But from what I can see, this needs to change. Immediately.

The first rule of dialogue is to listenPsychologists David Comer Kidd, after conducting his study, has stated that, “What great writers do is to turn you into the writer. In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others.” We, as Turks, need this ability now more than ever. It is easy to turn a deaf ear and say that the “other” person is wrong. It is lazy to simply make up our mind and assume anyone who thinks differently than we do is stupid, ignorant or corrupt. It does not help us in any way or move us towards a constructive solution.

This idea of attacking social media as a means to silence anyone who doesn’t happen to share your opinion, the idea that even 140 characters are intolerable, is a clear sign of how desperately we are in need of empathy. Could something as simple as reading more books be a part of the solution? Not tomorrow perhaps, or not next week, but slowly, gradually, page-by-page, literary fiction can carve the path towards a future where it could be possible to say: “I understand you,” to one another. It’s like the famous Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet says,

“To overcome lies in the heart, in the streets, in the books 

from the lullabies of the mothers
to the news report that the speaker reads, 

understanding, my love, what a great joy it is, 

to understand what is gone and what is on the way.”

Aslihan Agaoglu
Aslihan Agaoglu was born in İstanbul and worked as a lawyer before she moved to England, where she did her MA in creative writing at the University of Kent. She is currently completing her Ph.D. at the department of Middle Eastern studies, King's College London.
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