If the prime minister continues to employ this rhetoric, a society that suffered in the past from Turkish-Kurdish, Sunni-Alevi and secular-religious dichotomies may face new polarizations. Özcan Köknel, a leading Turkish psychiatrist, explains to Sunday’s Zaman that acts, tones and discourses that trigger feelings of hostility and hatred constitute a language of violence which is commonly used by all politicians and far too excessively by Prime Minister Erdoğan.
“With this language, he intimidates his listeners and channels people towards anger and hatred,” Köknel says, adding that people who blindly follow Erdoğan see him as a hero and derive peace and happiness from his “manly and chivalrous” image. However, this discourse is aimed at distracting people’s attention. “He tells people to ‘look at the rope dancer’ in an effort to draw people’s attention away from scandals. In other words, what the prime minister is doing is an illusion.”
The graft and bribery investigation which came to public attention on Dec. 17, 2013 produced lawful voice recordings and substantial evidence about how Erdoğan, his family and his Cabinet ministers have engaged in corrupt practices, received bribes and unlawfully meddled with the judiciary, the business world and the arena of sports.
However, Erdoğan tries to give the impression of being corruption-free by parroting that the corruption claims which implicate him, his relatives and his government are manipulations by what he refers to as the “parallel state.” In this context, he uses a very harsh language of hatred and violence that aims to discredit certain segments of the society in religious and moral terms and economically undermine them.
He responds to criticisms with bellicose language
Parliamentary deputy Hasan Hami Yıldırım, who resigned from the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) in the wake of the graft scandal, argues that only a dictator would try to govern the country by talking about conspiracies rather than solving problems. Harshly criticizing Erdoğan on his Twitter account, Yıldırım underlines that the prime minister does not resort to normal legal procedures for finding and penalizing criminals, but opts for declaring certain groups guilty extra-judicially by hurling slander and accusations against them. Yıldırım notes that Erdoğan responds to criticism with aggressive language.
Professor Haluk Savaş, a mental health and diseases expert from the Faculty of Medicine at Gaziantep University, points out that a ruler — especially a ruler of a country — should immediately seek judicial investigation in connection with any claim about him or herself. He notes that Erdoğan chooses to launch campaigns to manipulate public perceptions instead, and that the prime minister is responding to a feeling that he is being cornered. This is evidenced by the hate speech he employs, Savaş says.
Doğan Şahin, a lecturer in the department of psychiatry of the Faculty of Medicine at İstanbul University, says that if leaders tend to exhibit inconsistent behavior, such as engaging in corruption while at the same time defending it, the public will not have respect for the rule of law. “No one will be discouraged from similar crimes, and so unlawfulness is legitimized,” he says.
Underlining the fact that leaders who don’t like to be criticized or who are not willing to accept their mistakes are more inclined to increase polarization, Doğan explains that, historically, many political leaders have tended to develop an exaggerated sense of self-worth and see themselves as error-free and perfect when they remain in office for a long time. “As a leader grows more and more self-conceited, he [or she] starts to feel more and more enraged when they hear criticism,” he says.
Religion-based hate speech
For educational psychologist Adem Güneş, hate speech can lead to increased social polarization, tension, social mobility and disruptions in the social fabric. “The resulting polarization will not be a transitory one, but continue perhaps for 40 years to come,” Güneş says, adding that the current polarization is similar to Alevi-Sunni, Turkish-Kurdish, secular-religious or religious-communist dichotomies.
Erdoğan’s use of religion to add fuel to his hate speech is a major source of concern for these experts. Yıldırım argues that only a dictator would resort to religious edicts (fatwas) or faith abuse instead of the rule of law in order to muster legitimacy for his power. Köknel emphasizes that the use of hate speech in matters relating to faith and ethnic origins may have unwanted consequences. “To attack people using religious references will have a negative impact on people’s perspectives about religion,” Güneş agrees, pointing out that this has the potential to pervert children’s views. Savaş’s approach draws attention to how power affects those with narcissistic personalities.
Expert analysis of why some people believe in the conspiracy theories claimed by Erdoğan reveals interesting results. Noting that people who tend to adopt an emotional perspective toward events readily believe in fantastical things, Köknel said that “Turkish society is currently in chaos. People don’t know what to believe or accept. This creates a state of anomaly or lack of norms.” Köknel stresses that the thought disorders of mentally ill people are linked to beliefs that are widespread in their country and so, in a country where people believe they are being monitored or wiretapped by the National Intelligence Organization (MİT), mentally deranged people will make use of the same rhetoric.
However, Köknel adds, if concrete evidence is not provided to support them, conspiracy theories will soon lose their effect on the public.
Conspiracy theories to the rescue
Savaş believes that people’s tendency to accept conspiracy theories can be explained by the fact that “it requires energy to accept the truth. We don’t always want to accept the truth. For instance, a cancer patient does not want to accept his illness. Likewise, the AK Party created hope for the future. It glorified society’s value judgments. Now, people face just the opposite. The people who supported it are not eager to see a truth which will disrupt their understanding of the world.”
For Köknel, it is normal to see violent incidents escalate in a society dominated by violent rhetoric, and the increased number of violent attacks in recent years can be attributed to this.
Şahin notes that leaders’ attitudes are mimicked by the general public. “If leaders bicker with each other in an aggressive manner, people start to mimic them,” agrees Doğan, adding that if leaders use more affectionate language, this could promote mutual understanding in society. Doğan believes that using hate speech undermines people’s mental health and social peace, increasing cases of violence and legal transgressions.
According to the crime map developed by the Lifelong Education and Combating Violence Association with help from some 300 academics from 42 universities, some 3.2 million incidents of crime took place in Turkey in 2012, with 4.5 million people involved in criminal behavior. Tellingly, the figure represents an 8.35 percent increase over the previous year.