Ece Temelkuran believes that the answer to aggression and hate speech is attention. Is a politics based on gentleness possible? The Turkish writer and journalist in conversation with Paulina Wilk.
She’s 48 and is one of the most widely read and influential pundits in Turkey, although she’s been living abroad for the last five years. She was among the first intellectuals to study the new wave of fascism and authoritarianism in Europe and the Middle East. Today she’s one of the most distinguished left-wing thinkers looking for pathways to a new future. She lives in Zagreb. Recently, she published her latest work Together, in which she presents 10 ways of building a better world through tender words.
Paulina Wilk: The world knows you as a harsh critic of political realities and absurdities, you were one of the very first people to point out the rise of neo-fascism in Turkey, Europe and Asia. However, in your new book, you drop the militant tone; you’re stepping away from diagnosing problems. How did you manage to swap the narrative of hopelessness for the optimistic story about the new community you write about in Together?
Ece Temelkuran: After publishing my book How to Lose a Country, which was about the global rise of right-wing populism, I was travelling around the world and meeting my readers. I kept hearing the same question: Where is hope? So I started wondering, what do all these people from all these different countries mean by ‘hope’? That’s how my work on Together begun, with digging into this word. Today we have this binary perspective on the future. People are either trying to be hopeful, or they are taking pride in being very elaborate about their hopelessness. I wanted to go beyond that binarity. We need something new, especially in light of what’s been going on in recent years. I noticed the moral damage, the malaise that the rise of fascism caused. Some people say, well, if we get rid of this or that dictator, of this or that populist politician or whatever, it’ll all be over. Whereas I see this deterioration of politics and morals as inherent in the system. Therefore we need a counter-narrative in order to rid ourselves of the malaise. I’m 48; my generation grew up with two piles of books. One contained the grand narratives of socialism, communism, etc., while the books in the second pile were deconstructing those narratives. That’s how I know it is time to look for a different story, for a new language and new concepts that can cut through class differences, identity differences, national or geographical differences, and so on.
Those are all rational, theoretical reasons. But have there also been some personal inspirations?
Yes, I wanted to take us one step forward, because we are going through a war right now. It’s not an organized war, maybe it’s not a proper war, like in the old days. But what do you call it when Spanish soldiers are pushing refugees back to the sea? The Global South is pushing into the Global North. There is this incredible gap between the rich and poor, LGBT+ people are being oppressed. This war may deteriorate, we are going to see some horrible images of humankind. But I didn’t want to talk about that. I wanted to talk about the next step. About the time and the place where we will need new words in order to come together, to heal, to go beyond this conflict.
You wanted to heal yourself?
That’s right, I wanted to heal the wound that I sustained when I had to leave Turkey, my country, where life had become too dangerous for me. Because of this forced migration, I found myself in survival mode, and that is a diminished state of being. But I was also trying to save myself from losing faith in myself and humankind. I noticed I had started to think that evil prevails and that it will become the domineering force. However, if I believed that, morally I would be at risk of becoming a fascist. Fascism means a total loss of faith in humankind. So actually, to go back to your question, yes, I tried to heal myself: ideologically, morally and emotionally. It is so easy to assume the position of a wounded person, to elaborate on one’s wounds and only focus on them. I could do that – after all, my story of leaving the country will soon be the story of many, many people. Still, the duty of a writer is not to embellish evil, but to be on the side of good. Deep down, I think I’m quite old school, for I do believe in the duty of intellectuals and those who write. I’ve been writing since a very young age, and I learned the hard way how words can be really, really powerful. They can kill, but they also can make people believe. So I wrote this book because I want to heal myself and the world with words.
You’re proposing a completely new dictionary, a new vocabulary to create stories about the future. This vocabulary consists of words that the people in power do not use: friendship, dignity, trust, attentiveness. These are all values upon which we can build our societies. Is that the new language of gentleness?
It would be very nice if progressive movements adopted these words. I noticed that they have been shying away from words such as love, faith, and so on. This is the damage caused by the neoliberal moral values that have been shaping our minds since the 1980s and have brought deeper changes than we realize. Today’s progressive politicians are reluctant about these words, and to me, that’s the damage I am talking about. We’re unable to talk about love without being sarcastic about it. At the same time, love is a philosophical jumping board. Without it, we cannot talk about equality, about justice. I really want to go back to these words. The acceleration of change in the 20th century is without precedent in human history, and many ordinary people feel lost. If progressive politicians embraced words such as dignity, faith in humanity, love, they could make a big difference and engage with many people from outside their bubble.
Are you seriously imagining prime ministers and ministers preaching friendship between citizens?
Yes, I am. Those are the lessons from my experience in Turkey. I lost my job not because I had been critical of the regime, but because I was writing pieces that were emotional and were about the human side of things. Because of that, those articles became more effective, more influential than the merely angry, shouty ones. Aggression and shouting can only draw the attention of those who support the fascist regime. I was dangerous because I was touching people’s hearts. Those experiences reinforced my faith in words and their ability to make a difference. Now I travel around the world giving talks about dignity, faith and the inherent determination to create beauty. I see how the faces of my audiences are changing. From there, it’s easy to go beyond polarization, beyond all the anger and hatred, and to reach another state. I do believe in words such as dignity. They have changed the world many times.
Don’t you think you’re taking big risks? I remember the Polish prime minister who, almost 15 years ago, declared he would bring about “the politics of love”. Everybody laughed at him, and Polish politics soon sunk into hatred. Aren’t you afraid that by proposing this language of gentleness, you will not be treated seriously?
Well, I am serious. For one thing, that sarcasm when people talk about love was one of the reasons I wrote Together. We should find the courage to use such words. But you can make a politics of love without naming it as such. This is what Turkey’s mayors and local politicians who oppose the regime are doing. I know my book is somewhat ahead of its time. In the UK, some people are reading it as a sort of self-help book – can you imagine? But it was the same thing with How to Lose a Country. People were laughing at the events in London and Washington when I talked about that book. They thought the new fascism was something I’d hallucinated, or that it was something that could happen in Turkey, but not in their countries. Then Donald Trump became president, Boris Johnson became prime minister, and suddenly they were treating my book like a Bible. Perhaps it’s too early for Together in the UK, but not so in Poland, Turkey, Italy or Hungary. In those countries, people already know that fascism is not just about political institutions, that it intrudes your personal realm, it damages human beings, it penetrates very deeply. Morality collapses when fascism takes hold. Kindness is lost. The UK will get there, too.
You’re constantly studying the moral condition of the world. How do things look outside Europe?
Today many parts of the world experience radical evil. Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, is a true master of this new kind of fascism. We’re talking about a fascism that is messy and chaotic – because of that, it becomes an entertaining spectacle. Therefore it's not easy to put a finger on what’s bad about it. Arundhati Roy called Modi’s inefficient, neglectful response to the pandemic a genocide. Such disasters allow us to see what is good and what is evil. When tragedy strikes, we see everything more clearly. And I think it made apparent for the people of India that they are living in a regime in which not every life is valuable, not every life is necessary. This is precisely one of the key components of the new fascism: from the standpoint of the regime, not all of us are necessary. This is where dignity comes in. Dignity implies the oneness of humankind. When one man’s dignity is damaged, it’s damaged for all of us. Dignity is the opposite of the pride that fuels the new fascism. You can never have too much talk of dignity. Once we recognize how important it is, we’ll realize that we need an overall change of the system.
What do you mean by ‘system’? Do you mean neoliberalism? What has it done to us?
First, we have to get rid of the 1980s motto, There is no alternative. Many, many people in the world still believe in those words. They are convinced that capitalism is our natural state, that we cannot do better than his, and in this way, they lose faith in humankind. To me, that’s the biggest damage with which we are still struggling. I see it even when looking at young progressive activists. They try to bring about change, but deep inside they don’t really believe in the possibility of a different, beautiful world, not to mention the possibility of having that world right now, today. Nobody talks about how this new world will look like. Have you seen recently any movie that would show you this new reality? Have you found it in any recent book? I haven’t.
It seems to me that visions of the future collapsed around the year 2000. When I was growing up in the 1980s and the 1990s, there were lots of such visions. Then suddenly they disappeared as if mankind ceased to dream.
This is interesting because we are witnessing an unprecedented acceleration of change, whereas our imagination cannot catch up with it. We do not believe in a new and better world. That is why I talk about faith. ‘Faith’ today is as naive sounding as ‘love’. I think we are already in mourning for the lost future, so to speak. We are looking at trees and we can only think that soon they will be gone. We spend our todays crying over what we may lose tomorrow. Of course, all this hinders our imagination. People are not courageous enough to talk about a better world. They are afraid they will be ridiculed.
Is that because we’ve overdosed on the future? There have been so many visions of tomorrow’s world that tomorrow has become our everyday life?
As if tomorrow already happened. We’re constantly feeling that we’re too late.
So how should we stimulate our imagination? After all, in order for a certain future to happen, it has to be imagined first.
That is why we need faith. New technologies, the digital age, and so on, have not met our expectations. We were hoping for more, and we ended up with TikTok. The new communication sphere is still in the making. It’s an unregulated jungle. Ironically, there’s not a strong enough democracy on this planet to regulate any other social media. Therefore we cannot really predict how social media will shape our politics, how it will shape our existence. Imagination hasn’t been totally suppressed. For example, I see a lot of it in digital arts. There is imagination, but there is rarely any content. It is as if we are going through the age of wordlessness – as if we deemed words unimportant. That kind of muteness, that kind of silence, opens the door to the new fascism. Still, I think we are living in an era of transition, or in a strange gap: we have 19th-century political institutions and a 21st-century communication sphere. The gap between them is a problem. Hence all these morbid symptoms. On the other hand, there is a factual problem as well. We are the first generation in history that can calculate mathematically when our world will end. I’m not talking about some abstract, biblical apocalypse. Life on our planet will end, one day the planet itself will be no more. And we know that. I was wondering whether, for example, Tolstoy would write his books if he knew that they may not endure. Perhaps he would experience a crisis of faith and imagination – as we do – had he been aware that, as science tells us, one day the planet will vanish. This knowledge curbs our imagination. But even despite this situation, we have a chance to change things, this little opening at the end of history. I mean, all this effort, all this human history, should not go to waste. I want to believe and I want people to believe that we can do better than this. We are not just Peter Pans of human history, constantly smiling in selfies.
You write that faith is the only human mechanism able to heal the deep sense of failure and self-hatred. Why are we so disappointed in ourselves?
More and more people feel like we fucked up the planet; that we really fucked up the entire human history, and we are going to be the last generation, unable to save the world from ourselves. This is becoming a dominating sentiment all around the world, especially among young people. They are angry because they ended up with all these problems. I like the word ‘faith’. It is a somewhat blind word. It doesn't ask for hope, it doesn’t promise success. Faith is very strong in itself. You do something because you believe in it and that’s that. End of story. We need to tap into that in order to build a better future and a better politics. Faith will give us more power to do things.
It’s interesting that while we’re overburdened with science and facts, you’re advocating faith – an irrational force, or at least one that does not require any rational justifications.
It is not irrational, it’s just a matter of choice. In the past, our capacity to have faith created gods, religions, and so on. Faith is a particularly strong survival mechanism of humankind, probably the strongest one, and in that sense it is rational. Why should we just wipe off that capacity? What good would that do? When we believe in something, we are stronger than we actually are. I focused on faith because I wanted to open a conversation about the emotional and moral side of politics, because I wanted to get together with other people and ask: How can we change it? I did not write a self-help book, nor am I pretending to be a guru. I ask people to help me understand this complicated world of today.
As humankind, we have much to blame ourselves for. At the same time, shouldn’t we appreciate all the ambitious dreams we had?
Aspirations are as real as failures. The Soviet Union and the Spanish Civil War started with great aspirations. True, those visions failed, but the ideals themselves were real. We cannot just ignore them and only focus on our failures. Our aspirations should be on the balance sheet as well. Today we are addicted to stories about what we’ve done wrong; maybe this is a part of political propaganda that we are influenced by. Aspirations represent the better side of humanity. When writing about human history, we should be telling stories of great hopes and plans, because you can’t live without those.
Your previous books were quite intricate. Now you tell us how we can fix the world together, and you structure your story in 10 clear-cut chapters, in which you point out that we have a choice. For example, we can choose dignity instead of nurturing pride, or live reflexively instead of exhibiting our anger. Why is the form of this book so light? After all, the subject is extremely heavy.
This is the second book I’ve written in English, not Turkish. I aimed for simplicity, which only comes when you master things. Then you make your prose seem effortless and easy. I love when people say: “Oh, I’ve been thinking about that, too, those are exactly my thoughts!” It is the ultimate equality between the reader and the writer, which I am aspiring to.
You wanted to establish friendship in thinking about the world.
Exactly. I sought a common sense of justice and equality. The language I’m using creates bonds between people. It’s as if you were sitting next to me and we were having a conversation. Such intimacy, I think, comes from simplicity, from clarity. And clarity is something you learn with time. The words I’ve been talking about also require that kind of clarity. I want the language of progressive politics to be like this. At the end of the day, all these statistics, all these facts, all these data about inequality and income, are just blah, blah, blah. They obscure universal matters about which we should remind ourselves.
You write about friendship as a particular form of love, but also about the labour that both sides of a relationship have to put in to bind themselves together. Do you see friendship as a possible force of change?
I think friendship is the hidden current and in the coming decade it will turn out to be our new political connection – for example, in social movements, organizations, advocacy groups. What interests me is that current social movements, like Black Lives Matter, are choosing a new form of political organization. They are trying to do something almost impossible: to organize without leaders. The people who join them want to remain individuals, but to be considered as an entity. They want complete equality and complete justice, they’re almost puritanical when it comes to equality and banishing any sort of domination. This, to me, is an attempt to create political friendship. I personally witnessed it in 2013 during the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. People who didn’t know each other were becoming friends. It was all about their language, about the way they were communicating on social media, about their attitudes. We are already seeing something like this in local municipalities run by politicians who are in opposition to regimes in countries such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey. This sort of bonding will allow us to transform the old political institutions we’ve inherited from the 19th century. I believe friendship will dominate political relations on both the national and international level.
So you predict a future that will be both local and personal. Does that mean abstract, sweeping ideas are becoming a thing of the past?
Yes. I’m old enough to have witnessed the first World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in 2001 . It was a meeting of people who advocated alternative visions of globalization, and who were proposing that politics should be personal, it should be based on close relationships, that decision-making processes should include everyone. Those ideas are only now becoming reality, and in an unexpected context, as an answer to rising fascism.
Do you believe that current social movements created by young people – movements that do not want any leaders or structure – can avoid becoming ephemeral and stay with us for longer?
Well, it’s working on a small scale. Leaderless movements have already proven very effective during mass protests. However, protests are temporary. I think in time some leaders will emerge and the movements will gain certain shapes, certain structures, albeit more fluid and less permanent. Such will be the new politics: leaders will change, as well as the definition of who leaders are.
Who will they be? Partners?
I imagine we’re going to go back to the idea of primus inter pares, the first among equals. Since the 1980s, we’ve been accustomed to this strong leader idea, somewhat surprisingly for democracies. Only a few of us have noticed that even in so-called old or healthy democracies, those strong leaders have transformed into dictators. This model will go away, but very slowly.
Slowly but inevitably? Are you sure the next chapter will be better? What weather does your experienced, analytical mind forecast?
Capitalism is like a tiger, and progressives, young people who want change, have caught it by the tail. It’s angry, it’s fighting back so very hard, but it is collapsing. Its rage is merely a symptom of this collapse. A strong system wouldn’t need all these hardcore regulations we’ve been witnessing lately. Remember the photo of the young Red Cross worker Luna Reyes hugging a crying refugee who had just survived a nightmarish journey to Spain? She gave him water and then she embraced him. For that, she experienced a lot of hateful comments. And I thought: oh, we’re back in Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, we’re living in times when tolerance and acceptance are unacceptable. Why did such a simple act of human warmth inspire people to react with immense hatred? Because everybody has to hate everybody else to keep the borders intact. If the divided, secured world is to survive, we must hate other people. This is the message that the collapsing system is trying to impose on us. Yet there is also a powerful reaction to hatred. We enthusiastically share images of love and friendship on social media, because we long for better, more beautiful versions of ourselves. I am seeing the better side of humankind in these times of radical evil. That’s why I feel relatively assured that the system will collapse.
Many of us are afraid of such a scenario. We don’t know any other world.
All systems have this magical ability to make us believe that if they collapse, the universe will end. Take courage in the thought that humankind went through many a small apocalypse, and there was always a new era at the end of it. Our most human, most beautiful aspirations and dreams will survive. Even if we have to move to another planet.
Then why do you say we all live in a garbage era?
In many respects we do. My country imports tonnes and tonnes of plastic waste from the UK. We’re thinking about garbage a lot in our everyday lives – sorting it takes up quite a lot of our time. Don’t you feel that sometimes?
I do. I feel there’s too much of everything. Some things, some objects are completely pointless and there’s no reason whatsoever for their existence. The same with the overabundance of words and happenings. And the daily trip to the bin depresses me because I fear that if I’ve sorted the garbage in the wrong way, I’m only making things worse.
Precisely. We have garbage emotions, garbage information and even garbage ‘selves’, in a way. We are forced to put on different garbage ‘selves’, various identities or avatars, in order to deal with our lives. For example, when you’re doing work that does not have any purpose, or when you must smile even though you don’t want to. Garbage gets everywhere. But then sometimes it makes us feel secure. Do you remember the end of the first lockdown? For many people, it meant they could go back to shops and malls. For them, feeling normal, feeling secure in their lives means being among things, strolling through shopping centres, looking at stuff.
So we’re standing in front of the pile of garbage and we have two options. First, we can get involved with some mass revolution that will turn the world upside down. Obviously, that seems overwhelming and way too scary. Second, we can choose the other, pathetic option, and go on with sorting the garbage, fully aware that we won’t save the world in this way. In your book, to this picture of helplessness, you react with hysterical laughter. What comes next, when the laughter dies down?
Walter Benjamin once said that laughter is the best trigger for thought. I think what should come next is acceptance of our helplessness and powerlessness. From that acceptance, a need for being together is born, a need for bonding. Together we are a little bit stronger. That’s the starting point of politics. Ingeborg Bachmann says fascism begins in a relationship between two people. The revolution begins in a relationship between two people as well. Two people decide to get rid of humiliation, fear, hatred. Then other people join them – locally, nationally, internationally. But in the beginning, there are just two people laughing at their helplessness, willing to accept that they are like sheep, for they need the herd around them to be stronger and survive.
You write about the difference between power and strength. To you, strength is, as I understand it, an attribute of women?
Power minus domination equals strength. While power has to be manifested, strength is an inner, more feminine quality. Of course, I’m not saying only women have strength – it is merely a feminine element in our complex male-female identities. So it is not a coincidence that all of a sudden women have to fight for their basic rights. What comes under attack is not just women and their bodies, but this whole feminine aspect of our culture and our identities. Like the ability to laugh, spontaneous emotionality, as well as the belief in the oneness of being, of our oneness with nature. In my book, I conjure up the image of Lady Atlas carrying the world. She’s strong but humble and graceful. I see her as a poetic character from a fairy tale about the future.
What about today? Why are women under attack in so many countries?
Several reasons. Capitalism is collapsing, and when a system collapses, there is always a struggle to find a scapegoat. Some people start burning witches. For them, there is something evil in the female, something unknown, uncontrollable. Therefore, the female must be punished. Second, the collapse of capitalism coincides with a crisis of manhood. Men feel they cannot perform the job they’ve been assigned well enough, they cannot run the world properly. Also, obviously, for the first time in history, women are educated, economically independent, they are not afraid of being on their own. For radical men this is frightening, therefore they go on the offensive.
In Together, you advocate responding to violence, to the language of war, to aggression and hatred with gentleness. This is certainly a radical stance. Have you tried practising what you preach?
Women are already doing it. They are introducing beauty to politics, they resist by dancing and marching in Chile or by walking around city squares in Minsk. The response you’ve asked about is not my proposition; actually, it’s my observation. This is something I do in my personal life. Between 2000 and 2012 I was writing columns in Turkish newspapers and I noticed that my opponents in political disputes, the representatives of the new fascism, were so vulgar and primitive, so banal and idiotic, that it was influencing my work. I felt that I was lowering myself to their level, and sooner or later they would drag me down to the bottom. For me, it was no way of having a conversation. I found myself in a blind alley. I tried, and now I know – you can’t fight populists with their own weapons. We, people, have this innate need to create beauty; among beauty, we flourish. So I’m writing these beautiful books. This is what I can do. The words on their own don’t change the world at all. Never. It’s only the people who own those words that make a change.
Do you feel like a lighthouse keeper?
If you ask me whether I sometimes feel lonely trying to shine some light for others – yes, I do. But it does not bother me that some people think my book might be too much ahead of the times. We all live in different time zones, literally and metaphorically, and we will probably live in very different futures.
A lot of your writing is about beauty, about our everyday need to create it. How can we weave it into politics, which now seems quite nasty?
It’s very simple. When you’re talking about dignity or love, you’re automatically talking about beauty. I chose beautiful words for Together because I know they are inherent in people. I didn’t write a science fiction book – I just looked at the humans living today. 10 years ago, would anyone believe that there would be a young woman in the American Congress passionately talking about socialism and calling herself a social democrat? Back then, politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortes were simply beyond imagining. Beauty in politics is possible – you just have to believe in it, and support it a little bit more.
Let’s wrap up by talking about the economy. You write that ‘less’ doesn’t mean ‘enough’ – neither getting rid of growth indexes, nor the philosophy of minimalism will be sufficient to bring sweeping changes. What’s your alternative?
I totally support abandoning GDP as the dominant index of the world economy. But there are proposals that go further, such as making capital illegal or introducing a universal basic income. They are advocated by distinguished theoreticians and politicians – for example, Thomas Piketty, Turkish-American economist Dani Rodrik, and ex-finance minister of Greece Yanis Varoufakis. But the authors of such proposals have been shut out from the realm of actual politics and decision making. Also, progressives kind of made peace with that: instead of criticizing the economic system, they prefer to criticize the media, popular culture, and so on. That’s one thing. The other thing is our aversion to any attempts at regulating the economy. I think many people still believe that regulation brings totalitarianism and authoritarianism. In my opinion, we need to reintroduce the idea of regulation, to reimagine it as mechanisms employed for the common good and for the benefit of the public. The fundamental democratic contract was damaged after the 1970s by the fundamental contract of capitalism. Ever since then, there has been this dominant understanding that without capitalism, democracy cannot exist – and that they can go together. Since then, we’ve only been asking questions like: Can Islam co-exist with democracy? Whereas the main question should have been: Can democracy survive in a neoliberal capitalist system? Today we know that where there is no social justice, there is no democracy.
In 2016 you were forced to leave Turkey, you now live in Zagreb. Did you choose this city, or was it a necessity?
Both. I prefer to think I chose it. Otherwise, I’d have to think of myself as a victim, and I don’t enjoy it. Zagreb is an interesting place, it is neither Europe nor the Balkans. Actually, I’m not sure whether I live or merely reside in Zagreb. I treat it as a library, I work here – in the last few years I’ve published a couple of books. But in order to write them, I had to travel to Tunis, Beirut, Oxford and Paris. So I’m trying to think of my current state as sort of a journey that went on longer than expected.
Is there a country in the world that, in your opinion, is truly implementing progressive politics?
I’m one of the members of the advisory board of Progressive International [an international organization of progressive left-wing activists, co-created by Bernie Sanders – author note]. The members come from many different countries, each of us is bringing different ideas. Progress cannot be limited to one place. It has to be multi-faceted. But funnily enough, I see Turkey as one of the most progressive countries, because Turkey has been ahead of the curve, so to speak, in terms of resisting fascism. Local governments and municipalities fighting against the regime are forming a new front of progressive politics. This trend is now becoming global. It’s worth looking at Turkey as a laboratory of new, 21st-century politics.
We’re living in the age of the unpredictable, the age of turbulence. Are you comfortable with all this uncertainty?
Recently I’ve been thinking about Stefan Zweig, who in 1942 committed suicide because he didn’t want to be a part of the cruel world of that time. Soon after his death, everything changed: Nazi Germany collapsed, there was a great shift. No, I’m not comfortable in today’s world, and I’m constantly haunted by the feeling I’m not doing enough. Yet I want to live in the 21st century despite everything. I want to see what’s going to happen, because humanity has a beautiful habit of surprising itself.
Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.
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