Yes, we ban: Deconstructing Erdogan’s language

Erdogan’s increasingly personalist authoritarianism should be taken seriously.

One of Erdogan's talents is knowing how to play on the weaknesses of his public, writes Rabanea [EPA]

When it comes to being resourceful to overcome challenges, Turks always find a way. They have the humour, quick wittedness, and a soul rebellious enough to make their voice heard. But most importantly they have experience with censorship and bullying intimidation tactics by those in power.

On March 20, Facebook was full of numbers posted by Turkish users. The call was for Twitter users to change their DNS settings to – in order to continue having access to the widely used social media site in Turkey, which had been shut down upon Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s orders. Twitter’s “crime” was being the platform where audio recordings showing corruption in Erdogan’s inner circle were circulating.

Twitter ban sparks outrage in Turkey

Electoral fears

With a week left before municipal elections in Turkey, Erdogan’s decision is not a foolish move politically. Erdogan had come to power in the first place by cleverly playing on Turkish people’s sense of pride, and now relies again on the same “us against them” strategy. 

Although Erdogan has many critics because of his actions of intimidation, he has just as many supporters who get off on his talks that tap into the country’s long felt inferiority complex against the West, and at home against the western half of Turkey.

One of Erdogan’s talents is knowing how to play on the weaknesses of his public. This was exactly the message in a speech delivered one week before the elections: “Twitter, schmitter! We will wipe out all of these… The International community can say this or that. I don’t care at all. Everyone will see how powerful the Republic of Turkey is.”

A statement which received cheers from a frenzied audience.

In some ways, the fact that Turks are able to find a method to use Twitter, be it through their mobile phones or through changing their DNS servers is somewhat irrelevant. What is most crucial here is the tone and character of Erdogan’s message to the Turkish public and the rest of the world. A macho statement, spoken in street slang, referring to the social media site as “Twitter… Mwitter” in a way that is intended to discredit his opponent.

What is most crucial here is the tone and character of Erdogan’s message to the Turkish public and the rest of the world. A macho statement, spoken in street slang, referring to the social media site as ‘Twitter… Mwitter’ in a way that is intended to discredit his opponent.

Although Erdogan’s popularity at present is unknown, we can be confident that at least some are encouraged by his message. Exactly how many will become more clear after the upcoming elections.

Standing up to the West?

Meanwhile, international media’s perspective on the events in Turkey is somewhat naive, suggesting that Erdogan’s attempt to stifle use of Twitter is backfiring and focusing too much on the fact that Turks are able to get around the ban. Perhaps today the public can still access Twitter after adjusting their internet settings, but the problem is much deeper than access to a micro blogging website.

Who liked Erdogan before will only like him more after what they consider to be a courageous stand up against the West and Turkey’s critics. The more the opposition in Turkey and the international community criticise Erdogan, the more he remains in the spotlight and appeals to his followers.

The EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fule’s statement about the ban illustrates exactly the kind of European attitude that Erdogan’s followers have long hated: “The ban on the social platform in Turkey raises grave concerns and casts doubt on Turkey’s stated commitment to European values and standards.”

It seems quite arrogant to suggest that Turkey remains obliged to show any kind of commitment to Europe given that its long attempt to get into the EU has produced nothing more than an endless string of rejections. These EU rejections greatly helped Erdogan gain his popularity in the first place, telling the Turkish people that they do not need America, Europe, nor do they need their modern toys such as Twitter.

Fule’s statement could have been more effective and in line with Turkish sensitivities, but as expressed it was an example of EU’s continuing arrogance and refusal to understand and respect the intricacies of the country’s situation and its complex feelings of resentment and inferiority in relation to Europe.

Needless to say we must also pay attention to Turkish censorship that is practiced at a deeper level, those that are not out in the open for the whole world to observe and comment upon. Social networks such as Twitter and Facebook have become synonymous with freedom of speech. They are the vehicles through which we practice democracy.

Yet for every individual that freely expresses and disseminates their views through social media there are that many journalists, thinkers and commentators whose opinions and analyses are being suppressed by institutions, newspapers and major networks.

Inside Story – Turkey turns off Twitter

A dangerous descent?

Right now, one of Turkey’s biggest problems is its image in the international world, and Erdogan continues to gain media attention. Perversely, this could mean that his popularity within Turkey is far from waning. Apparently, Erdogan seems to believe there’s no such a thing as bad PR.

The more Europe and the US react against Turkey, the more it reinforces an “us vs them” mentality that Erdogan has been able to use for his own advantage.

What’s left for Turks to do is undertake a careful linguistic analysis of Erdogan’s tactics and find a way to deconstruct his rhetoric of dichotomy, which has been giving a false sense of power to his followers and generating hostility toward the west and modernity’s inventions such as twitter.

Although it is desirable for the international community to express criticism in response to any kind of government ban on information wherever it occurs, it is hardly a solution that will spare Turkey from its dangerous descent into which seems to many of us to be a disastrous future for the country.

Stories of corruption aside, it has become increasingly necessary for Turkish people to deconstruct Erdogan’s language by understanding the intricate strategies of communication he uses. His manner underpins the macho sensibilities of his public playing on the long-lived inferiority complex stemming from European rejections of Turkey.

Erdogan’s increasingly personalist authoritarian approach should no longer be considered a subject of ridicule but a serious concern for the future of Turkey.

Zeynep Zileli Rabanea is a writer and analyst focused on culture, media and communications, currently based in Sao Paulo.