September 15, 2014

Commentary | June 26, 2014
Do you speak politics?
Raising awareness and fighting political illiteracy
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I have a right to be angry or disappointed with my government. I should also have the freedom to express myself, through whatever means. In the liberal representative democracies of the modern world, the officially sanctioned way to express your anger with politics is the vote. This is problematic. With the ballot, you never get to express the reasoning behind your opinion, nor do you get to explain to those who vote for another party why you think they voted the wrong way. In this sense, the system perpetuates political illiteracy, which risks becoming political apathy.

Of course, political discourse and debates do take place. Not everyone is pacified and pushed into political action. In Canada, and particularly in Quebec, it feels obvious that if you are upset with the way things are, you have a right to voice your concerns. It seems natural to voice your political opinion.

For many young Turks of my generation, things began to change on May 31, a point of political awakening.

When I was in high school, in Turkey, I did not even know that I could, let alone should, stand up against the government. Turkish youths of my generation have been raised by children of the 1980s, a time when your political affiliation could get you killed. No wonder talking about politics was taboo when I was in high school. We were raised to be apolitical. If we were to have any political opinions, they were pretty basic, along the lines of “non-secular bad, secular good.” Proper politics was to be done once you were above the age of voting, because the ballot was the only legitimate way of taking political action.

For many young Turks of my generation, things began to change on May 31, a point of political awakening. That date marks the anniversary of the Taksim Gezi Park protests, initially a peaceful example of direct action taken for the sake of environmentalism. In response, the police raided the park at dawn and burned down the tents of the protesters. This was the first among many instances of violence used to repress protesters; things escalated after that. In the end, however, the original objective of the protests – to keep Gezi Park intact and to prevent the construction of a shopping mall in its stead – was achieved.

Political change comes only after a certain level of political awareness and literacy has been achieved.

After Gezi, more people did start to think outside the ballot box. Neighbourhood forums, where people gathered to simply discuss politics, were convened following the initial wave of the Gezi protests. This was the perfect opportunity to keep the momentum and work even harder to raise the level of political literacy around Turkey. However, the problem was that in these forums people were simply preaching to the choir.

Slowly but surely, the number of public discussions dwindled. This was not due to an increase in political apathy, but rather to an increase in pessimism caused by a government that keeps getting re-elected, despite all its flaws. Clearly, while the demonstrations have helped us speak up, we have not been able to convey our message to our fellow citizens.

Political change comes only after a certain level of political awareness and literacy has been achieved. Take for instance the controversy surrounding the infamous Charter of Values proposed by the Parti Québecois (PQ). There were many panels, many newspaper opinion pieces, and many statements given by various individuals and organisations. This was a conscious effort to inform people, so that they would start talking about the issue themselves, and could make an educated decision in deciding their political future. There was a visible educational aspect to the outcry against the Charter, and it was nonpartisan. People endeavoured to tell their fellow citizens why the Charter of Values would cause potentially irreparable damage to social unity in the province.

Political apathy is alluring, but this is a venomous and dangerous frame of mind. What is to stop someone from taking your liberties away from you if you are not going to stand up for yourself?

So, working to increase political literacy might start off with demonstrations, but then you also have to escalate activity. You express your anger when you chant in the streets, but you also need to make sure that the audience is listening, and that you are not simply preaching to the choir. You need to educate your audience about what bothers you. What is wrong with the system? How do we change it? It may feel annoying or downright obvious having to explain to people why it is wrong for a government to deny its citizens their freedom of expression, but you have to do it; otherwise, your cause will be seen as a simple antagonism, and you will lose the support you need.

Speak politics. Of course, you do not need to speak the way politicians do – nobody wants any more of that. Raising political literacy lets people make conscious choices about their fate. Politics do affect the way we live, and without the opportunity to make that conscious choice, people will be all too willing to conform. As we say in Turkish: “May the snake that does not bother me live a thousand years.” Political apathy is alluring, but this is a venomous and dangerous frame of mind. What is to stop someone from taking your liberties away from you if you are not going to stand up for yourself? As such, speak politics.


Cem Ertekin is a U2 Political Science student. He can be reached at acertekin@gmail.com.

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