Ece Temelkuran on togetherness & friendship
Twice recognised as Turkey’s ‘most read political columnist’, Ece Temelkuran’s journalism has been featured in publications across the world, including The Guardian, New York Times, New Statesman, Le Monde, and Der Spiegel.
If that wasn’t impressive enough a CV, Temelkuran has also found success as an author, with her novel Women Who Blow on Knots earning her the Edinburgh International Book Festival First Book, whilst also picking up the Ambassador of New Europe Award for Turkey: The Insane and Melancholy.
Returning to her non-fiction roots – and drawing on her own experience of being fired by the Turkish newspaper Habertürk for criticising the Turkish government – in 2019 Temelkuran published How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship, about the rise of right-wing populism.
This year, following on from the success of How to Lose a Country, which was championed by Margaret Atwood amongst others, Temelkuran has published a second non-fiction work. Together:10 Choices for a Better Now extols the virtues of humanity and the need to be ‘together’ in the many crises currently facing the world.
On 25 October, Temelkuran appears at our London Literature Festival in a special broadcast event, in which she joins author and broadcaster Gaia Vince to discuss the importance of friendship in the face of global challenges. But we couldn’t wait until then to hear her thoughts on togetherness, and her latest projects, so we caught up with her in advance.
Global crises are sadly nothing new, and sadly nor is division, so what was it that led to you writing Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now, now?
While going around the world to speak about How to Lose a Country, I saw that the rise of fascism and rightwing populism, and the tentacles of those movements that reach into our social and personal lives, was having a moral impact that we haven’t witnessed before. Apparently being subjected to the worst of humankind from all around the world through 24-hour news coverage and social media outrage, the shame of being represented by the worst of us, made people ask a dangerous question: Is the human evil in its essence? Do we even deserve to exist? What I’ve seen in several countries was the total loss of faith in our kind. Tragically enough that total loss of faith is the moral breeding ground for fascism.
Conversely, I’ve noticed that current progressive political discourse does not have the tools to handle the politics of emotions, or the moral damage of living through political crises, well enough. Isn’t it strange that rightwing populism thrives in a politics of heightened emotions, that it is capable of the mass manipulation of these feelings, whereas we, the progressives, do not talk about it enough? This was the main dilemma that I began with. What I wrote in How to Lose a Country was an explanation of the obligation to act, but then I saw that the people were lacking the fundamental reason to act: the faith in humankind and the urge to be together.
How much has your homeland of Turkey shaped your thinking about the importance of togetherness?'
Turkey, together with Italy and India has been ahead of the curve regarding the global political crisis. It was there I first witnessed how the spectacle of political and moral ruthlessness paralyses the progressive forces. We experienced in Turkey how ignorance was organised and mobilised en masse to devour even the basic moral consensuses. It was initially in Turkey I asked the question ‘Where is all this cruelty and evil coming from?’ But now the entire world is asking the same question. And that question is made all the more difficult because we are also facing up to what we have done to the planet, and what options we may have for survival. The morality of survival makes it all the harder to argue for togetherness – especially when a dog-eat-dog mentality is becoming the new normal.
‘The morality of survival makes it all the harder to argue for togetherness – especially when a dog-eat-dog mentality is becoming the new normal.’
How can our own friendships help us to begin to address really entrenched issues such as, say, inequality?
Since Aristotle, the question of friendship has been discussed in philosophy. It has been a long time though, at least since Derrida, that friendship was discussed as a political relation. I wanted to revive this question, or rather reframe our political responsibilities through the lens of friendship.
There is this very popular concept called ‘compassion fatigue’, in that there is too much suffering in the world and we, as the witnesses, can only observe so much before we experience a sense of numbness. I believe this fatigue comes when we retreat from a real connection to the pain others are experiencing. Our connection to other’s suffering turns into the guilt of an unfulfilled moral responsibility. If our connection to other people is not merely a responsibility, but instead friendly love, then sharing their suffering wouldn’t be so fatiguing.
Here, I am not necessarily talking about inequality but rather other tragedies such as Afghanistan. My question is, isn’t it at all possible to become friends with women in Kabul given that we have all these communication devices? Imagine one in every ten people on the planet has a friend in Afghanistan: and those people amplified those women’s voices to create a global reaction, to increase the pressure on our governments to get involved. Maybe things would have been different. For one, we would not only be fulfilling a responsibility, we would be helping friends. We would also be restoring our own dignity which keeps being battered every time we force ourselves to develop this numbness. Inequality, on the other hand, should be dealt with through the concept of dignity and justice, not necessarily through friendship.
Do you think it is possible for us as adults to have meaningful friendships with people who don’t share our own world view, or our perception of right and wrong?
I’d rather ask the question ‘Are we really friends with people who share our world view?’ In this century we are confronted with a completely new communication situation. This new communication space was sold to us as an agora where we connect to people as equals, but thanks to our politics and the profit-oriented communication companies, the agora has now turned to an arena where we fight for attention. Even with those we consider friends or would-be-friends, being intimate and truthful is like being on the dance floor in Sydney Pollack’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
This constant, exhausting battling is why I wrote Together, because even amongst progressives our personal dominant world-view continues to divide us from those who could so easily be allies. We need a common ground on which to unite in our struggle against fascism. It is, for the most part, perfectly possible. Even if we cannot be friends, we can at least be friendly, unless of course the person in question is a committed fascist.
‘Even amongst progressives our personal dominant world-view continues to divide us from those who could so easily be allies.’
From your perspective how much has social media stoked tribalism and how much can it be one of the ways that people come together?'
It all depends on the political climate in the physical world. During Tahrir, Gezi or recently during the global Black Lives Matter protests or the resistance movement in Hong Kong, we have seen that social media could be used as a tool for mobilisation. But then one of the biggest problems today is the question of excessive expression of anger on those same platforms. For thousands of years people depended on anger to revolt or to generate the energy to demand justice en masse, it was our greatest tool for mobilisation. However today anger is a commodity that the social media companies are using to create interaction and engagement.
Therefore, we are faced with two challenges that had been unknown to us. One, if we cannot depend on anger now that it has been co-opted as a bankable commodity by those in power, how are we going to generate the motivation for social movements? Two, how are we going to handle anger when it becomes a dividing force among progressive movements? Because it does. As we feel defeated, we channel anger towards each other, just like the people in a castle under siege.
Has the process of writing this book led to you re-evaluating any of your own friendships and human connections? Does your own world look any different now to when you started writing it?
Well, to be honest, yes. I didn’t necessarily re-evaluate my friendships, but I decided to practice the radical humbleness that the new communication technology provides us the means for. There is no stage, no mic or spotlights in this new century. Maybe for the first time in human history, the entire world is truly a stage, and we are all actors. Thus, I decided to listen more than I talk. When I say listen, I mean listening as a friend, keeping in mind that friendship is the space where the ultimate justice is practiced. So, this is what I am doing now.
You have recently launched a new project, Letters from Now. Can you tell us more about it?
Actually, it all came from that idea of ‘friendly listening’. Because what we lack today is not the means to talk. Instead, people are exhausted by the idea of not being listened to. Letters From Now is my attempt to create a humble quarter, away from the maddening noise of the digital sphere, with people who are truly concerned with the moral and political questions of our age.
‘What is human in the 21st century?’ is our central question and we are exchanging weekly letters. I am writing about the personal and the political, and my pen pals are doing the same thing. Also, we have monthly Zoom meetings. The letters and the meetings are both in English and Turkish, and now we have an Instagram account (@lettersfromnow) so that members can see each other as well. This is my attempt, our attempt, at trying to establish friendship as a public matter, to address the question of whether we can become friends en masse or not. So far so good.
I guess what we are doing is something like the movie Casablanca. We are all embittered Ricks, but we are trying to be Ilsas for each other, reminding one another who we are and what we are capable of. After all, these letters are ‘the beginning of a beautiful friendship’.
As the focus of our London Literature Festival this year is on friendship, do you have a favourite book on the theme of friendship, or with friendship at its heart?
Zorba The Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis. The book might be inspiring for many when it comes to friendship as a way to explore the world of the other, which I guess is what we badly need today.
Ece Temelkuran talks to Gaia Vince about the importance of friendship in the face of global challenges in this special broadcast event, premiering 25 October and available until 1 November.
Together: 10 Choices For A Better Now by Ece Temelkuran is published by Fourth Estate.