MER – Tolerance and criticism (2)

Tolerance and criticism (2) As I tried to explain in this column last week, it is easier to show tolerance of criticism, dissidents, or what sociologists call the “other” when you are powerful and secure. An absence of existential threats increases the threshold of tolerance. Therefore, the higher your threat perception, the less tolerant you become. This has historically been the case for empires, which have shown great tolerance during their golden ages and turned increasingly intolerant during their decline. This rule can be tested even today. For instance, in the US the level of tolerance for the unknown dropped significantly after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attack, when America realized it was no longer protected by two oceans. It is also not a coincidence that Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps after the Pearl Harbor attack or that McCarthyism took place in the context of the perception of a Communist threat. If tolerance of criticism is easier when you are powerful, and if this rule applies to people, societies and political systems, we have a problem explaining the dynamics of Turkish politics. The current government in Turkey is the most stable and powerful government in recent history. The Justice and Development Party (AKP) has won three consecutive elections in the last 12 years. The AKP won the recent local elections with a much wider margin than predicted, and Prime Minister ErdoIan is likely to win the presidential election in August. No one doubts his party will also win the next parliamentary elections in 2015. The Turkish opposition is in disarray, and the traditionally very influential and meddlesome secularist military has been totally emasculated. The hegemony of the AKP has also managed to establish an unprecedented level of self-censorship in the media. As a result, the AKP is facing no existential threats. It is by all definitions a powerful government with a strong social base. In such circumstances, the AKP should have no problem showing tolerance of criticism and dissent. Yet somehow the opposite is happening. The AKP and Prime Minister ErdoIan show almost no patience or tolerance for criticism. For instance, when the head of the Constitutional Court and the president of the Turkish Bar Association spoke in defense of the rule of law, they faced intolerant rebukes from ErdoIan. Similarly, when Freedom House criticized Turkey, the prime minister accused the institution of waging a disinformation campaign while the pro-government media shamelessly engaged in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. And most recently, after the mining disaster that killed more than 300 miners in Soma, ErdoIan slapped a protester while one his aisers kicked a protester who was already being restrained by the police. Why is there such aggression and intolerance, when the AKP and ErdoIan are so powerful? To answer this paradox, one needs to focus on ErdoIan’s winning strategy based on a narrative of victimhood. Despite winning election after election, ErdoIan is still the master of playing the victim against powerful external forces. This populist and opportunistic strategy of victimhood is a major part of ErdoIan’s election campaign strategy. The narrative of victimhood pays off at the ballot box because the Turkish people love the underdog. To portray himself as the helpless underdog facing powerful external forces, ErdoIan needs to engage in three simultaneous tactics. First, he has to avoid self-criticism at all costs. This is why ErdoIan reacts with anger and fury to all kinds of criticism. After reacting to critics with sharp intolerance, in stage two ErdoIan excels at conspiracy theories. This is logical. If he is not at fault, it certainly must be the fault of others. This is crucial, because the minute ErdoIan accepts blame or shows tolerance for critics, the whole strategy will collapse. He therefore needs to blame others. In this conspiracy-prone nationalist-Islamist political culture, the ones to blame are Western forces, Israel and Jews, and lately YouTube and Twitter have also become enablers of these nefarious Western or Zionist forces. The third stage is to wax poetic about your victimhood against such powerful enemies. All these dynamics can help us understand why it’s in the powerful ErdoIan’s interest to show no tolerance of criticism. His winning strategy of victimhood depends on it.

SOURCE: Today’s Zaman

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