The city I grew up in Turkey, Adana, is known for its extremely strong swearing culture. In the daily life of an average Adana citizen, the colloquial names for the genitals of both sexes are used like exclamation marks, and simple joking among friends includes each others’ female family members like conjunctions. Trying to insult each other in the most creative way is thus unavoidably a very popular pastime among children as well as grown-ups. In my childhood, one trick that was rather popular among kids was to tell someone that he would be asked one single question, and he could answer it with a yes or a no. Simple, right? You don’t have to worry about getting insulted, because you can just say no if the question contains an insult. But then the question would be something like “did your mother enjoy our recent night of wild sex together?” Neither no nor yes would save you from getting insulted by way of your beloved mother, thanks to the clever presupposition built into the question itself.
The progress of many political processes remind me of this cunning trick. One example, which was in a certain sense a blown-up version of this presupposition trick, was the referendum which took place on September 12th in Turkey. The ruling party – AKP under the leadership of Erdogan (RTE for short) – proposed a number of sweeping changes to various laws. The most important among these were the changes to the judicial system as it was described in the constitution. I have to make an oversimplification of a very complicated socio-political reality, but the gist of the matter can be stated as follows: The judiciary, the last standing bastion of the Kemalist ancienne regime, is (or was) the most important filtering mechanism of the Turkish political system. Any anomalies to the order established by Ataturk, and re-established through various coups, were filtered out through the judicial process, closing parties deemed not suitable to the Kemalist order (such as the predecessors of the current ruling party, which itself came very to close to getting banned), handing out horrendous prison terms to parlamentarians for non-violent crimes (such as the 10 Kurdish parlamenterians who dared to make their oath in their native language), or verifying extremely doubtful court decisions against people who dared to follow alternative political paths (as in the case of Pinar Selek).
In itself, the changes to the judiciary system were to be welcomed, albeit with some reservations. But the AKP/RTE did something as cunning as those street children: they not only packed the consitutional changes together with amendments to the labour laws which reflected their neoliberal politics, but they also managed to turn the discussion on this complete package into a yes or no. You either said NO (or rescinded – which for example the Kurds did) and voted against these changes, which turned you into a pro-establishment coup-loving pre-cold-war relic (this last one about the cold war is a bit difficult to explain; maybe in a future post), or you said YES and voted for them, disclosing your working-class-hating, Soros-money-loving neoliberal tendencies. This division lead to the most serious rifts in the Turkish political scene in the recent years, most obvious of these being in the left. RTE came out of the referendum as a great victor, managing to get nearly 60% yes.
I recently ran into a very similar phenomenon in a smaller scale in an interview with the indomitable Arundhati Roy, in which she talks about, among other topics, stupid interview questions:
Once, I was on The Charlie Rose Show. Well, I was invited to be on The Charlie Rose Show. He said, “Tell me, Arundhati Roy, do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons?” So I said, “I don’t think India should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think Israel should have nuclear weapons. I don’t think the United States should have nuclear weapons.” “No, I asked you do you believe that India should have nuclear weapons.” I answered exactly the same thing. About four times… They never aired it!
The interviewer knew very well what the case of RTE also proved: If you can determine the questions, who cares about the answers?