Turkey’s Twitter Problem, and Our Own

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Turkey’s Twitter Problem, and Our Own

Always castigating the opposition as extremists is no way to run a modern society.


Erdoğan’s trouble starts with T and stands for Twitter.

By Alejandro Crawford

“If Twitter, YouTube and Facebook will be honest, if they’ll stop being so immoral, stop attacking families, we’ll support them.” So says Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. If one were trying to do comedy about the vilification of the Internets and their corrupting influence, it would be hard to come up with something much better (or more suitable for re-tweeting). Mashable has published acraziest quotes list, but the list is in dire need of updating. Since Turkey’s courts impelled him to lift his ban on Twitter (YouTube and tens of thousands of other sites remain blocked), Erdogan has come up with even better lines.

The joke is an old one, though. When the confidence man in the classic Broadway show “The Music Man” needs a convenient source of trouble, he scapegoats an activity popular with youth in order to stir up concerns about the dangerous liberalizing of social mores. The satire works because the con man is able to pick a relatively arbitrary activity (playing pool) and associate it with the erosion of traditional rules for language, attire and the like. In Erdogan’s version, there is indeed trouble in Turkey; it starts with T, which stands for Twitter, and it must be rooted out.

[Read more from Alejandro Crawford on the cost of Turkey’s censorship.]

Never mind the fact that social media platforms are conduits for communication for millions of decentralized users. “All our national moral values are being set aside,” Erdogan has explained. Worse still, Twitter is “the product of an American company.”

The rhetorical force that guilt by association with the United States carries in many parts of the world can be difficult for us Americans to comprehend. Yet what happens if you switch out the bad guy in Erdogan’s formulations, but keep the conviction that corrupting forces need to be held at bay? Change the name of the scapegoat, and Erdogan’s rhetoric sounds not all that different from what we hear every day here in the good old U.S. of A.

When it comes to the Muslim world (Turkey is a secular Muslim state), with a straight face we talk about a fundamental clash of civilizations. Has history not demonstrated conclusively enough the productive power that is released when disparate societies expand their commerce with each other? Yet we cast our vital economic partners as the threatening Chinese buying everything up or those illegals from Mexico taking American jobs. What to do but put a fence along the border watched by guys with guns? And if you see someone who might be foreign, ask him for his papers.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Chinese hacking.]

Even amongst those to whom we’ve granted the right to participate in our economy without having their identity cards checked, the picture isn’t pretty. Our social and political bugaboos have the look of cartoons – latte-drinking East Coast intellectuals at universities, corrupting young minds; bumpkins in pickup trucks waving the confederate flag while shooting off guns. It’s not that neither type exists. It’s that interpreting the world according to these types shortcircuits our ability to see what the other camp might have figured out (or more importantly, what we might be able to come up with if we put our collective mind to it).

We possess the innovative capacity, the market mechanisms and the capacity for good government (yeah, that’s a thing, or at least it used to be) required to free us from petroleum’s noose, for example. We have the wherewithal to achieve economic growth and global competitiveness beyond anything we have seen before. But at a time when we need to be applying the best of all our tools, we’re enacting an epic battle between the scissors and the knife. We hear incessantly of evil capitalists, perpetuating a system that by its very nature rapes the planet and exploits the “99 percent.” Meanwhile we are regaled with tales of those dangerous socialists, fundamentally corrupting our free enterprise system with their health care regulations and wild notion that the climate might indeed have changed.

Business school students learn of the dangers that come with sidelining conflicting viewpoints on a management team. Under the pressures of competing in the marketplace, a manager who surrounds himself with others who gratifyingly confirm his assumptions often veers off course. The cost lies in critical problems unexamined, worthy solutions not derived, smart strategies left unpursued. On the scale of the larger economy, what is the loss when we fail to convene with those who might lead us to question those assumptions and our modes of operation?

Here in the U.S., we allow our social media chatter to go on without direct interference (our government has distinguished itself more in the monitoring department). Yet even as this chatter continues, our conversation has effectively split into separate streams. It is an everyday matter in the United States to cut short meaningful debate through casting media and other institutions as beholden to those whose viewpoint we want to write off. Americans are regularly treated to folks on the right invoking “the liberal media” to discredit arguments they dislike, while their counterparts on the left decry “corporate media” or “the media industrial complex.” Whatever the biases of the owners and editors of traditional media, at this point the charge has become a reflex. Whoever is ranting at the moment considers himself to be a reasonable thinker exasperated by the bias of what he encounters. Depending on where he sits, the game has been rigged either by unpatriotic moonbats or jingoist wingnuts, by government beholden to trough-feeders and hangers-on, or by corporate interests bent on marginalizing the rest of us.

[Read more economic analysis from our Economic Intelligence blog.]

This evidences a fairly severe kind of breakdown. Think of a couple you know, each member of which is convinced that the other is “nuts.” Put such a couple on a roadtrip or make it responsible for the care of a child, and you don’t tend to see a lot of constructive decision-making, much less creative problem-solving and the development of worthwhile ideas.

We can’t have a problem-solving conversation when we have effectively written off the other half.Name-calling and condemnation of the discourse itself have become standard-issue equipment for today’s great enterprise of digging into one’s own insular viewpoint. This is at a time when our future depends on finding real solutions that release economic energy and keep up with the ever-accelerating demands of the global economy, while enabling us to stop effectively living off the equity in our common building. Can we think the unthinkable? That the left might have to recognize that their own incomes result from someone having hung up a shingle somewhere, or having dirtied her hands through dealing with business (oh dear) – and the right might have to deal with the fact that we’re actually going to have to guzzle less gas and get over it with the guns (the horror)?

This is not to say the other side is not crazy. The more we fail to participate in a common conversation, the more normal our own crazy becomes – and the more crazy the other crazy sounds. This perpetuates extremes of thinking that really are somewhat nuts, because they have been too long unchecked by contrary frames of reference and modes of living. The irony is that putting two kinds of crazy together can be extraordinarily generative, but only if both crazies manage to stop ranting long enough to understand what’s making the other so nuts.

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