Thursday, April 24, 2008

Discipline & Punish (Indeed)

Although I have written fairly frequently about Turkey's many speech codes, state repression is not only against speech actors, but can often be wielded against those who share unorthodox views or, even more significantly, those who even do so much as dare seek perspectives outside of state orthodoxy. Consisting of actions taken by state authorities that often fall behind the radar of everyday news coverage and human rights monitoring, this kind of repression is more latent and impossible to empirically document,. However, every once in awhile an event occurs that highlights this repression. Such is the case of Ercan Elmastaş, a Tunceli police officer who was recently dismissed because he attended a meeting in which DTP speakers spoke in opposition of government policy toward the Kurds. Significantly, Elmastaş' crime was not speaking, petitioning, or protesting—it was listening.

From Radikal (by way of the Turkish Daily News):
A police officer who on his day off attended a panel organized by a rights group was dismissed from his position for “unbecoming conduct.”

Ercan Elmastaş attended a panel on the Constitution organized by a Kurdish rights organization, the Rights and Freedoms Front (HÖC),at the Tunceli Municipal Conference Hall on Nov. 11, 2007 as a guest, but it cost him his job.

Elmastaş had been assigned to work in the eastern Anatolian city of Tunceli in his fourth year in the profession.

The panel was organized legally. The speakers included a lawyer and the local pleaders of the pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) and Labor Party (EMEP).

Investigators did not find Elmastaş's statement that he attended the panel as a social activity credible and that he had opted to go to the panel instead of going to a coffee house or the cinema.

Moreover, video records of the panel show that Elmaştaş did not ask for any information from the police officers standing at the door of the conference hall, went through the security search as an ordinary citizen, listened to the panel carefully and, according to another police officer's statements, he even clapped when the speakers were done.

Elmataş's argument that he neither knew the speakers nor the organizers and he only clapped when the whole audience did was also dismissed by the inspectors. They noted that Elmataş watched the panel for one-and-a-half hours.

The Tunceli Governor's Office and the Police Discipline Commission decided to fire Elmataş for attending a panel that did not have a scientific, cultural or technical content and was organized by an association of which the police department is not a member.

The Police Headquarters High Discipline Commission, which met under Police Chief Oğuz Kağan Köksal, also approved the verdict.

Elmastaş's lawyer has filed a case to reverse the ruling.
While it is fairly easy to assess state repression when manifested in full public view, as was the case during this year's Newroz festivals, it is near impossible to adequately account for smaller phenomenon existing just beneath the surface. However, the irony is that it is this much less obvious kind of repression that has the greatest effect in terms of stifling dissent. I often wonder why more Turks do not speak out against government policy in the southeast in the same way that many Israeli citizens speak out against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories or by means paralleling those used by Americans who have protested the war in Iraq, but I suspect that the answer has much to do with state repression akin to that Elmastaş experienced.

While there does seem to exist tremendous social pressure in Turkey that influences the the act of "speaking out," of raising one's voice in opposition to state policy, it is foolish not to acknowledge that this pressure is not affected by state repression. Since pressure is not so much explained by demands to conform for conformity's sake as it by the desire to maintain relationships—acts that defy traditional authority are not typically those that cement existing social bonds—state policies that punish risk takers have profound effects. There is good reason not to take political risks when doing so means one might be punished. (In the case of Elmastaş, unemployment also punishes his family.) Take the example of speech codes. Making it illegal to say something unorthodox renders speech something dirty, oppositional, and troublesome to the social order, making the speaker an outcast, an object of moral reproach. In this way, speech codes are not merely to prosecute people with whom the state disagrees, but have another function as well. They discipline. In regulating norms of acceptability, codes not only generate a silencing effect, usually explained in terms of deterrence, but actually shape social norms and mores.

What is remarkable about the Elmastaş case is the crime committed. Elmastaş was not punished because he said or did something, but merely because he listened—considered ideas that the state found disgusting. While he did not necessarily agree with these ideas, and might have even opposed them, the very fact that he went to the forum was evidence enough to fire him. If perspective-taking is necessary for a peaceful society, as I am certain it is, Elmastaş' dismissal should be viewed as a large strike against democracy, against the quotidian enactments of citizenship upon which a democratic project rests.

There is one more dimension to the Elmastaş dismissal. Although the state released Elmastaş, it is not unlikely that individuals face similar fears in regard to private employers, associations, etc., and, of course, if such action was taken by one of these private entities, having committed the same offense, it is unlikely that the state would provide any recourse. Of course, this is yet another way in which the state exerts power over society. If such social norms existed before the state's formation is not as important as its present role as disciplinarian.

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