Native Language and Demagoguery
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Native Language and Demagoguery

by
Herkül Millas

15 October 2010, Today’s Zaman, Commentary

When is demagoguery necessary? When we are wrong or when we cannot defend our point. In short, when we feel stuck. Instead of saying “Sorry” or “I was wrong,” we prefer to beat around the bush.

It is said that there are two forms of demagoguery: conscious demagoguery and unconscious demagoguery. I had always difficulty differentiating between the two. The two behaviors known as “conscious” and “unconscious” is an invention of our minds. A person cannot be divided into two. There are emotions hidden behind our most conscious decisions and logic does not completely disappear even during our most emotional moments. There is a concept called a “defense mechanism” in psychology - our mind and then our tongue develop lines of defense to justify ourselves. This is demagoguery. Demagoguery has a twin brother, too: double standard.

I thought about these while reading and listening to the debates on education in one’s native language. If demagoguery is not overcome, forget education, it won’t be possible even to sit together around the same table and talk. Demagoguery irritates the listeners, increases the tension and causes anger because it is seen as a sign of bad intention, of taking one for a fool or deliberately lying. Actually, bad intentions are not involved in every case of demagoguery. Sometimes demagoguery is just a desperate attempt of defense in a assumed strife. And being a method of a strife it is perceived as an attack by the other side. 

If the above are read as my intention to present myself as coolheaded and empathetic towards demagoguery, I gave the wrong impression. I wish I was that mature! I hate demagoguery because I have to come up with a rebuttal for everything the person engaging in demagoguery says. It is like the Turkish saying “a madman throws a stone into a well and 40 smart men cannot remove it.” Here are a few examples of demagoguery concerning education in one’s native language:

-- “If students are taught in their native languages in schools, we won’t be able to communicate and understand each other because of these different languages.” How is this relevant? Will a student who learns another language, such as Kurdish or Armenian, not learn Turkish, the official language of this country? Take me as an example. I learned how to speak my mother language but also Turkish at a Greek elementary school in Istanbul. What is wrong with that?

The issue of ‘minority rights’

-- “But the Kurds, the Circassians, the Laz and others are not minorities. The treaty of Lausanne defined minority rights. The only minorities are the non-Muslims.” Where shall I begin with this demagoguery? This is like saying, “You are not a minority, so forget your native language.” But Lausanne actually defended native language right to ensure equal rights with the majority. The treaty meant that everyone shall be free to use their native language and that non-Muslim minorities will not be exempt from this right, they will have the same rights as the Muslims in issues of education in their native language. The treaty sought to protect rights and equality in this area. Trying to restrict education in the native language by referencing Lausanne is just wordplay. To say that different groups are not a minority and, therefore, cannot enjoy minority rights is like saying, “You are worth less than everyone else.”

-- “The education in Kurdish is not a pedagogical issue but a political one; it cannot be taught as a native language.” This statement leads to the following conclusions: 1) We see the Kurdish language as a political problem and therefore prevent it from being taught. 2) Here, “we” are the ones who are turning a language problem into a political problem (and then using it as a pretext). 3) The language issue is going to become even more politicized and will be the cause of a political fight. It is a vicious circle. Besides, even if the issue has a political aspect this does not mean that it does not have a pedagogical or a human rights-related aspect to it as well.

-- “What if everyone (the Laz, the Circassians, e.t.c.) demands the right to education in their native language? What will happen then?” Really, what will happen? I think this is where the rubber meets the road. Why don’t they just say it bluntly: “According to our nation-state mentality, everyone must speak Turkish! When under pressure (in other words, when we face Lausanne Treaty), we can allow some people to learn their native language; when we are helpless we will lift restrictions on languages (of the Kurds, for example). Apart from that, we will continue to maintain restrictions on native languages. This is “our” state’s understanding”. (As of who are “we” and “you”, that is something I have always wondered!)

--“So, is education in one’s native language going to be in Kurdish (Kirmantsi) or in Zaza?” What this question indirectly implies is: 1) There is no such language as Kurdish. 2) As a result, there is no Kurdish unity. 3) This type of education is impossible in practice. 4) We know your problems. We are prohibiting your language for your own good and practical interests. (“You” need to thank “us” for this!)
‘Constitutional and legal barriers’

-- “There are constitutional and legal barriers.” According to Article 42 of the Constitution, “no language other than Turkish shall be taught as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institutions of training or education.” How does one explain the education of minorities in their mother language? How can practice and article 42 be reconciled? Does all these mean than Kurdish can not be taught as “mother tongue” but it can as a “second language”? Why isn’t this formula used? Turkish could be the mother language and Kurdish the second language. The problem would then be solved. There is an irony in this article 42 of “yours”.

-- “If a person doesn’t learn Turkish well, he cannot advance in society.” Actually this is what this sentence means: “If a person is not assimilated is hopeless”. But a person who learns Kurdish (or any other language) can of course learn to speak Turkish - the official language of this country – as well. Also, it is better if we foster a sense of affection towards languages instead of imposing them on people because, otherwise, people who speak Turkish very well might still choose to “head to the mountains.”

-- “Some court decisions in the EU stipulate that the state is not obligated to teach every native language.” Correct. Every small group cannot impose their language and learn it in public schools. This would be impractical. But in Turkey’s case we are talking about communities and ethnic groups comprising millions of members. Moreover, those court decisions do not impose a ban on native languages; they only give states the right to make a decision.

-- “We have suffered a lot as well. We are victims as well.” What people mean by this is: “Don’t complain too much”. But the issue is the type of the pain that is being experienced. Some people suffer from hunger, others from a disease or from unemployment, or a military service, while others suffer from racist bans. The pain caused by racist bans is a special one and only those who suffer from it know what it is like.

There are also examples of double standards: When “our people” (such as the Turks in Germany and in Western Thrace) are in question, the arguments on native language change completely: Native language then becomes “sacred”; it is considered a natural right. Prohibitions then mean oppression: “Deprive children of their native language and you have wounds in innocent souls.”

Prohibitions are pedagogically wrong, too. A person who does not know how to speak his native language will not be able to learn other languages well. Integration into the wider society follows recognition of basic rights. Coercion is perceived as an effort of assimilation. Unnecessary phobias are the result of bias and racism. Demagogy is their conscious and unconscious defense.


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