By Oliver Wright
In a celebrated scene from the Carry on Movies, Julius Caesar, played by the British actor Kenneth Williamson, reacts to Brutus’ murderous assault by staggering around the set before declaring, ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!’
Williamson’s famous quip was set in the last days of the Roman Republic, but hardly seems out of place in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey. Since the Gezi Park protests of 2013, government representatives have evinced an ever increasing willingness to interpret diverse events as the result of conspiracies. Analyses of the Gezi Park protests, exchange rate fluctuations, rising food prices, the shooting down of a Russian jet, military setbacks and the attempted coup of 2015 are all routinely framed in this way. Needless to say, such theories receive considerable coverage in the largely servile Turkish media.
Many of the theories appear farcical. Melih Gökçek, Ankara’s long serving mayor, recently claimed a series of small earthquakes in Çanakkale were acts of sabotage. Yiğit Bulut, one of Erdoğan’s closest advisors, suggested in 2013 that attempts were underway to kill Erdoğan using telekinesis. Political satire may be dead in Turkey, but perhaps it is not needed after all.
The range of actors starring in the conspiracies is as broad and bewildering as the events they are intended to explain. Western governments, CNN, Credit Rating Agencies, the PKK, the Islamic State and Lufthansa are among the organizations implicated, along with a host of mysterious ‘lobbies’. Domestic critics of the Turkish government, chief among them the Gülen movement, are commonly portrayed as treacherous lackeys, aiding and abetting Turkey’s exotic assortment of international enemies in carrying out their elaborate schemes.
What unites these disparate agents, according the official narrative, is that they are all coordinated from a mysterious centre, the ‘üst akıl’ (higher mind). This is widely believed to be the US government, though proponents of this overarching explanation refrain from explicitly identifying the alleged mastermind. According to those who propound them, the goal of these conspiracies is to thwart Turkey’s rebirth as a great nation.
Turkish people, by and large, believe this narrative, or elements of it. This is not altogether surprising. Turkish governments have a long track record of dalliance with conspiratorial theories, usually those framing the world as a place filled with powerful, ill-intentioned entities. Further, well documented declines in freedom of expression have resulted in a media landscape in which alternative opinions are critically endangered.
Explaining why people are susceptible to conspiratorial theories is beyond the scope of this article. What it rather aims to do is suggest why any rational observer will likely conclude the theory of the üst akıl is best digested with a large pinch of salt. That is not to say the reasons given will be expected to have any impact on the opinions of those who have internalized the theory. One needs to look no further than Donald Trump’s America to understand that beliefs, regardless of their veracity, are remarkably resistant to change, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
From a purely scientific perspective, the theory does not stand up to scrutiny. Two hallmarks of scientific theories are first that they are well defined and second that they make testable predictions. The theory of the üst akıl does neither. It is so nebulous and vague that it can be can, and has been, modified to explain any new event, accommodate any new agent. Indeed, it is more like one of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So stories than a theory.
But perhaps the theory should not be judged from a scientific perspective. Instead, I suggest two other reasons why it fails.
First is the sheer size of the alleged conspiracy. Co-ordinating, organizing and enacting any such enterprise would require enormous resources. Only a state or a collaboration of states could engage in such an undertaking. Are any states interested enough in Turkey to devote the required resources to a conspiracy of the size alleged? Many doubt this. The prime suspect, Western governments, have had too much else on their plates.
Indeed, the conspiracy looks like the product of minds that are focused on Turkey, but fail to grasp that other minds might not be. This bears parallels with the phenomenon of adolescent egocentrism. The idea is that teenagers are preoccupied with themselves, but fail to realize that other might not share their preoccupation. Thirteen year old Anna, who continually thinks about herself, assumes others must also be thinking about her and then interpret their actions in this light. The mistake here is obvious: others are not thinking about Anna. Just like Anna, they are preoccupied with themselves.
The second reason for doubting the theory relates to the üst akıl’s supposed aim of preventing Turkey’s march to greatness. However, Turkey is not rising. It is palpably sinking: society is dangerously polarized, state institutions lie gutted by waves of purges, the economy is teetering, foreign policy is a disaster, terrorist attacks are the norm. Although these misfortunes may be exactly what the government tries to explain using conspiracy theories, few disinterested commentators share their view. Rather, they argue the Turkish government is largely the author of its woes. And while some of Turkey’s problems stem from circumstances beyond the government’s control, this does not necessitate a conspiracy. Thus any ill-intentioned agents need merely to sit back and wait. The story of the ‘üst akıl’, by this account, is a diversion, a straw man created to pre-empt criticism.
So whilst there was a conspiracy to kill Caesar and thus some basis for his protests of ‘infamy’, there is unlikely to be any such basis for Turkey’s conspiratorial rhetoric. Caesar’s last words, it might be added, were voted the funniest one-liner in film history in a 2007 poll. But we all know it didn’t really happen like that. Caesar didn’t really say those words, however apt they seem.
But what of the Turkish politicians who use conspiracies to justify their failures? Do they really believe them? That wouldn’t be funny at all. But it would, in a perverse way, implicate the üst akıl’ in Turkey’s decline. A government that misdiagnoses the cause of its ills is unlikely to come up with effective remedies. Some conspiracies exist only in people’s mind. But they can still influence reality.
Oliver Wright is a psychologist who has lived and worked in Turkey since 2006.