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Suicide is Painless: But Emotional Illiteracy Can Bring an Entire Country to its Knees

By Abraham Thicke

In the 1980’s I used to watch a series called M*A*S*H. Its iconic theme song struck me then, and still does, as haunting and profound.

Recently I learned a few facts about the song.

It was commissioned by director Robert Altman to accompany a scene in which one of the characters, who has decided to kill himself, holds a pre-death wake, complete with coffin.

Altman asked Johnny Mandel to write the song, his instructions being only that the song would be called “Suicide is Painless” and must be “the stupidest song ever written”. Mandel managed to produce the music, but baulked at the words. Altman therefore set about writing them himself. After a couple of days trying and failing to come up with anything sufficiently stupid, he had a moment of inspiration and handed the task to his 14 year old son, who took only a few minutes to pen the now famous lyrics.

When I learned this I felt a little bit humiliated. But no-one had set out to humiliate me. What rather transpired was a kind of misunderstanding. I’d assumed my emotional responses to the song, real as they were, told me something about the song’s intention. Nothing, in fact, could have been further from the truth.

Our emotional responses to events and actions often provide valuable insights into the intentions behind them. The purpose of the story though was to illustrate this is not always the case. Earthquakes induce terror but that is not their intention. They have none. Other people sometimes upset us. But that is not always their plan.

Our emotional responses point at something. But if we take them as an infallible arbiter we mistake the finger for the moon.

This not very profound insight seems applicable to Turkey’s President, Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan. He is, after all, a man who proudly proclaims he is led by his heart rather than his head.

He is also renowned for being a man to take things personally. What this largely boils down to is that Erdoğan believes his emotional responses to events are a foolproof guide to the intentions behind those events. Misunderstandings of the kind described above have no place in his mental repertoire. To him, the finger is the moon.

There is ample evidence from Erdoğan’s recent political career illustrating a consistent failure to efficiently interpret his own emotional responses. Any event, either at home or abroad, that has a negative emotional impact on Erdoğan is responded to as if it were intended to have that effect. The predictable result is litany of crises. In many of them Erdoğan’s protagonists have to ask the Turkish government exactly what it is they have done to draw his fire.

Whilst on the subject of this emotional illiteracy it is also worth mentioning that Erdoğan’s beliefs appear similarly compromised. Once implanted in his mind they resist being dislodged or updated. All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, are like this. But few other world leaders, certainly those in democratic countries, are as unabashedly obstinate as Erdoğan. One notable example involves a Rorschach blot like block of rock in Havana that someone once said looked like a mosque. Erdoğan jumped on this as evidence that the Americas were first discovered by Muslim (and probably Turkish) mariners. There was no subsequent retraction of this claim, despite the well-deserved ridicule it received. This may have been because Erdoğan does not like showing signs of weakness. But it might equally likely be because he still believes it ― as if once he has adopted a belief it must therefore be true, if only for that reason.

What this all suggests is an inability to efficiently partition the inner private world of thought, beliefs and feelings from the external, public world of which it is but an imperfect reflection.

Erdoğan’s unnuanced outlook is largely parroted by his apparatchiks in the government and the media. They have to or else they’ll lose their jobs. But it’s also the case that people who repeat falsehoods enough eventually internalize them.

One consequence is that a conspiratorial explanatory style has engulfed both government and media. This is well-explained in terms of the account described above. Specifically, Erdoğan seems to deny that his own emotional responses can be anything but a reliable guide to the intentions of the actors responsible for the events that triggered them. Hence, in cases where this turns out to be mistaken, conspiracy theories are required to explain the discrepancy and so preserve the myth of emotional infallibility. It the same with his beliefs. They must be preserved at all costs. No wonder facts have lost all meaning in Turkey.

It’s like if I were to refuse to accept that the M*A*S*H song was intended to be stupid. I’d have to invent a conspiracy theory explaining away what I’d read about the songwriters’ actual objectives. Where’s the stupid there?

Nothing better illustrates the extent to which the mania for conspiracy theory has gripped Turkey than repeated claims by Ankara’s zany mayor, Melih Gökçek, that earthquakes have intentions. He might just as well start telling us it is raining because the sky is sad.

Enumerating a list of the crisis and conspiracy theories in which this emotional and mental illiteracy have been a factor is far too tedious a task for me. Those interested in the former are referred to international media outlets that cover Turkey. Those interested in the latter can consult any of the Turkish government controlled propaganda organs, some of which are provided in English, for amusement.

The broader point to be made here is that the psychological foibles under discussion, which ought to be of interest only to psychologists, are undoubtedly influencing Turkey’s domestic landscape and its international relations, dependent as they both ultimately are on Erdoğan’s whims and fancies.

Anyone who wonders what Donald Trump’s America would look like should Trump gain control of all the levers of power need look no further than today’s Turkey.

It shouldn’t be like this, not in a country that aspires, however flimsily, to democracy, rule of law and logic. Furthermore, even if they were motivated to do so, it is highly unlikely that any attempt by Erdoğan’s confidantes to enlighten him would have much effect. He and they have invested far too much in their worldview to abandon it now. Anyone who wonders what Donald Trump’s America would look like should Trump gain control of all the levers of power need look no further than today’s Turkey. And anyone who wonders how Turkey’s government might appear were it even vaguely fit for purpose should look the other way.  

Of more interest to Erdoğan’s interlocutors are the opportunities offered and risks posed by his mental and emotional habits. Many in Turkey have risen to wealth and influence by exploiting his foibles; thousands also languish in jail because of them. International actors, particularly those constrained by the protocols of diplomacy have suffered too. It is no coincidence that Turkey maintains good relations with only a small group of authoritarian nations who are able to bend their relations to accommodate Erdoğan’s vanities in order to achieve their ends. Russia’s Putin is a good example.

Let’s leave the last word to M*A*S*H’s Col. Flagg, ‘Nobody can get the truth out of me because even I don’t know what it is. I keep myself in a constant state of utter confusion.

Ring any bells?


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