Gönenç Gürkaynak

Attorney, Istanbul Bar, New York Bar, Law Society of England and Wales. Twitter: @GurkaynakGonenc

“It would be difficult to enslave a society through narratives, if substantial and high-quality education is widely available.” (The photo is taken from the official website of ODTÜ.)

Gönenç Gürkaynak

(*) Anyone I get to meet in person, makes me utter words of hope. Those who talk about how hopeless they feel, implore me with their eyes, as if they wished I could “take it away” and they ask me how hopeful I personally feel. People even claim that I give them hope. They encourage me to provide it or at least to talk about it. Perhaps because I do give hope in my talks to young people, hope is the subject that people bring up the most, upon our first contact. They lead me towards the subject of hope as if it were a mystical notion, told in bedtime stories and fairy tales. This article is about hope. I tried to undertake a rational analysis of hope, devoid of mysticism or sentimentality. It has turned out to be an article about the fact that hope must be earned and it cannot actually spring eternal. It is about hope’s relationship with individuals, society, freedom, education and time. Perhaps this article turned out to be alarming instead of hopeful. But if it does manage to cause alarm, then that should in turn be cause for some hope.

Hope and humanity

There is no doubt that one’s optimism and hope get somewhat rattled, as life goes on. Children, of course, are always more resilient, positive and clear about things. They often experience their feelings at the extremes and can reach unexpected heights of emotion quite suddenly even when they are sad, which is sometimes difficult to make sense of with our adult eyes, and yet their world is still much more beautiful than the real world. Growing up and reaching maturity are nothing more than making a smooth landing into the real world —if, that is, the child is lucky.

You grow up as you realize that your parents might not be able to thwart all dangers, that the world does not revolve around you and you might not become a jet pilot or a famous footballer; as you learn that you can’t trust everyone, and realize that not everyone will kind. Becoming more realistic may, of course, also increase one’s pessimism about things. A child may have her moments of misery, but if she is not subjected to relentless darkness, she will not be pessimistic. Nor hopeless.

A young person, on the other hand, emerges from childhood and gets a grip on reality, but is still optimistic about making a change. He has energy. He is not worn out or assimilated into the existing system.

Society and hope

If children are our dreams, the young are our only hope for optimism. They are the “new.” We are the ones who are responsible for the present moment.

There’s no way that the children’s dream world can be made sustainable in perpetuity. However, we can prolong that period as much as possible and ensure that it’s a nurturing phase of their lives. This, in turn, would create a generation of young people whose ideas are more substantial and highly sophisticated. And preventing these young people from decay and assimilation into the status quo is also in our hands. They will need more freedom, and particularly, more freedom of expression. What propels a society forward is the freedom it grants its youth. Or, the freedoms that its youth can reclaim.

Freedom and hope

Those societies of limited awareness that are satisfied with their status quo, if such exist, may believe that they have no use for the younger generation’s vitality, enthusiasm and ideas that are unconnected to and detached from any potential beneficial interests. They might not take the issue of freedom into consideration, at all. Until, that is, they suddenly decline and fall.

By contrast, there are some societies who manage to realize that their current situation is dire or who understand that things will go wrong once a society’s growth begins to stagnate. These societies rely on the youth’s hopes, skills and talents. Skills cannot be provided or nurtured through a unilateral flow, they necessitate the use of a reciprocal and contentious method. This, in turn, requires freedom of expression. Hope will not survive if it will be ineffectual. And, once again, to enable the youth to take action and affect change, they must be able to exercise their freedom of expression.

Therefore, our first prerequisite for optimism is, more freedom of expression. Which means transparency. The ability to call out existing problems, and more importantly, to be able to identify the problems. And to be able to generate ideas to counter such problems.

So, who stands in the way? Those who are sincerely pleased with and personally benefit from the status quo.

Those who are genuinely pleased with and personally benefit from the status quo would, in any case, wish to assimilate the youth, in the same way that they once did. They would seek to mold them, frame them. They would want to maintain the status quo that they enjoy and are comfortable with. This comes as no surprise.

The main issue here is, who are these people who could genuinely be personally satisfied with the status quo. If they are each asked in person, putting aside any political leanings, the number of people who would claim that “the current situation is fine and I’m satisfied” would be extremely low. It is not difficult to predict that this number would be limited to those who nourish themselves directly from the spine that keeps up the status quo. No matter the type of food chain, the number of such people would not exceed 1% of the adult population. This being the case, how and with what mandate, are those people, who are content with the status quo, able to suspend or limit our freedom of expression, which is our prerequisite for being hopeful, despite their clear minority status?

Education, solidarity and hope

Here, the minority that is genuinely and personally content with the current state of affairs, has to manufacture polarization and a sense of belonging by using the tools and technology of creating a common enemies. In this way, they nevertheless manage to attract the masses who don’t share their privileged interests, to their side of the political divide. They need to create certain narratives: “They’re the secret enemy”; “they’re traitors”; “they did such and such to you once”; “us vs. them.” At any given moment, they must keep the sense of a looming threat alive.. At this point, the second pre-requisite for hope emerges: education.

It would be difficult to enslave a society through narratives, if substantial and high-quality education is widely available. People would require hard facts. Instead of slogans, they would speak through data. They would question things. It would be difficult to use such techniques on such people to polarize and manufacture common enemies. Furthermore, when the locomotive loses its carriages and is left on its own, that is to say, when the manipulation techniques that keep the affluent minority of less than 1% afloat stops working, things would change for the better. And when the rest of society that shares a common fate can finally embrace each other, their immediate goal would be to reclaim their freedom of expression. When the freedom of expression that the society demands for its youth is finally reclaimed (and freedom of expression is not granted, it must be reclaimed; a right that has not been reclaimed, although it may have been legally codified, does not truly exist), the ideas and their products would also be substantial and useful, in parallel to the quality of the education provided.

This balance and the effects of education and freedom of expression may flow both ways. If education is qualitatively improved and made more substantial, but no other steps are taken, the demand for solidarity and freedom of expression will still follow. If the freedom of expression is increased and no other measures are taken, the demand for a better education will follow, too. Both these options will lead to a society that has finally earned the right to be optimistic. If, on the other hand, the education system is left to decay and the freedom of expression is simultaneously restrained, you’ll see a pattern where you can no longer understand who could be content (not to mention how the current situation would continue voluntarily). In such a case, hope and optimism are left hanging in the air, abandoned until an indeterminate day in the future. Can we, then, say “never mind, one day it will happen anyway?”

Time and hope

Two things prevent us from adopting the “so be it, we’ll get there eventually” attitude. First of all, lives are diminished: People experience irreversible losses in their lives due to the lack of freedom of expression in society, as well as problems in education. There is simply no compensation for this. The second reason is even more dramatic: If both you and I risk life and limb tomorrow, it’s likely we won’t be able to save the day because we didn’t act today—because we waited.

In today’s fast-paced world of rapid information production, information grows and grows exponentially in its natural habitat. The more we delay now, the chasm between ourselves and those societies which did act on time, will grow. When we have still yet to explain to our children how the Ottoman Empire’s disregard for the industrial revolution affects our lives today in Turkey, our grandchildren will be faced with exponentially worse issues.

So, hope does not spring eternal. Just as a society cannot forever maintain its status of “ high potential”, hope, too, is depletable—it’s not a value one can mine for and extract whenever one pleases. Hope is intertwined with time and, it is normal and even necessary, for people to feel alarmed as their hope diminishes. However, if, instead of an increase in energy, we see that apathy intensifies as contradictions deepen within a country, it means that people are exhausted due to having been in a state of alarm for too long. As long as that state of alarm that we need is soothed with platitudes and empty talks of hope, and as long as we only chat about hope for conversation’s sake at the dinner table, it loses its core energy. But if that disturbance, that state of alarm, stimulates the demands for freedom of expression and better education, the remnants of hope might be able to generate some value. However, if there is no genuine concern, if no one steps up to the plate, if all that worry and misery shared in conversations only serve to uphold a notion of hope like a distant dream, meaning, if hope is not actually fought for, then hope will remain as nothing but an opiate for the masses.

(*) Translated into English from the original text in Turkish