Wednesday, August 18, 2010

A Cultural Chasm between America and Turkey

Nearly seven decades ago the United States Army asked Prof. Ruth Benedict to prepare a cultural analysis of Japan. The Army was making plans for an eventual occupation of Japan and it wanted to have at the ready a serious analysis of Japanese culture: its customs and mores, the way people behaved in their everyday dealings; the way they conducted their lives.

The Army also wanted to know how Japan and America differed culturally. Knowing what to expect from the Japanese was one thing. Knowing how American soldiers and diplomats would react, quite another.

The result was a wondrous book called: The Chrysanthemum and the Sword.

This to introduce Claire Berlinski's jaw-dropping report from Turkey, the country she currently calls home. Link here.

If were to try to invent a culture where people live by the principles that define the therapy culture, I could not do better than today's Turkey. If it were not true it would, at the least, be a compelling fiction.

Since it is true, it is terrifying.

Imagine a world where Western notions of ethics do not apply, where people do not feel compelled to keep their word, where facts do not exist, and where truth and reality are what you feel at any particular moment.

As Berlinski describes it, business does not really get done in Turkey. People jerry-rig solutions to problems but do not expect that they will last.

No one keeps his word; no one thinks to keep his word. If you object to the fact that someone has not done what he has promised he will shower you with negative emotion about how you have offended him. People are consumed by petty emotions, to the point of being dysfunctional.

Since everyone lives in the same culture they do not know that they are dysfunctional. They are, however, deeply resentful and bitter about cultures that are functional, especially America and Israel.

When Turkish people insist on the importance of their honor and dignity, the claim is a joke. The culture does not value propriety or respect for the feelings of others. Screaming about your sacred honor counts for them as having a sense of honor. To us, it makes you look like a clown or a menace.

Take a look at some of Berlinski's comments:

1. "I live in Turkey. On good days, I love Turkey. But I have long since learned that its people are apt to go berserk on you for no reason whatever, and you just can't trust a word they say. As one Turkish friend put it...: 'It's not that they're bad. They don't even know they're lying.'"

2. "People here... see 'truth' as something plastic, connected more to emotions than to facts or logic. If it feels true, it is true. What's more, feelings her tend to change very quickly-- and with them, the truth."

3. "Arguing a mild difference of opinion by screaming and threatening would come across to Westerners as weak at best, lunatic at worst. Not here. No shame attaches to displays of anger that in the West would result in the issuance of restraining orders. The fights dissipate as quickly as they start; everyone proceeds to drink tea and moistly proclaim their mutual love."

4. "In Turkey, it is normal and expected to say that you will do something, have done something, or agree with something when, in fact, you won't, haven't, or don't. This is so common that no one thinks of it as lying, in the sense that it is not viewed as unethical. It is just being polite."

5. "The emotions are the facts. Stranger still, Erdogan almost certainly believes that the objections are rooted in envy. He too assumes everyone lives in a world like his, one in which the emotions are the facts, and it is not an incidental point that in Turkey envy is particularly important emotion. Envy of the West-- in tandem with envy's sibling, resentment-- has certainly helped define modern Turkey, so it could truly seem plausible in his mind, that the sentiment runs both ways."

Surely, Berlinski is correct to call the cultural divide a "chasm." Is it bridgeable? Are we trying through the therapy culture to bridge the chasm with foreign cultures?

Perhaps so. But that might also mean that we are headed in the wrong direction.

Keep in mind that Far Eastern Asian cultures place the greatest importance on the principles of good character. Confucius declared that keeping one's word was crucial to normal social intercourse. And the Japanese do business on a handshake. They place so much importance on trust that they prefer not to have lawyers draw up contracts.

If Turkey decides that it prefers to become socially and economically dysfunctional, there is probably little we can do to stop them. At the least, we should not even be tempted to follow them off that cliff.


SSS said...

You mention "western notions of ethics" - what are they?

What are "eastern notions of ethics"?

This, "In Turkey, it is normal and expected to say that you will do something, have done something, or agree with something when, in fact, you won't, haven't, or don't. This is so common that no one thinks of it as lying, in the sense that it is not viewed as unethical. It is just being polite."

.... could be said about several cultures or several individuals.

I know people like that and sometimes I'm like that myself. It just isn't neccessary for us to wear our opinions on our sleeves at all times. Who cares?

I'd like to know why she's living in Turkey if she finds the people so loathesome?

Is there anything good about the place or people that she can find at all?

I've always been able to find several good things about the places I've travelled to and the people I've met there, no matter how challenging the experience.

Perhaps she just another "obnoxious American tourist" that our entire planet deplores.

SSS said...

"Keep in mind that Asian cultures place the greatest importance on the principles of good character."

And Turkey IS in Asia, in case you didn't know.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Claire Berlinski is a scholar, a writer, and an investigative journalist.

Sorry that I did not specify that by Asian, I was referring to the Far East. I have just corrected it in the text.

By Western ethics I am referring, as I often do on the blog, to Aristotle's ethical principles.

These are, in fact, reasonably close to Confucian ethics.

Clearly, they do not pertain in Turkey. And that, as she explains in her article, has important foreign policy consequences.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like the author is reading Turkish culture through western glasses, rather than trying to understand it from the inside out. Perhaps only westerners think a Turk is agreeing to something when "they aren't", perhaps Turks know they are disagreeing while still being courteous.

I'm not saying that's necessarily true, but I think it's a likely hypothesis based on my friendships with Turks and time studying the culture as well as living there.

Jim said...

My company does business with a Turkish company and even though we make a highly technical product and we have had some disagreements with them, we seem to get along and they pay on time. I also know that during the Cold War era, the Turks were a key part of NATO and their army was considered professional. Even though they are a Muslim society and they have serious problems with Kurdish and Armenian minorities, they seem to have had a functional government. Based on what you have written about Turkey, one would never believe that they maintained a large empire covering the middle east and much of Eastern Europe for centuries up until 1918. Do you think Berlinski may have been too harsh?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Certainly, it's possible that Berlinski is being too harsh. I have never been to Turkey and therefore am not offering my own opinion.

I still think it valuable to pay attention to how a culture functions on the most basic, everyday level.

Sometimes we can learn more there than we can by following larger political processes.

As it happens, of course, and as Berlinski does discuss, Turkey has recently turned away from the West-- they would say that the West turned away from Turkey by blocking its entry into the European Union-- and has turned more toward Iran.

As we know, the Erdogan government is more Islamist and less secular than previous Turkish governments.

Turkey also sponsored the flotilla that attempted to break the Israeli blockade of Gaza a while back. This would represent a turn away from a previously good relationship it had maintained with Israel.

SSS said...

I've lived extensively in South Asia and can say that what she wrote about Turkey applies to the countries I've been to there.

And yet South Asia is the cradle of high civilization - the ancient Hindu Culture which gave rise to incredibly deep schools of philosophy and ethics, pre-dating Greece by thousands of years.

Later, other great schools of ethical and philosophical thought sprang up in India as well - Jainism and Buddhism.

To understand the difference in doing business in South Asia (and this seems to apply to Turkey as well) and doing business in the US, Devdutt Pattnaik explains through his articles and videos here:

He addresses this "chasm" throughout his website but one place to start is this video:

He says "Indian" but I would say "non-American" because it seems that other countries besides India have similar characteristics, as we are reading here that Turkey has.