In 2020 protest movements across the world revealed the inequalities sewn into the fabric of society. The wildfires that ravaged Australia and California made it clear we are in the middle of a climate catastrophe. The pandemic showed us all just how precarious our economies really are, and the conspiracy theories surrounding the US election proved the same of our democracies.
So, what do we do? In Together: 10 Choices for a Better Now, award-winning political commentator Ece Temelkuran puts forward a compelling new narrative for our current moment, not for some idealised future but for right now, and asks us to make a choice. To choose determination over hope and to embrace fear rather the cold comfort of ignorance. This remarkable and timely book asks you to choose to have faith in the other human beings we share this planet with.
In this exclusive interview, I speak to Ece Temelkuran about why we feel like civilisation is being torn apart, and how we can regain our dignity, our hope and our togetherness.
Q: What is the fundamental idea of civilisation, and how is it breaking?
[Ece Temelkuran]: The will to live together is the fundamental pillar that keeps society going- and that pillar is now under threat. The raison d’etre of the society is our need for security and our need of being together. But this new messy form of fascism that we have been subjected to in several countries is damaging these fundaments. Most obvious consequences are fabricated polarisation, culture wars and divisive politics. We are losing the will to live together… Polarising politics have created a crisis not only in the political domain, but also in the very fabric of society. What will we do when we lose the will to live together? That’s one of the fundamental questions of our time.
Q: How is our dignity being eroded, and what are the consequences?
[Ece Temelkuran]: When we think about what is hurting us today; broken dignity is one of the key aspects, and it comes in many forms… the gap between the privileged and underprivileged, the refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, normalization of the poor countries getting no vaccine… Our dignity is not broken just because of the new forms of fascism and oppression, but because our economic system has a missing idea. Our system has never defined what it means to be ‘good’ – what is the ideal human being in capitalism? Is it Jeff Bezos? Is it Steve Jobs? They thrived, they profited, are they ‘moral’? Even though they exploit the labour of millions of people? At a more day-to-day level, imagine we go to a restaurant where a waiter is reprimanded by a rich customer. The waiter chooses to stay silent for fear of losing their job, and that causes a sense of pain. That damages their dignity. And as an observer our dignity is broken only for being a witness of this picture, unless we stand with the waiter. The ideal human profile of capitalism does not fit with our basic human dignity. Being forced to live within this indignity damages the very fabric of humankind thanks to the unleashed neoliberalist capitalism. And that is why we feel healed whenever we raise our voices together for human dignity. It was not a coincidence that for the last 20 years every protest on the planet shared the same slogan: “Dignity!”
Q: Do we need to rethink morality for our era?
[Ece Temelkuran]: It’s dangerous to speak about morality in a time where we have the prevalence of oppressive moral codes. Discussions of morality often stray into the realms of religion and so we must be clear that we are talking about, and believe in, secular morality.
For much of human history, religion has monopolised morality and values and so we do need a conversation. What does it mean to be good in our society? Where are we heading collectively?
The past decade has also seen us be subjected to representations of the worst kind, constantly. Our new-media sphere is designed to outrage us. The algorithms that deliver our news and information are programmed for spectacle and that naturally tends to leave us absorbed by the bad, by the evil, by the banal by, the vulgar. I worry that maybe society has forgotten what ‘good’ looks like. The spectacle of the evil –which always has more fanfare than the good- has invaded our communication sphere.
Q: How can we reframe the anxiety we feel as a society?
[Ece Temelkuran]: It’s impossible for us to not be fearful at this point in our history. There’s a climate crisis, a pandemic, economic crises and existential threats. We must however, put our personal fears in perspective. We need to look outside and realise that in general the things we are personally fearful of do not need to carry the weight we give them. We shouldn’t be afraid of fear- it is easy to think we are in the worst of times, but in general civilisation is doing pretty well.
It is fear that mixes with pride and stops us finding solidarity with others. We are so afraid of our fears that it makes us embarrassed and helpless – we sometimes cannot even accept that we are afraid. If you are afraid of being afraid, you are hiding. So come outside and open your eyes. But in order to do that we need to restore our faith in humankind and togetherness.
Q: How can we create better dialogue in society?
[Ece Temelkuran]: The idea of dialogue is overrated- sometimes you have to fight. Confrontation has lost its value in a world which expects there to be no antagonism. There are certain issues we mustn’t depoliticise, sometimes we must fight, and sometimes that fight is physical… that’s just reality.
We must start by talking amongst ourselves. Who is the ‘we’ that we refer to? Who are that group that we have lost faith in? or that we have faith in? There is a strangeness I observe in today’s progressives who are trying to better humankind. It seems as-if they don’t believe it’s actually possible because the planet is going to explode, and humanity will disappear anyway. If I look back to the documentaries of the 1960s and 70s, I see a natural optimism and idealism. They believed they could change things and had faith in their ability to do so. But now those black and white pictures seem naïve to us and this is our real problem.
As for ‘building bridges’ with fascists, sometimes there are no bridges, you cannot befriend someone who is trying to kill you.
I see friendship as a political conviction, a political decision and a moral stance. I choose to befriend humankind because that enables me to see people as friends not countrymen or party members. Friendship is an interesting and unique relationship – it’s a choice – and that’s what makes it beautiful, important and morally intact.
Q: What is the difference between power and strength?
[Ece Temelkuran]: Power requires oppression. In order to be powerful, you have to stand upon something. Strength comes from within. In my mind strength applies to governance and oppression applies to power.
We are seeing the emergence of new political organisms. We’ve seen the occupy movements, solidarity movements, mutual aid groups and all of these have strength not power at the core. Strength is replacing power. From Moscow to Hong Kong and India to the United States, powerless organisations are creating strong governance without power. People are sick of power, especially the young.
Q: What gives you hope for the future?
[Ece Temelkuran]: During the pandemic, I have seen so many examples that convince me that we have to remain determined and faithful in our humanity. People knew they were risking their lives going out for George Floyd, for #BLM. People were sure that they were risking death when building mutual aid webs or asking for dignity on the streets of our great cities around the world. People are choosing humanity, dignity, freedom and equality as ideals even when they perceive a risk of dying. There is hope.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Ece Temelkuran]: I hope people remember me as a good friend. There are writers and thinkers who build relationships from a distance, perhaps from above. I deeply believe in equality, and deeply believe that we are equals. I hope that people therefore see me as a friend, and that some of my poetry perhaps will be interesting after I die. To be seen as a friend by people who know me through my work, that would be a wonderful legacy.