politics : culture : economics

Ockham in Wonderland

In Turkey on June 28, 2010 at 7:41 pm

William of Ockham was a fourteenth century theologian, philosopher and political writer. He is familiar to us mainly for the principle that bears his name, Ockham’s Razor. In its older formulation this is a bit opaque, stating that “entitities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity”. But in its familiar paraphrase it becomes much more straightforward: “the simplest explanation is usually the best”.

This isn’t a principle that pervades Turkey’s political culture. On the contrary, if you suggest taking things at face value here you’re likely to be dismissed for your credulousness. If you have a simple account explaining why x may have occurred, then be ready to be told of the strings that y has been pulling in the background at the instigation of z.

In part, this reflects the murky realities of life in Turkey. This isn’t a thoroughly democratic country and it would be a fool who suggested that there’s no more to politics here than the words and deeds of elected politicians. But the darker side of political life has been allowed to stain the entire public sphere. Conspiracy theorising is casually rampant, an engrained feature of political discourse that hardly raises an eyebrow.

Recent developments in the southeast provide a good illustration of this. When the PKK attacked a military base in Iskenderun last month, Ockham’s Razor would have told us that this pointed to a relatively straightforward escalation of a long-running conflict in the region. But the fact that the attack occurred within hours of Israel’s raid on the Gaza flotilla led to immediate assertions—not just by cranks but by senior politicians—that the Iskenderun attack had been orchestrated by Israeli authorities.

Further PKK attacks, including in Istanbul, have since made it clear that this picture of Iskenderun as a diversionary tactic by a foreign state is untenable. There has been a significant escalation of PKK violence in recent weeks. This has to be seen primarily in the context of domestic factors and the return of the southeast to what has become its default position—a political vacuum and a war that neither side can win.

And yet the conspiracy theories persisted. At the funeral of 11 soldiers killed by the PKK in Hakkari last Saturday week, prime minister Erdogan stated that “our nation knows on whose behalf the terrorist organisation works as a subcontractor”. Taken at face value, that’s simply untrue. But there’s no point taking words like these at face value. Erdogan’s statement (and the others like it that you can hear in Turkey day in day out) come close to being phatic—that is, they’re as much a social ritual as an effort to impart serious information about the world.

This is the point at which, in Turkey, Ockham’s Razor turns in on itself. The assumption that conspiracies underpin much of what happens in life is so well entrenched that it has become a reflex, the shortest of shorthands. So, paradoxically, the ‘simplest explanation’ available isn’t always the most economical or parsimonious as Ockham would demand. Frequently it’s whichever familiar mode of conspiracy thinking best maps on to whatever it is that needs to be explained.

It’s not that there aren’t real conspiracies in Turkey. Far from it, unfortunately. The problem is the ease with which many people (and again, it’s not just cranks) seem willing to assume that pretty much any given social or political fact can be explained by reference to one or other covert political agenda. Here the conspiracy theorists leapfrog Ockham’s wished-for simple explanations and end up with simplistic ones instead.

Perhaps Einstein had it right. A variation of Ockham’s Razor that’s attributed to him adds a very helpful qualification in its final phrase. “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”

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