Dominant Ideology and To Know the “Other”: A Humble Response to a “Possible” Psychology of Armenians
Can we really write or suggest a psychological analysis of “Armenians”? That is what Dağcı (2012) attempted to do in her recent article. In doing so, she opened an important conversation regarding one’s perception towards the Other. In this paper, I take on the issue of knowing the Other. I argue that knowledge of the Other, claiming truth and certainty through any kind of analysis without Other’s self-definitions, is not only impossible, but also is an ethnocentric imposition of dominant discourses of the Other. I end the paper by proposing self-imposed ignorance of the Other as the only true path towards wisdom.
A very important function of seemingly more-than-human institutions such as state, religion and education, is to supply our lives with meaning. Facing a situation in which we do not have an access to a whole lot of knowledge, when we are confronted with certain events that are hard to explain, transcendental signifiers—such as god, nation, etc.—rush to our aid to propose meanings. We accept these predetermined sets of meanings, quite more than willingly, because it relieves a psychological tension; a disturbing void, created by the absence of explanation, by the lack of meaning.
This is what Camus partially portrays in his novel The Plague. After a plague sweeps the Algerian town of Oran and 30 people die, the town is sealed. While the characters develop and the events unfold based on this plot, one character invokes a transcendental signifier as the town is quarantined. Father Paneloux, the Jesuit priest in town, seizes this “opportunity” of the plague. In a speech he was asked to deliver to the townsfolk, he claims that the people deserved this curse. “The first time this scourge appears in history”, Father Paneloux speaks, “it was wielded to strike down the enemies of God.” (Camus, 1947: 95). Explaining the defeat of the Pharaoh though the plague, he gives meaning to people who are in distress. Father Paneloux rescues people from the void of non-meaning in the face of a horrible event they cannot understand, and supplies ample existential medicine in the form of divine justice.
Providing such psychological security, has been one of the many duties of the state. Both through political and civil society, if we were to use Gramsci’s non-distinctive definition of the term (Anderson, 1976), the State amply supplies what Hall (1980: 172) calls “a dominant cultural order”, that is, predetermined and imposed series of categorizations of the social world. The state, therefore, promises, more than anything else, meaning to its subjects. Whatever might happen to its people—plague, war, atrocity—the state moves in and suggests that it was because of god’s will, national security, patriotism, national interest, and so on.
Consequently, if we were to consider the economy of meaning between the state and its subjects, we would see that the state over abundantly compensates a high demand in meaning by its subjects, via supplying an overemphasis on certainty of knowledge. Such satisfaction, an instant gratification of knowing what really happened or caused an event, very much like the instant gratification of junk food, is quite unhealthy. Such junk knowledge is especially dangerous when the “Other” is concerned. In the pattern established thus far, the state would want its subjects to know the Other, quite intimately. To know the Other, not only provides the rhetorical basis by which the othering of the other can be established, it also provides the basis for violence—from the structural violence to genocide. In the words of Ronell (2008): “You can’t presume to know or grasp the other. The minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them.”
In any attempt of reaching towards grasping the fruit of the knowledge of the Other, even in an Eve-like naiveté, one commits the original sin of becoming a vessel for the dominant cultural order. Can we, therefore, know anything of the other? Is it possible to, for instance, put forth the idea that we know the psychology of Armenians, as a recent article by Dağcı (2012) suggests? Even, if by some miracle we could, should we claim to know the psychology of Armenians?
II. To Know the Other is Impossible
An attempt of knowing the other’s psychology, should not leave out a theoretical discussion on psychology, a working definition or an understanding of what psychology should be. Dağcı uses the concept in her article, in a rather classical sense. She mentions feelings, victimization and being down trod, in a contrast with hostility, power and outrage (Dağcı, 2012). These concepts ring a neo-Freudian bell, an application of personality and personhood theories and feelings attributed to individuals to larger groups and societies. In such Carl Rogers-esque outlook towards the societal relationships, psychology works with the subconscious and attempts to get at a “core” of a society. These endless trials of getting at the very nature of things and classifying them as victims, aggressors, ignorants, stupids, and so on, such certain precision of the other, has caused a lot of harm, unhappiness and suffering throughout the human history. To expand on Ronell’s quote above—“the minute you think you know the other, you are ready to kill them”—certainty of knowledge is akin to suggesting the other is inhuman, expandable, bad, cockroaches, etc., the history is swarming with such doubtless gazes of the other.
While even a post-Freudian structuralist understanding of psychology, such as Lacan, would be an interesting starting point, we can do much better. And while it might be an insult to suggest that we can do much better than Lacan, consider the post-structuralist theoretical success over the last decade. There are other starting points for such an investigation. All post-structuralist starting points, however, rest on one simple premise put forth by Watzlawick et al. (1967: 43), namely the “black box concept”: “While the existence of the human mind is only denied by particularly radical thinkers, research into the phenomena of the mind, as is painfully known to all workers in the field, is tremendously difficult because of the absence of an Archimedean point of outside the mind.” For this reason, we cannot know any mind outside of our own minds, let alone the subconscious mind of the Other. Such a vantage point, simply put, does not exist.
In an attempt to transform the discipline of psychology, post-structuralist psychologists such as Harré and Stearns (1995), carried psychology into the discursive and communicative realm. Their radical idea is that psychological processes once thought to be “internal” to humans and societies, are not actually “internal.” On the other hand, what are thought to be cognitive—for example memory, feelings, attributions, efficacy, agency—are all sustained by social interaction and language. In a nation-state, for instance, anthems, marches and national holidays, not only reshape what happened in the past as the state now sees fit, they also sustain a certain version, a cultural memory. Therefore, we cannot, no matter how much we would try, know the psychology of the other. We could know their language, analyse their discourse and suggest their interrelated positions in relative to other social groups. Their psychological core, however, is simply out of reach.
Even so, suggesting a psychological core, even the mere suggestion, is problematic. It assumes a homogenous unification among a group and presumes every member of the group confirms to such standards regardless of spatiotemporal context. There is not one single individual in the entire world who represents his or her own group in their entirety. Is an Armenian born in Turkey same with an Armenian born in France? Is an Armenian born in Armenia same with an Armenian born in the U.S.? What about an Armenian born in 2000 versus an Armenian born during the Cold War? And what to do with a leftist Armenian versus a conservative Armenian? Does the “psychology of Armenians” apply to each and every single individual in the entire community of people who call themselves Armenian regardless of spatiotemporal, generational, political, gendered, etc. context? Once again, it is quite impossible to assert the knowledge regarding the psychology of Armenians, because Armenians as a homogenous group, does not exist—just as Turks, Kurds, Muslims, Greeks, Jews, Christians do not exist as a homogenous and non-differentiable mass of people.
That being said, a strive for such certain knowledge will ultimately end in frustration and paranoia. Erving Goffman, perhaps one of the most influential social psychologists, suggests that:
To uncover fully the factual nature of the situation, it would be necessary for the individual to know all the relevant social data about the others. It would also be necessary for the individual to know the actual outcome or end product of the activity of the other during the interaction, as well as their innermost feelings concerning him. Full information of this order is rarely available; in its absence, the individual ends to employ substitutes—cues, tests, hints, expressive gestures, status symbols, etc.—as predictive devices. In short, since the reality that the individual is concerned with is unperceivable at the moment, appearances must be relied upon its stead. And, paradoxically, the more the individual is concerned with the reality that is not available to perception, the more must he concentrate his attention on appearances. (Goffman, 1959: 249)
Here, we have an “imaginary concealing reality”, in Baudrillard’s (1994: 14) words, a “simulacra.” To follow Baudrillard’s explanation, we can trace the unfolding of the process, in which the “psychology of the Armenian” becomes no more real than Disneyland. First of all, there are signs and hints, that Goffman calls substitutes. These signs fill us with the false hope that we might receive a hint to a larger truth about the other, a deep and significant unchanging reality about their “nature.” Our imposed misinterpretation of the Other and their signs slowly replace the reality about the other—that they might be different from our best guess. It also replaces a reality about ourselves, that we might be inaccurate observers and interpreters of the other. Finally we get so absorbed with our own creation of the Other, that we define the them through our representation and we engulf ourselves in that very simulacra. The reality is no longer what the other claims about themselves, we don’t even listen to that and we would not believe even if we listened. Because within our simulacra, our version of the other is much more real to us then their ideas about themselves.
III. To Know the Other is Ideological
When another culture is abstracted as a homogenous unit, “Armenian”, this opens up space in which structural, cultural, psychological and physical violence can occur. Moreover, such abstraction is a direct imposition, as discussed above, of one’s own perception of the other on the other. This takes the agency away from other, in terms of self-determination and agency. It is the same imperialist move Europe made towards almost everyone else, namely the ethnocentric face of Eurocentrism. All these moves are sponsored by the dominant ideology.
As Althusser (1971: 170) suggests, ideology consists of both ritualized patterns of behaviour and lexical constructions of obvious in day to day language. Moreover, Hall (1980: 172) writes that “any society/culture tends, with varying degrees of closure, to impose its classifications of the social and cultural and political world. These constitute dominant cultural order...” Merging these two outlooks towards ideology and dominance, we can think of the dominant ideology as the imposed classifications that are observable in behavioural and linguistic practices. Turkey presents us with such a particular pattern of behaviour and speech, which seems to show itself in Turkish social and political discourse and history. In a previous article, I named this pattern as “the absolutist pattern of Turkish social and political culture” (Erol, 2012). This further goes and suggests that nor Kemalism, nor its anti- stances such as liberalism—as they are practiced in Turkey—are ideologies. Rather, they are discursive patterns which get subsumed into the dominant ideology of the absolutist pattern. That is, as the discursive patterns position each other as binary oppositions, they only exist within the limits of the dominant ideology.
In this sense, to know the other, is yet another reflection of the dominant ideology of the absolutist pattern. Creating an abstract group that does not exist in real life, such as “Armenian”[i], and imposing a web of discourses on this group positions them in an inferior way. It is also important to be aware that Dağcı (2012), in her construction of the Armenian, does not propose violence—rather she proposes mutual dialogue, understanding and empathy with, doubtlessly, all good intentions. Her abstraction, however, confirms and sustains the language in which violence can occur. The certainty behind the abstraction is the same certainty which the state uses to perpetuate structural violence against Armenia by keeping the border closed. It is the same certainty which the state uses to legitimize assassination of Dink. It is the same certainty which some nationalists use as a base for their xenophobia. All of these groups “know”, with 100% certainty, who “Armenian” is, what is his/her place in the world and what should they do about it.
Moreover, when such an abstraction is created and sustained, we leave absolutely no room for other’s agency can flourish. In our imposition of an identity to the other, we end the discussion. Studies which examine the psychology of Armenians suggest the identity of a victim is all who they are. In Ahearn’s (2001: 112) terms, agency is “the socioculturally mediated capacity to act.” The dominant ideological discourse, through abstraction, also imposes a set of identities as it sees fit and arranges the sociocultural capacity to increase its own dominance and reduce other’s involvement in the process. It is tragically ironic that the same process calls for dialogue.
IV. Ignorance is Wisdom
Writing this paper presents me with a unique opportunity to deal with and criticize not only Dağcı (2012), but also myself in a piece that I wrote some time ago. In 2007, when I was first being introduced to social psychology, I immediately applied my fresh knowledge to Armenian-Turkish conflict in a short article titled: Turkish Armenian Conflict; A Better Understanding Through Social Psychology (Erol, 2007). In the article I claim “a thorough analysis of Turkish-Armenian conflict should be a trial to understand the social psychology of both nations rather than a historical research”—since any historical account will be biased from the perspective of the narrator. This idea of understanding the social psychology of nations, however, a perfect example of essentialism and arrogance of “to know.” These analyses, although how accurate they might sound, are an illusion. We would be falling in love with a simulacra: picking and choosing details about the other and constructing an image that we want to see, to which we stick the label “truth of a society.” While claiming to know the psychology of a society and of the other is bad enough, doing this through few pieces of evidence—such as statues, special days and so on—is even worse. They are constructed problem statements to a constructed reality.
Therefore, I will not display a similar ignorance here and attempt to summarize our real problem or what should be done about it. While I am aware of the painful reality that not knowing or not claiming to know the other is the starting point of wisdom, I do not partake in any claim to such wisdom either. What I partake in, and what I call everyone to partake in as well, is to be severely critical of ourselves and each other. Accumulation of such knowledge might aid us not to do the same mistakes. In knowing the other, on the other hand, we only contribute to the perpetual status quo of othering.
Ali Ersen Erol, PhD Candidate, School of Communication, Howard University
Please cite this article as follows:
Erol, Ali Ersen (May, 2012), “Dominant Ideology and To Know the “Other”: A Humble Response to a “Possible” Psychology of Armenians”, Vol. I, Issue 3, pp.26-34, Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey), London: ResearchTurkey (http://researchturkey.org/p= 1162)
Ahearn, L. M. (2001). Language and agency in Durham, W. H., Daniel, E. V., & Schieffelin, B. B. (Eds.). Annual Review of Anthropology: 2001. Annual Reviews.
Althusser, L. (1971). Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. NY: Monthly Review Press.
Anderson, P. (1976). The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci. New Left Review, 100 (November-December).
Baudrillard, J. (1994). Simulacra and Simulation. (S. F. Glaser, Trans.). University of Michigan Press.
Camus, A. (1947). The Plague. (1991, S. Gilbert, Trans.). Vintage.
Dağcı, Z. (2012). Psychology of Armenians and the Denial Law of France. Centre for Policy Analysis and Research on Turkey (ResearchTurkey). London: ResearchTurkey.
Retrieved April 30, 2012, from http://researchturkey.org/?p=770
Erol, A. E. (2007). Turkish Armenian Conflict; A Better Understanding Through Social Psychology. School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution Newsletter. (Sept. Vol 1, Issue 1). Retrieved May 1, 2012, from http://scar.gmu.edu/newsletter-subject/12565
Goffman, E. (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (1st ed.). Anchor.
Hall, S. (1980). Encoding/Decoding in. Culture, Media, Language. Ed. Stuart Hall et al. New
York: Routledge, 1980. 128-138.
Harre, R., & Stearns, P. N. (Eds.). (1995). Discursive Psychology in Practice (First printing, paperback.). Sage Publications Ltd.
Ronell, A. (2008). Examined Life (Astra Taylor, director & writer). [Film]. Ontario: Sphinx Productions.
Watzlawick, P., Beavin, J. H., & Jackson, D. D. (1967). Pragmatics of Human Communication (1st ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
[i] Just as a clarification, I don’t claim Armenians do not exist. Just the opposite. Creating an abstraction such as “Armenian” undermines the complexity of the reality. Armenian is not just Armenian. She is the Armenian in a certain time, place, culture, subculture, and so on.