Gezi Park protests shatter myth of apolotical youth, says scholar

Gezi Park protests shatter myth of apolotical youth, says scholar

ISTANBUL - Hürriyet Daily News
Gezi Park protests shatter myth of apolotical youth, says scholar

One of the most important findings from the survey about the demonstrators is that a majority of them identify themselves as freedom seekers rather than assume any ideological label, Bilgiç says. DAILY NEWS photo / Hasan ALTINIŞIK

The notion that Turkey’s youth are apolitical has been turned on its head by the Gezi Park protests, according to Esra Ercan Bilgiç, a political scientist who conducted a survey to identify what was motivating the protesters.

“What they understand about being politicized is to participate in the democratic process. That does not necessarily require political parties; they prefer to participate by becoming mobilized, by raising their voice,” she said.

Could you tell us the story behind the initiative to do the survey?

Friends from our communication department were in the streets. I cannot go out since I have two kids. I thought about what I could do during the weekend [after the demonstrations started on Friday, May 31]. Monday morning I told my colleague, “There is speculation about these people. Let’s do an online survey about who these people are and what they want. But let’s do it very quickly.”

We prepared the questions in 2.5 hours. We operated from the fact that this is a movement that came around through the social media; we therefore assumed that demonstrators were users of social media. We used the snowball sampling technique; in other words, we used our social media networks and asked that it be spread around.

We were expecting interest in the questionnaire, but not on this scale. When we put the survey online at 5:30 p.m., 196 answered it in the first four minutes. By the morning we had reached 2,500. This was really amazing. We reached 3,000 by the time we closed the survey; which had stayed online for less than 24 hours. This huge interest tells us that they saw this questionnaire as a tool to express themselves. They want to say something but their voice is not being heard.

In general, people don’t like to fill in questionnaires. When we closed the survey, people reached us saying they also wanted to fill out the questionnaire. But we had to act fast.

What was the rush?

Because everything is happening too fast. The fact that the [traditional] media was not covering the events made the need to get informed very important. Speculation was going around about the crowds. There were calls that were making the crowds the target [of criticism]; calls that led to polarization. There was a need to produce the information about who these people were. We displayed a fast reflex as academics. We are, at the end of the day, social scientists.

Is this a turning point? Academics usually spend a longer time coming up with analyses. Is there a need for scientific people to keep up the pace?

That’s right. The traditional publishing mentality does not fit in with the fast reflex that academics need to show.

But do scholars have a mission to show a fast reflex?

This is debatable, but I think they do. If we are talking about the demonstrations in Istanbul, it is impossible to say scientists have no such mission in a situation where the media went mute.

But what is that mission exactly?

If the media does not do its mission of informing the public, I’ll do it, and I also have the means where I can spread around this information. We used social media and our faculty’s website.

Did you have an idea about the profile of the demonstrators?

A lot of people, our friends and colleagues were on the street; some were there to do their jobs. Our students were there. We knew them; they were sort of our kids. Actually it was our essential motivation to determine who these kids are. But as we are social scientists and had academic concerns, we tried to show maximum objectivity. It is not as if we knew them and tried to show who they were. We tried to show the profile using academic objective criteria, being very meticulous but also very much in a hurry. We were of course concerned about avoiding making any mistakes.

What’s your take about the profile?

I think the most important finding is the fact that the majority identify themselves as freedom seekers. Then it goes like, environmentalist, secular, democrat, Turk, Atatürkist, Istanbulite, anti-militarist and anti-capitalist. The number of those identifying themselves as nationalist was way below; this is important because due to the visibility of Turkish flags, some speculated that the masses were made up of nationalists.

Are we seeing the emergence of a new type of academic?

It had already emerged. The scientists who have the means to use technological means in their hands lead to the emergence of this new type of academic. It all depends on your will to use it. If you are a social scientist, you need to analyze how society is transformed through which means by asking what is happening, why it is happening, who is gaining from that, who is losing because of that and what can be done. If you do not keep up with technology, you will be very slow.

Are you saying there is a need to catch up with the IT generation?

This survey showed us that this is a generation which we cannot understand within the usual concepts; actually they are making themselves known to us. This is a generation whose democratic understanding goes beyond political parties. There are young crowds in the streets and the political parties cannot satisfy their wish to participate in democracy as citizens. They have other demands and they have such a wonderful way of expressing it: Just look at the graffiti. They have a free spirit; they don’t want any interference in their lifestyles. When even their fathers could not scold them, they don’t want to be scolded by the prime minister. I am 38. The previous generations were the generation of the typewriter. Our generation is the keyboard generation; but we were connected to the Internet via cables. So both generations were sitting in their chairs. The current generation has left their chairs thanks to their smart phones. They are mobile. They are very different. They express themselves and get organized with smart phones. As another academic said it, the time of their batteries is much more important than rotten tooth. That’s why they can not fit into the old, ossified political concepts.

How do they differ in their convictions?

When you ask whether these events should translate to political organization, those who say I definitely agree is only 32.6. They don’t call for the intervention of the army. They have also gotten over the fear threshold.

What makes you say that?

Some 75.8 percent of those surveyed said they supported protests by taking to the streets, while the ratio of those who say they had never taken to the streets for protests is 53.7. They don’t have the intention of going back inside. Every time they are subjected to pepper gas, they get pushed back but then turn around and come back. This happens over and over again.

What will happen in the future?

My personal belief is that this should translate politically into some kind of organization. Politics work like that. Otherwise, I don’t know how these demands could be expressed and find an answer. As a political scientist, I think there should be some kind of an organization but this is not what they think.

Maybe we are too old for them and think with old concepts too. We thought they were apolitical.

Yes, we are old and in fact, we were the apolitical generations but not this generation. I was 5 years old when the 1980 military coup took place. I grew up not knowing what we were deprived of. There was only one TV channel; we could not follow the world. This generation is politicized but they have a different understanding of politics. What they understand about being politicized is to participate in the democratic process. That does not necessarily require political parties; they prefer to participate by becoming mobilized, by raising their voice.

How big was the interest in the survey?

It was huge, and the reason was of course the fact that we did it very quickly. Our colleagues congratulated us on our academic reflex but what made me the happiest was the feedback we received from those in the streets. They said, “We did not know each other, but thanks to you, we have gotten to know each other.”

Who is Esra Ercan Bilgiç ?

Esra Ercan Bilgiç is a lecturer at the Department of Media and Communication Systems at Istanbul Bilgi University. She received a BA in political science and international relations at Marmara University.

In 2001, she received an MA from Istanbul Bilgi University in film and television. In 2003-2004, she spent an academic year at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where she undertook doctoral courses on research design, research methods and statistics for social sciences. Her research interests encompass the interaction of communication and nationalism, such as nationalism, media discourse, the discursive construction of national identity in media texts, and the history of Turkish modernization. Her book “Vatan, Millet, Reyting: Televizyon Haberlerinde Milliyetçilik,” (The Homeland, the Nation and Ratings: Nationalism in Television News) was published by Evrensel Yayınları in 2008.