Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Cognitive Dissonance

More photos from Istanbul tomorrow. This was taken in The Blue Mosque


We've been in Turkey for two days now, and what I have to say is this:

- Great food
- Breathtaking sights and scenery
- Extremely friendly people, talkative and helpful almost on the level of the Taiwanese

That last one is a bit of a sticker for me.

(By the way, I do link this a bit to Taiwan further down, if you feel like reading that far).

As you know if you read this blog with any regularity, I'm Armenian on my mother's side. Specifically, Armenian from Musa Dagh, Turkey: it's half the reason why we're in Turkey now at all - I'm interested ins seeing the one of the lands I come from. And as you know if you've studied history under anything other than a regime hell-bent on brainwashing young citizens through education, the Turks committed a massive genocide against Armenians in the early 20th century. I exist at all - and am American - because my family (or at least many of them) escaped that genocide. My great grandparents fled to Greece, but as WWII approached they had to leave Athens, as well - my great grandfather had been a freedom fighter for the Armenians, was well-known to the Turks and also to the Nazis. They would not have lived long in Greece had they stayed through the Nazi invasion.

My grandfather was born in Greece between those two flights for life, and as you can imagine, he hates Turks with a passion. Nobody else in the family is too fond of them, either. This might be left to history if the Turks would admit that what they did was commit genocide, and apologize for it. This hatchet might be buried if they'd admit that Ataturk was not only the father of their nation but also someone capable of committing great evil (hell, most Taiwanese, even those who vote KMT, pull no punches when saying the same about Chiang Kai-shek, although nobody sees him as the father of Taiwan and "father of the Republic of China" is a honor given to Sun Yat-sen).

And yet they won't admit this, and they educate the young to believe their side of the story - not that I believe there are sides - there is the side that knows what happened and the side that denies it, and that's all - and so young Turks today still believe that "it was a difficult and chaotic time and many people died but we did not commit a genocide". They will defend this quite vehemently and in Turkey, the law against speaking ill of Ataturk or calling the Armenian genocide a "genocide" is on their side.

This is why I have not told anyone I've met in Turkey of my ancestry. Yet. It's not a fight I can win. It's a fight that can get me in legal trouble.

So in my postcards home I've been writing things about how friendly the people are, and sounding fairly lighthearted about it. Honestly, though, I'm not. I am not remotely lighthearted about it. If anything it's had me a bit on edge since we arrived.


These women were quite friendly to me, and took lots of photos with me because they liked my blue eyes. No joke!

Instead, I'm torn. That friendly fellow in the tea garden who chatted with us, and the nice young boy who served us tea, and the helpful people who gave us directions or gently guided us, or who smiled but did not mock the mistakes we made in Istanbul (like trying to put a token on a card reader in the Metro), the man in the electronics shop who asked if we liked Cappadocia and the women in the Blue Mosque who took pictures with me just for fun, or those who were just plain friendly and welcoming - they didn't murder my people. I can't blame them for something that happened almost a century ago.

And yet they also deny that it happened.

And yet they were educated to believe it didn't happen.

And yet despite that education, they should know better.

And yet, they are some of the friendliest people I've had the pleasure of traveling among.

There's no denying it - so far the Turks have been nothing if not truly hospitable. That's hard for me. Their ancestors killed my people and the descendants deny it happened, and yet I cannot find fault with their kindness. How do I even begin to reconcile that?

Because really, underneath my feeling of warmth for the warmth the Turks have shown us is a bit of a raw scar - a thin line of anger, knowing that that kindness would probably be withdrawn the moment they learned I was Armenian. That kindness is wholly dependent on a pretense - on allowing them their cognitive dissonance. On not upending their belief system. This means that I also feel cognitive dissonance - these people who are so friendly, whom deep down I know would deny a massacre I know to have happened - how does one go about stitching those two things together? Is it really friendliness if it's contingent upon my not revealing a deep kernel of myself? Would it even be appropriate to do so? Is it fair to my ancestors who gave their lives or risked their lives to save others to not do so and to accept this hospitality at face value?

What happens is that I talk with these lovely people, and it's fine, except I feel, off to my side maybe, waves of heat from a red-hot poker, just inches from my skin, threatening to brand me an Unwelcome Other if I discuss my heritage or speak the truth, and threatening on the other hand to brand me a Traitor if I let things be.

It's a hard line to walk and I can't help but feel a little emotional over it. It's not so bad in Cappadocia, but when we hit Musa Dagh I will have to work very hard to keep my feelings in check.

I can see how the same issue dogs many Taiwanese. There are those who came or whose parents came over with the KMT, those who served or whose parents served under Chiang Kai-shek, and those who were killed by the KMT in the wake of 228 and the White Terror. There are many for whom being welcomed by neighbors, coworkers, classmates and even family is contingent upon not upsetting the worldview of others that their political beliefs are correct (and that goes for both sides). It is not so serious as a genocide when someone who is deep green can't reveal to his coworkers who are mostly blue, but there is still a raw feeling underneath the pretense of cameraderie. There is an unspoken understanding that "we all need to get along", so talking about things like, well, the White Terror around people whose parents may have ignored it or even supported it is not condoned. I can very much imagine how those Taiwanese feel, unable to upset the fragile truce of "your parents' party killed my loved ones, and that party won't apologize for it, your parents won't acknowledge the atrocity, and that kills me inside so I won't talk about it. I have to deal with you and I want things to run smoothly so I can't bring it up. I have to pretend it doesn't exist."

I can imagine it because I'm living it right now.

5 comments:

-K said...

maybe after a while, generations perhaps, we can forget and move on. start anew instead of bearing grudges or remembering forever.

the mists of time obscure the heinous deeds of the past.

maybe its for the best.

-K said...

I typed a really good comment here about not bearing grudges and moving on but i lost it when i had to log in.

the mists of time cover up the heinous actions of the past. perhaps the deliberate ignorance is attempting to push past the remembering forever and never being able to make up for the actions of your ancestors so we conciously decide to forget and move on. we're friends now. im a different person to my great grandfather. lets continue with that.

maybe its for the best.

Jenna said...

The issue there is that if that happened, all those eho have committed heinous crimes would only have to wait a few decades before getting off scot-free. No need to apologize when people will forget. It also encourages history to repeat itself: Hitler famously said as he plotted the Holocaust, "nobody remembers the Armenians". I do blame the government and those alive then for what happened, not those alive now (I wrote about that - it bothers me that they deny it, they shoild know better, and yet this is their education that many do not question). An apology and admitting that it happened would go a long way. Then perhaps the hatchet could be buried. The ROC has admitted to the fact that 228 abd the White Terror happened; those that lived through it do not face deniers as the Armenians do. The govt, specifically the KMT, has not apologized for it though, and that is not right either. Perhaps it is easier though to face the descendants of your oppressors when at least your neighbor wom't deny the event took place.

Nick Herman said...

I also experienced the continued cognitive dissonance of being reassured by everyone I knew in China, when I lived there, that Mao was mostly good (despite being accountable for a few tens of millions of deaths).
Try that one on for size!

Eventually, everything is forgotten, for better worse..all that we take away is how we live our lives, and the shadows of those effects on others.

Nick

J said...

While I'd agree that its good to not live in bitterness over the past, it does matter if nations or governments don't admit to past crimes. Not admitting or apologizing, or making excuses, allows countries to paint themselves as historic innocents, and emphasize their own victimization- this is pretty clear in the case of Japan and China. This in turn can bolster nationalism and all the evils that potentially follow. I think the US is similar, though it sees itself less as a victim and more as a force for good. When the US govt and education system don't acknowledge the suffering US policy caused in places like Vietnam or Iran it's easier for the gov't to justify things like the Iraq war and supporting dictatorships. If there had been an apology of some sort, and if people learned about it in their history classes, they may not assume that the US is always the "good guy".