The Spectator’s ‘President Erdoğan Insulting Poetry Competition’ joins a chorus of conservative and xenophobic rhetoric following the spectacle of the Böhmermann affair, but invariably strikes a false note. Even as it seeks to celebrate the cherished ideal of freedom of speech, it merely achieves in blunting the cutting edge, i.e. echoing Böhmermann’s words but not his intent – which was to expose the boundaries of political speech in Germany.
As such, while The Spectator’s competition has gleefully jumped on the bandwagon of anti-Turkish sentiment, it can only ever be but a sad imitation of the original satire, indeed a poor re-telling of a joke that was never very good to begin with. Instead, to understand the full xenophobic import of The Spectator’s solicitation, we must locate the true motivations of the competition elsewhere, in that self-righteous impulse to tickle the underbelly of what constitutes freedom of speech.
The French writer and philosopher Émile Chartier once joked that, “society is an institution which allows good people to be gruesome without, realizing it”. In the case of The Spectator’s ‘poetry competition’ might we not say the same thing of that other liberal institution: freedom of speech?
Let us imagine briefly the presumably well-adjusted, breakfast-eating, tea-drinking, law-abiding subscriber of that bastion of middlebrow conservatism, the British magazine The Spectator. And how upon finishing his breakfast, seeking yet another distraction, the reader encounters the insult competition, soliciting a slanderous, ‘perverse’, limerick dedicated to the persona of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkish president and anti-humanist extraordinaire.
Crucially, if we read the original competition, the text urges the reader to contribute not a clever political attack, but an insult as crudely and unimaginatively as possible, preferably with reference to either goats or Turkishness. The goal of the exercise, one wonders? Presumably it is the chance to elicit a reaction from the Turkish political elite, or better yet, to partake in a self- congratulatory ode to the freedom to insult. Yet surely Erdoğan must be the easiest of targets to insult. One imagines the jokes practically write themselves.
We must keep in mind that it is one thing to trade insults, and another to hurl abuse simply for the sake of doing so. In this, the competition takes on the form of a patient suffering from Tourette’s.
Yet what both the Böhmermann and The Spectator cases have in common, and what unites them ideologically, is a shared belief not only in the inherent otherness of political freedoms in turkey – but that by insulting the Turkish leader, one finds an opportunity to demonstrate the evolving boundaries of political correctness in Europe itself.
In this they hearken back to that age-old prejudice against Turkey as being backward and opposed to change, such as when the famed French scientist Georges-Louis Leclerc, in writing to Catherine the Great, described the Ottoman Empire as “that stagnating part of Europe”.
Likewise in The Spectator’s competition, it is therefore interesting that the orientalist prejudice, the presumed content of the insult, is only ever secondary to that of the equally prejudiced principle of proving Turkey as backward for not allowing its citizens to deal in such verbal attacks themselves. In other words, the competition is not only offensive due to the xenophobic and orientalist content of the poems, but exactly because it insults only to prove its own humanist credentials, apropos Turkey’s perceived lack of freedoms.
In a way, it is hard not to notice a mirroring effect in the current enthusiasm for critiquing Turkey’s lacklustre democracy, as it comes hot on the heels of more than a decade of equally euphoric orientalist praise of Turkey as an ‘authentic’ and exotic tourist destination; other enough to justify a long-weekend away, yet not so foreign as that it would be deemed intimidating. The current wave of insults targeting Turkey in this way almost reprimands Turkey for not living up to the orientalist ideal of being a paradisal haven of sensuality.
The enthusiasm with which these insults are delivered becomes clear when we consider the root of the word enthusiasm as derived from the Greek enthous, which means to be possessed by a god or a spirit. Therefore the enthusiast is always at his most righteous exactly when he is allowed to act out his passions.
The same is true for the self-professed champion of free speech, who utters meaningless insults, gibberish even, only to prove his right to do so. We can assume that the same enthusiastic insult-slinger would lose all interest in expressing his opinions, were he asked to use the freedom to speak to express any substantial criticism as such. The enthusiasm – which is therefore always a righteous one, elevates the principle of the thing above the thing itself.
This is also why in the original conception of The Spectator’s insult competition there was no mention of a monetary reward. As the editor himself noted, the principle of the thing should be award enough. Only following the publication of the competition did an anonymous donor present himself, offering 1000 pounds in prize money to the writer of the most inventively slanderous poem. This, however, clearly contradicts the original intent of the competition, in which –after all- every bigot is a winner!
As a final observation it should be noted that the impulse to engage in the self-righteous enthusiasm of the slanderer out of necessity involves a fusion of the collective and the individual ego. This is why, even though insult is as close to speech as the lips are to teeth, they are most commonly spoken out loud when done so in unison. They are only expressed when enjoying the comfort of numbers, which paradoxically, is also what makes the expression noteworthy. After all, an insult expressed in private, or behind some-ones back, is no insult at all.
One is reminded of that universal childhood moment, when an infant first realizes that there are certain words that cannot be spoken but that somehow elicit such delightful reactions that they seem the only words worth saying at all.
In light of this, might we not forgive ourselves for treating The Spectator’s competition with the same embarrassment the parent experiences upon hearing their child swear in public, all the more so because it reflects poorly on the parent’s presumed failure to have provided the child with a better role-model? Likewise, the responsibility to offer a more dignified response to Turkey’s political turmoil should persist regardless of hateful voices. After all, there are better and more effective ways to highlight the admittedly urgent and truly worrisome dilemmas facing Turkish democracy.
All joking aside, the facile insults only distract from the evident fact that the Turkish President is steering the country towards totalitarianism. The Spectator’s competition does not provide any meaningful contribution to highlighting this development. Presumably it sees Turkey’s decline as a self-fulfilling prophecy, a fait accompli.
For to treat political slander such as The Spectator’s with nothing but a dignified silence, is to warrant the response of being the only one. Rather, we should act in keeping with Roland Barthes, who poignantly observed that, “In the war of words, there are moments of calm. And those moments are texts.”
We would therefore do well to keep in mind that, after all is said and done, The Spectator’s poems are not texts. They are merely words, and lacklustre ones at that. Instead, in the current storm it should be up to us to provide the texts to counter the insults, the moments of calm that might defy the braying tempers of the self-professed champions of free speech.