15 January 2019 00:02

Dr. Banu Yılmaz: Poverty, impunity and boundarylessness are making violence commonplace

Dr. Banu Yılmaz: The polarizing and marginalizing language of those in power has a detrimental potential for everyone’s living conditions in Turkey.

Photograph: Evrensel


Serpil İLGÜN

The brutal murder of two young women in Ukraine, the torture and sexual abuse meted out to young women in Erzurum, the high school student who knifed his schoolfriend to death, women murders, the primary teacher who sexually abused pupils, animals tortured to death ...

The list of violent events that appeared in the press last week that I even had trouble listing is unfortunately longer. What brought this orgy of violence to public attention was the murder of young academic Ceren Damar by her student and the Palu family affair, involving a whole variety of violent/criminal acts such as murder, rape, child abuse and fraud.

With the television adventure of the members of the Palu family, which was covered for twenty days on a television programme rather than at the police or judiciary, ending with their arrest procedure also conducted on a live broadcast once the material to be aired had run out, a broadcasting ban was ironically imposed on reporting the affair on the same day.  

These two events which have aroused the ire of society, experts and commentators also brought the phenomenon of ever more intense and widespread violence onto the agenda of politics.

At his group meeting, MHP Leader Devlet Bahçeli spoke of the imperative for the social mental health bill that his party had submitted to parliament to be adopted on the grounds, “We see that under today’s increasingly complex living conditions our citizens are experiencing difficulties in mental terms as well as materially.” According to Bahçeli, the responsible party for the increasingly complex living conditions is, “Secret hands that manufacture tricks and contrivances to destroy our social fabric and smash our political balance!”

I discussed the increasing intensity and widespread nature of violence with Associate Professor Dr. Banu Yılmaz. Alongside the social and individual effects that violence causes, Clinical psychologist Yılmaz, who was expelled from her faculty post at the Psychology Department of Ankara University’s Faculty of Language, History and Geography, also discussed methods that make it easier to cope with feelings of worry, fear, insecurity and unhappiness.

As an expert, what have you felt as you observed the violent events, one more severe than the other, of the past days? What is happening and why is violence spreading with such speed and disproportionality?

I have most certainly observed them with sadness and concern. Violence is an activity that has been part of life for the whole of human history, but the difference with recent events is, I think, violence starting to become commonplace, normal and part of daily life. There are undoubtedly many individual, relational, social and cultural parameters involved in the emergence of violence but the commonplaceness I spoke of can be approached with reference to real violence going unpunished while criminal charges are laid for many actions that do not actually involve violence.

Could you elaborate?

A thing I witnessed most recently was the reaction to Syrians enjoying themselves in Taksim on New Year’s Eve. We are living in a land and a period in which opposition to war can be deemed a crime while the tendency that declares, “With our soldiers fighting in Syria, they are having fun in Taksim!” represents a widely held view as a kind of structural violence. The contradiction in this example can hit us in other examples in the form of the punishing of criticism of any of the government’s measures, support for an ideology or being Syrian, Kurdish, Armenian or LGBTI. The painful event that took place in Sakarya a few days ago is another example.

The murder of academic Ceren Damar, torture and rape afflicted on two young women by a group of youths in Erzurum, the Palu family... Which of these parameters you have stressed come to the fore?

It may not be possible to locate a single cause for either. The event in Erzurum has very different causes to the event in Sakarya. With individual factors relating to the culprit playing a dominant role in one, the other may have ideological bases. Care needs to be taken in such explanations to guard against the risk of reducing acts of violence to psychopathology by attributing psychological disorder to the culprits in all kinds of violent acts and ignoring other factors. The factors that cause violence are sufficiently varied and complex that they defy limitation to individual-related characteristics. If you want me to briefly mention them, individual factors such as experiences of neglect and abuse in the childhood period, certain psychological problems/personality disorders, alcohol-substance use and a history of aggressive behaviour and relational ones such as inadequate parenting, intrafamily conflict and violence-infecting friends have an important role. Social and economic problems such as poverty, living in areas where crime rates are high, unemployment and drug dealing and such social factors as rapid social change, sex-based social and economic inequality, social insecurity and cultural norms that support lawlessness and violence are also variables that correlate with the prevalence of violence.

If we were to make an overall assessment of the most recent examples you have mentioned, we are encountering a serious boundary problem. I mean, we are seeing individuals in society who recognize no boundaries in any way and consider their rights to extend to everything. We are encountering individuals on the street in daily life who consider their rights to extend to everything and think themselves superior to women, animals and all things marginal and entitled to harm them.

The murder of academic Ceren Damar furnishes a considerable amount of data relating to factors such as boundarylessness, polarizing and demonizing language, regarding violence as a right and rapid social and cultural change, wouldn’t you say?

Yes, like in the cultural hegemony debate we are watching these days, talk of installing new values entails engulfing society in serious polarization. The collapse of an ethical mindset, social norms and morality, the language of hate used with reference to almost all circles... This language of those in power has a detrimental potential for the living conditions of all who live in the country. I mean, the reduction to this degree of the quality of education and the premium attached to ignorance that has accompanied talk of constructing the new Turkey is one of the causes of violence.

We know that authoritarian regimes use oppressive methods for social control. Since social control is involved, the whole of society is affected by it. I mean, those who approve the power holders’ discourse do not remain untrammelled by this.

In setting up the new Turkey, figures of all kinds who do not go with this flow are perceived as being threats and their elimination is sought. The latest example of Deniz Çakır and then Rutkay Aziz have found inclusion among the demonized. It is not only the person’s identity that is targeted here, but everyone connected with them and having identification with that figure.


You have emphasized the difficulty of making an assessment of individual events, but how do you read the Palu family affair that was displayed without control for days on a television programme and involved violence of all kinds? Apart from lawlessness and impunity, what does this event speak of in terms of our social structure, the family so cherished by the rulers and the dimensions of violence?

I got wind of the Palu family late, but there is a precise correspondence with the factors we have discussed in this incident, too. Lack of education, misteaching of religion and its incorrect implementation, boundarylessness, poverty, deprivation... As far as we have seen, all members of the family live together, in the same place and under the same conditions and there are absolutely no boundaries. The children are not kept out of harm’s way, for example. We can thus see many of the potential roots of violence in the Palu family. Inadequate parenting is another factor that comes to the fore. I think the Palu family is also an important indicator in showing where a low socio-economic level and inequality of income leads.

With reference to what the Palu family incident shows, I would like to stress once more that poverty, lawlessness, impunity and boundarylessness appear to be the basic factors underlying the spreading of violence. When there is no law, people themselves try to secure justice and it may become easier to manipulate people and shape their behaviour through violence.

All of these are factors that are closely intertwined with political violence and the policies being implemented. For example, behind the rapid social change that is one of the factors behind the increased prevalence of violence we see a political violence once more. Also, the migration caused by war that we should all be against is a traumatic political issue in its own right. Or, the increase in physical attacks such as lynching directed at migrants and the increasing prevalence of marginalizing and discriminatory discourse targeting this group are processes that move in tandem.


The increasing prevalence of violence is strengthening the perception in society that bad people are becoming more numerous and the good ones fewer. Is there is an absolute boundary between goodness and badness?

Violence is a person intentionally harming another living being. When a person intentionally harms another living being, that is, when force is applied and we suffer from it or witness it, our basic assumptions break down.

What are our basic assumptions?

“A person does not harm another person for no reason,” “Nothing bad will happen to me” ... We lead our lives with such assumptions and, if we are lucky, do not encounter events that demolish these assumptions of ours, but in certain parts of the world and in certain periods of history, people encounter these things earlier. That’s how it is with us. A person intentionally harming another person demolishes our basic faith in human nature and causes psychological effects. What happens when we encounter such a thing? Naturally enough, our attention focuses on interpersonal behaviour. So, our feeling of impaired safety actually derives from the breakdown of our faith in human nature given what people do to others. Hence, one further consequence of violence becoming prevalent is the breakdown of trust in people and the assumption of goodness regarding people.

What other kinds of results does the breakdown of this assumption cause?

It leads to the demolition of our perception of control because constantly suffering or witnessing such events or having knowledge of the events demolishes our perception of control. When our perception of control breaks down, we become more introverted, we become socially isolated and we gradually begin to live in smaller groups and to trust fewer people. Our confidence is shattered. We feel ourselves to be inadequate and incapable of accomplishing things. Thus, when we suffer negative conduct such as violence we do not strive for a solution because we lose our self-confidence. Because violence is chronic and encompasses a significant portion of our life, it is not long before individual reactions such as stress and depression manifest themselves. Since this is experienced socially, it may also turn into a problem that affects the whole of society.


How can we overcome these results? What is the antidote to violence?

The antidote to violence is the ending of violence on all dimensions. Above all, the silencing of this polarizing and marginalizing discourse, the sense of hope taking the place of the sense of fear and passing from the climate of conflict to the climate of peace. Of course, looking at these things socially, they are drawn-out processes. While coming to terms with what has happened and dealing with mental injuries, there is a need on the other hand to try to repair the political context, that is for authority and the state to come into play in the processes of accepting, excusing and compensating for all that has happened. It may sound like I am speaking of something very utopian, but this will absolutely happen, we will absolutely do this. We will do our utmost for this climate not to take hold from our areas of knowledge, I from psychology, you from communications and somebody else from the law, and we will try to remind as many people as possible of the need for a change of climate. We know from global experience, too, that it is possible to reach great places with very small steps.


So, what sort of path are we to follow to block such feelings as fear, worry, insecurity and introversion from taking hold of us?

We know that traumas create a kind of rift in our lives. We end up living as if within a present-day rift between our past and our future. The continuity of life is split in two and we can forget what was pleasing to us, who we liked to be together with and what we liked to do in the past. We must therefore remind ourselves, “What do I possess? What resources do I have? Who is in my social network? What was pleasing to me? What did I like doing?” Remembering this and focusing on this is a step on the road to closing that rift and facilitating the reconnecting of the past and future. Whatever happens to us, our good times, our capacities and social circle are with us. Beneficial others (wife-husband, family, society and, if need be, an expert) to whom we can bare our souls and with whom we can share are important. And, of course, creativity, production and art are the best routes for a positive transformation.


Before moving to the content of the mental health law that MHP Leader Devlet Bahçeli has tabled, let me ask you to comment on the justification for the bill. With Bahçeli having said, “We see that under today’s increasingly complex living conditions our citizens are experiencing difficulties in mental terms as well as materially,” what was your take on his attributing responsibility to “secret hands that destroy our social fabric?”

If Mr Bahçeli, in analyzing the matter by making reference to the destruction of the social fabric, is trying to speak of the social fabric as having a protective effect in terms of mental health, of course mental health experts can attach credence to this. However, attributing responsibility for such a thing to different political parties amounts to bringing the business onto the platform of debate/conflict between political opinions, while the issue of mental health as a matter that concerns all members of society is a matter that transcends politics. It should not be turned into a political vehicle in any way.

It is at the same time meaningful and valuable for a political leader to touch on the matter of mental health. However, research does not support a meaningful relationship between them (referring to Bahçeli’s other pronouncements) and violence and metal health.

Is a mental health law needed?

A mental health law is needed and there are many reasons for this. We can list the prime reasons as follows: first, a comprehensive mental health law will be instrumental in bringing protective and preventative mental health services, which do not function particularly well just now, into being. Second, the area of mental health, which is a multidisciplinary area, accommodates many professional groups and these professional groups must work in cooperation. However, in our country, as in many different areas, the professional boundaries in mental health are not discrete. The non-discrete nature of these boundaries causes breaches of professional boundaries, enables unqualified people to provide mental health services and in fact leads to service receivers obtaining harmful and zero-quality service. As such, the mental health law will enable certain concepts that are currently used in mental health but lack any legal safeguard (e.g. therapy, psychotherapy, consultation, protective and preventative measures) to attain clarity and a higher quality professional staff within a specific statutory framework – whatever their profession - to be trained. It must be added that a mental health law is in existence in many developed countries.


Is the bill submitted to parliament a bill that incorporates this framework?

While there are deficiencies, it can be said to be a bill that is suitable for remedying the first-stage needs. One of the most important sides to the bill is the way it came into being through mutual understanding with professional organizations involved in the mental health area. However, before this bill on which all professional organizations included on this platform had reached understanding was submitted to parliament, changes that would impair the rights of psychologists were made to the definition of “clinical psychologist” and the changes in question were made without obtaining the approval of other professional organizations apart from the Turkish Psychological Counseling and Guidance Association. Passing the bill in this state will amount to it having appeared without mutual understanding. There is thus a need for it be reapproved by all involved professional organizations before the bill is passed.


It is alleged that the airing of the Palu family affair on a television programme angered Erdoğan and he ordered an initiative to be commenced to deny media space to such violent incidents. Mindful of the slapping of a broadcasting ban on news about the Palu family, let me ask if violence will decrease if reporting violent incidents is blocked or censored?

Provided restrictions on violence-related news appearing in the media are intended to prevent violence being reproduced and traumatization, it is impossible for me as a mental health expert not to support this. As to broadcasting bans that serve to impede the freedom to obtain news or manipulation purposes, these can actually be treated as another implementation of political violence.

Translatef by Tim Drayton