Aysegul Kars Kaynar

Aysegul Kars Kaynar

Will the Maras Earthquake transform politics like the Lisbon Earthquake did?

The 1755 Lisbon Earthquake shattered notions in Europe that God sought to punish sinners. Will the February 6 earthquake do the same for Turkey? Will today’s anger trigger changes in the political system, or will the regime appease its citizens?

On November 1, 1755, the Lisbon Earthquake, combined with the tsunami it triggered, became one of the biggest disasters the European continent has ever witnessed. Between 30 and 40 thousand people lost their lives in this city alone. Beyond the degree of destruction, among the Lisbon earthquake’s most well-known effects is the consequent intellectual break in Europe that boosted Enlightenment Philosophy. While earthquakes were seen as the will of God and therefore the manifestation of divine justice until that point, after the Lisbon Earthquake, theology and religion ceased to be a factor of societal debate and fell off the intellectual agenda. From that day on, the responsibility for our suffering has been and remains entirely on our shoulders, says Judith Shklar in “The Faces of Injustice.”

In the Lisbon Earthquake, the thesis of "the punishment of a sinful city" supported by the Papacy was proved false. There was no evidence that the people of Lisbon had committed a sin so great that the floods of God were unleashed on them, nor that they were any worse or more sinful than the other Christians. The public also could not understand why God would crumble massive churches to smithereens. Hence, the answer to the question, “Why us?” remained in the air and the explanations of "destiny’s plan, God’s command" could not provide a satisfactory answer to the Lisbon Earthquake.

According to Shklar, Voltaire attacked the naive optimism underlying claims spread by the Papacy that "what has happened is right, there is good in everything that happens, and God knows best” and the rhetoric of "everything is fine.” Rousseau, on the other hand, said what Voltaire could not: building houses that are six or seven stories high is what turns a natural event like an earthquake into a disaster. This disaster is our own fault. Voltaire blames God for arbitrarily torturing people and even for betraying religious people by killing them in an earthquake. Rousseau, on the other hand, completely distances God from social life instead of blaming him. Then there is Kant. In his writings on the subject, there is no mention made of either religion or God. Instead, he lists scientific explanations for earthquakes and includes earthquakes in the category of "man-made disasters" (according to Kant, the biggest disaster in this category is war).

Shklar’s analysis of the intellectual transformation that took place after the Lisbon Earthquake is as follows: The expression “God's work” has ceased to be a statement that consoles the hearts and soothes the minds and has become a derisive excuse to avoid legal liability. Isn’t this assessment also valid for the Maras Earthquake? Aren’t those who parrot "God's work, destiny's plan" actually mocking us in the knowledge that this is not the case at all? They are. We are all being ridiculed.

Well, will the February 6 Maras Earthquake function as the November 1 Lisbon Earthquake for Turkey? Will the pain and anger that erupted after the earthquake trigger a change both in the beliefs of the masses and in our political and administrative system? Will the destructiveness of anger sweep away this government?

Anger is kept alive when shared. If their anger is not mollified, today's earthquake victims may be tomorrow's dissidents. It is because of this potential that the government seeks to isolate earthquake victims and to pacify and diminish their anger over time by dispersing them through the country (by way of emptying student dormitories) instead of providing collective shelter. Furthermore, the anger caused by the earthquake may itself subside over time, with cash subsidies, rent and housing subsidies, a dozen promises, and a one or two contractors who are brought to trial.

Alleviating anger is also important for the general elections. According to Sofia Vasilopoulo and Markus Wagner’s article “Election night’s alright for fighting,” unexpected events and the emotions they create affect the voting behavior of the voters, sometimes by causing the electorate to question their party preferences and political allegiances. For example, according to the emotional intelligence model, positive emotions such as joy and enthusiasm signal to the individual that "everything is fine" and encourage voters to participate in the political process and to stand behind the candidate they have long supported in the elections (e.g., democracy rallies after July 15 and the fact that the anniversary of an attempted coup is still celebrated as a day for democracy). On the other hand, negative emotions such as fear, anxiety, and anger signal to the individual that "things are not going well" and thereby make voters more open and sensitive to their environment, causing them to observe their surroundings to gather more information and to increase their political alternatives. For this reason, the government's maneuver to postpone the elections which have coincided with the earthquake is very critical.

Putting aside the coincidental timing of major disasters followed by elections, that anger has a place in the field of political action and effectiveness is not a direct relationship, but rather incidental. We want our anger to achieve a result. We want the energy created by our anger not to be wasted. However, anger, whether individual or collective, is temporary and vulnerable to appeasement. Citizens of the Republic of Turkey know quite well that great suffering and anger rarely produce major political changes. Saying "I think" is useless. We must instead say, "of course”: Preventing everything from going back to normal after this earthquake of course depends on the opposition parties and civil society working as actively as possible in the coming months and channeling the anger and expectations that have emerged to the field of political awareness and effectiveness.

* Aysegul Kars Kaynar: She was born in Ankara in 1980. She received her graduate degree from Middle East Technical University’s Department of Political Science in 2014. In 2015, she won an award in the doctoral thesis category at the Young Social Scientists Awards organized by the Turkish Social Sciences Association and in 2017, she received an honorable mention at the Halit Celenk Law Awards. She was a researcher at the New School for Social Research and the University of Hamburg, after which she worked at Humboldt University. She has published on the subjects of contemporary Turkish politics, the rule of law, and military-civilian relations.

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