Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Case of the Teacher and the Earring

HDNHurriyet Daily News reports the Turkish Minister of Education has intervened in the case against Cuma Toygar, a male teacher punished for wearing an earring in the town of Manisa, outside of Izmir, Turkey. According to the news story, the wearing of the earring was result of a lesson on tolerance and a challenge from one of the more skeptical students.

In a class six months ago, 48-year-old Cuma Toygar told his fifth-grade students to be tolerant toward differences and that being unusual required courage. In response, one student asked if the teacher, too, had the bravery to be different. As a result, Toygar came to school with an earring – a piece of jewelry that is rarely worn by men outside metropolitan areas.

The controversy over proper apparel developed when the local governor refused at the last minute to present the teacher with an award. Soon afterwards, the teacher was reassigned to another school in the village of Maldan, presumably as a form of punishment for insubordination and for refusal to remove the jewelry. The reappointment, local education authorities stated, would be rescinded if the teacher removed the earring. To complicate the problem, the village authorities have stated that they would not welcome a teacher who chose to wear an earring since it would provide "a poor model for their children."

Toygar said he had suffered a lot over a “one-millimeter-wide earring,” including seeing 66 Turkish Liras docked from his wage every month and being mocked and humiliated by his superiors.

Toygar said he only had two years until his retirement, and people were telling him not to lose his pension over this issue. He said he felt he had to keep wearing the earring because it was a symbol of his fundamental rights.

Turkish earring news teacherAfter being encouraged by the media to step in, the Education Minister Nimet Çubukçu announced that “Nobody can be victimized over their apparel.” Çubukçu has halted the reassignment and sent two inspectors to Manisa to look into the issue. Click HERE for the full story.

This is one of those stories that fills you with the bewilderment  that comes with culture shock and the thinnest slice of hope. How can students believe in the importance of tolerance when the same teacher espousing this idea is punished by authorities on such arbitrary grounds? After all, this teacher is not really all that much of a wild-eyed rebel. But what message does that disrespect for the individual send his pupils?

Incidentally, this, according to the story, was the first problem between the local educational authorities and the teacher. In the past,  had brought commendation to his school for collecting the highest number of used batteries –hence the award ceremony. 

The false comparison made by the party politician about head scarves is, I think, interesting. After all, the secularist objection to head scarves originates from its religious connotations. As far as I know, the earring symbolizes nothing in particular, except perhaps, a sense of identity. Still, doing the right thing is more important than the particular motivations.

I have witnessed this kind of heavy-handedness time and time again. "I do not need to give reasons. You will obey because I order you to." (No matter how nonsensical or unjust those commands might be). Admittedly this attitude is expeditious but is also unfortunately the most common management style here.  The earring was, doubtless less important to the authorities than the challenge it represented. I imagine this was  the true cause of his tantrum at an award ceremony and his imperious exiling of the offender to a backwater village.

I have long observed that, generally speaking, individuality is looked upon with suspicion and here- more than in the US- respecting, social norms is far more important than personal freedom. If, according to this way of thinking, you wish to live outside the bounds and limits that society sets for its members then you must be prepared to accept all the negative consequences. These social norms are to be obeyed even as they frustrate or bring unhappiness or make their followers into hypocrites. So, you may ask, why would rigid conformity and obedience to social norms be so attractive?

For one thing, Turks  tend to appreciate stability more than liberty. For nations racked by repeated civil unrest, open unrestricted discussion and free debate are not always so highly valued, Secondly, the pressure on the individual to conform to the dictates of society seems to be much more intense here. People are more reliant on their families and this plays a part on conformity. Finally, there is the challenge that thinking and deciding for one self always presents.

Erich Fromm, a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, humanistic philosopher, suggested that many people fear the lack of structure and security that freedom presents. One way people avoid the negative effects of freedom is by conformity. Conformity, as described by Fromm, was a process in which people unconsciously adopt the beliefs and thought processes of their society. This way of thinking, this acceptance of social rules is a good thing because it allows us to fit in. The things were are told to reject must be rejected because society or religion or government forbids them.  It is an unquestioning life and therefore without conflict. Conformity allows them to avoid genuine free thinking, which is likely to provoke anxiety.

In Modern society, Fromm suggests, though we are free from obvious authoritarian influence, we are still dominated in our thinking and behavior by ideas of consensus, the advice of experts and the influence of advertising. "The way to become truly free in an individual sense is to become spontaneous in our self-expression and behavior and respond truthfully to our genuine feelings."  Easier said than done, of course, because what exactly IS spontaneous self-expression?

Idries Shah, an author and teacher in the Sufi tradition who wrote over three dozen critically acclaimed books, tells this fable of the isolation of the non-conformist.

"When the Waters Were Changed"

Once upon a time Khidr, the Teacher of Moses, called upon mankind with a warning. At a certain date, he said, all the water in the world that had not been specially hoarded would disappear. It would then be renewed, with different water, which would drive men mad.
Only one man listened to the meaning of this advice. He collected water and went to a secure place where he stored it, and waited for the water to change its character.
On the appointed date the streams stopped running, the wells went dry, and the man who had listened, seeing this happening, went to his retreat and drank his preserved water.
When he saw, from his security waterfalls again beginning to flow, this man descended among the other sons of men. He found that they were thinking and talking in an entirely different way from before; yet they had no memory of what had happened, or of having been warned. When he tried to talk to them, he realized that they thought that he was mad, and they showed hostility or compassion, not understanding.
At first he drank none of the new water, but went back to his concealment, to draw on his supplies, every day. Finally, however, he took the decision to drink the new water because he could not bear the loneliness of living, behaving and thinking in a different way from everyone else. He drank the new water, and became like the rest. Then he forgot all about his own store of special water, and his fellows began to look upon him as a madman who had miraculously been restored to sanity.

Not exactly the happiest of endings. As the news story illustrates, going against the consensus of your community is not easy and there is usually a price to pay. In China, there is a saying that the nail that stands the highest will be hit the hardest. However, the story of the mad water is a warning not forget that each of us has, at least, the capacity for storage of inner truth apart from the outer world.

Most of us do not have the courage of conviction nor the inner strength to pay the price for individual conscience. Rejecting those things which we know in hearts to be wrong, for example. Still worse, no matter what we wish to believe about ourselves, we cannot truly know until our beliefs are tested. Who is strong enough to stand up and defy this kind of pressure? I'd like to think I am and on all occasions but who knows for sure? Would I be the one admiring myself in uniform in the mirror or would I be the one secretly supplying food to the family in the attic?

1 comment:

  1. Brilliant post Nomad...very thought provoking.

    I have spent my life attempting to be different and refusing to conform, which hasn't always made me happy. I have the utmost respect for those people who make a stand and who refuse to back down under pressure, whatever the consequences.

    And I wonder if the reason I am drawn to this country is that perhaps I always really needed to conform..to enable me to feel more secure and achieve a sense of belonging. Hmm...


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