“Battle of Agencies” Released

In this essay, Ali Sipahi describes how the Gezi Park protests of 2013 transformed his thinking about the 1985 massacres of Armenians in Harput, Turkey, analyzed in his CSSH essay, “Deception and Violence in the Ottoman Empire: The People’s Theory of Crowd Behavior during the Hamidian Massacres of 1895.”

Harput’un genel görünümü – General view of Harput (SALT Araştırma – SALT Research)

My CSSH article “Deception and Violence in the Ottoman Empire: The People’s Theory of Crowd Behavior during the Hamidian Massacres of 1895” is the product of longtime preoccupation with the idea of “provocation.” It all started back in 2013 when I was a dissertating fellow at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations in Taksim, Istanbul. I had hundreds of transcripts from the Ottoman archives waiting to be re-read, digested and turned into chapters. Naturally, I first picked the pile that was unrelated to my dissertation and enjoyed a productive procrastination period reading about Ottoman windows and Islamic visual privacy. What particularly grabbed my attention in the court cases was that both the Islamic and the secular/modern philosophies attached high importance to visual privacy yet aimed to attain it through antithetical ways. The former preferred to cut visual contact through the use of barriers, while the latter laid the burden of not looking as well as not being seen on people themselves. The clearest metaphor for me was public urinals with and without dividers, but perhaps Foucauldian self-discipline sums it up better academically. The negative side of agency was at issue here—agency not as the capacity to do something, but as the ability to avoid doing something (i.e., looking). What happened next in 2013 made me phrase this as the ability to avoid being swayed by provocation.

In spring, I opened the cover of another pile that consisted of transcripts about the 1895 pogroms against the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire. This event was well-known but only in general terms and mostly incorrectly; there were very few archival, localized studies on these massacres. As part of my dissertation on the city of Harput, I decided to do a microstudy of the event there. In the earlier literature, these massacres were associated with the “provocation thesis”—the notion that the Muslim crowd had justifiably reacted to threatening provocations by some Armenian organizations. Anti-nationalist and scholarly works had already debunked this thesis and I easily did the same for the Harput case, since there was no Armenian provocation in the town whatsoever. What rather struck me was that the contemporary documents did not actually put strong emphasis on Armenian provocation, and indeed, there was little mention of Armenians at all. Instead, all observers were talking about a threatening pastoral Kurdish crowd that subsequently invaded the town. In addition, the leitmotif of each and every narrative of crowd violence was deception. Kurds were deceived by some Armenians, Armenians by Turks, Turks by Americans, and some other permutations. Thus, crowd and deception gradually became key terms for my study. I came to believe that “the deception thesis” was the lay theory of crowd behavior and it explained the crowd action as a consequence of patient manipulation (as opposed to simple provocation). This thesis was quite in line with what Gustave Le Bon argued in The Crowd, also published in 1895.

The Gezi Park Uprising, the nationwide anti-government protests in 2013, began in Taksim when I was exploring the narratives of 1895. It triggered my curiosity about implicit theoretical frameworks people talk through when they explain crowd events. In early summer of 2013, I found myself traveling daily back and forth between the research center and the park, between two events labelled by powers as “provocation,” more than a century apart. This time, the crowd in the park was indicted for being manipulated either by evil global powers working against Turkey or by local anti-government plotters. Here, what was meant by provocation was not direct confrontation but indirect manipulation, or deception. It was again easy to refute the government’s claims, and they were widely satirized in social media and by graffiti. Yet, the deception thesis was not the monopoly of the powerful and the protestors, too, resorted to indictments of provocation. One day during the Gezi Uprising, the news circulated images of a small group of people battling an armored water cannon by throwing Molotov cocktails into the police vehicle in the middle of the Taksim Square, which the police had emptied that morning. Immediate reaction appeared on Twitter suggesting that these protestors were in reality police officers or agents-provocateurs working for the government. Various evidence was cited, such as a bulge resembling the shape of a gun in one protestor’s trouser pocket. It was then announced that the group belonged to a revolutionary leftist organization and many social media entries teased the protestors who first denounced them only to then recast them as freedom fighters.

This relatively minor incident put into question one of the most basic messages that emerged from the park: the claim of absolute agency. The crowd in 2013 asserted that no one was steering them, just as historians asserted that no one provoked the violent crowd in 1895. We seem to be living in an age of agency claims. In the Back to the Future movies (1985–1990), when someone provoked main character Marty McFly by calling him “chicken,” he (over)reacted, even at the expense of missing the journey-in-time back home. At the end of the series, however, he finally pulled himself together and managed to resist a similar provocative statement; this is the moment that we celebrated his becoming an adult. In the current political scene, we seem to be living in a moment of “agency boom” following a long period of provocation narratives. Governments still prefer to employ provocation talk to threaten each other but it is already a dead language; today we “speak so much of” provocation “because there is so little of it left.”[1] Over the last two decades, feminist and liberal/left critics have constantly challenged the legal doctrine of “loss of self-control”[2] on the grounds that it justifies violence and sanctifies conservative values, as in cases where “gay panic” was used as a courtroom defense. Some U.S. states discussed abolishing the provocation defense and in Australia, following public debates about an honor killing case (the Ramage case), the Victorian government in 2005 abolished provocation as a partial defense to murder. In 2015, the Charlie Hebdo killings inflamed similar debates about whether being provoked is a legitimate excuse for violence. From a different field, with the Kvinnofrid Law in 1999, Swedish authorities experimented with fighting prostitution by criminalizing not the offering but the purchase of sexual services. A basic message appears, then: Thou shalt not be provoked! Remember Hillary Clinton attacked Trump during the presidential debate by saying, “A man who can be provoked by a tweet should not have his hands anywhere near the nuclear codes.” The political scene looks like the trailer for an imaginary video game that I would call Battle of Agencies: Are you strong enough not to be provoked? We say that we live in the age of post-truth not because there are a lot of lies around, but to express that we don’t believe them. Today’s is an age of refutations and strong agencies.

On the other hand, the claim for absolute agency is challenged by deception narratives. As William Mazzarella pointed out, the Western media represented the crowds’ mourning their late leader in North Korea as “totalitarian tears,” as fake or manipulated crowd behavior, but hailed the crowds in Tahrir Square or the Occupy Movement (or Gezi Park) with “ecstatic reception” as the realization of genuine free will.[3] Should we freely distribute full agency to some, lesser agency to others, and perhaps none to the rest? Maybe we need to admit that we are mostly ordinary people with a medium level of agency—we are neither too weak, like automatons, nor so strong as to be immune to any manipulation.

Another movie, Inception (2010), may better fit our social imaginary. In the film, a multi-layered plan of delusion via implanted, manipulated dreams was required to make energy conglomerate heir Robert Fischer believe that splitting the company was his own courageous decision. At the end of the day, do we not apply similar manipulation theses when analyzing the voters’ choices supporting authoritarian regimes, or consumer behavior in shopping mall economies, or suicide bombers, or serial killers? Doesn’t the whole idea of “invented traditions” in social sciences imply (self-)deception? As Simmel believed, deception is an essential pillar of sociality.[4] While revising my article, I learned the same lesson the hard way at home. My young son succumbs to provocation (“Please don’t eat the broccoli”—“I will!”—[Victory!]) only for a short while, then (“No, I won’t eat it after all”—[Oops!]) I need to invent all kinds of tricks to manipulate him because what I want him to do has to seem like his own decision. In fact, while provocation is a way to cut off a relationship, to end dialogue with the other, deception can be a way of developing dialogue, of shaping others’ behaviors and conducting a shared life. This is the central argument in my CSSH essay, developed as a result of that summer where my research into the Armenian massacres in Harput coincided with the Gezi Park Uprisings. 


[1] I have adapted to provocation what Pierre Nora claimed for memory in the late 1980s, in “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire,” Representations, no. 26 (1989): 7–24, 7.

[2] The doctrine was born in European law in the eighteenth century as Enlightenment philosophers enounced the ability of strong emotions to temporarily suspend reason. Jeremy Horder, Provocation and Responsibility (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), 72–110. I believe that this book indexes the end of the provocation era.

[3] William Mazzarella, “Totalitarian Tears: Does the Crowd Really Mean It?” Cultural Anthropology 30, 1 (2015): 91–112.

[4] Georg Simmel, The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Kurt H. Wolff, ed. (Glencoe: Free Press, 1950), 307–76.