From Istanbul to London: In Search of Equality

Hey "you"

When I read Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, something about the story of the Korean pilots struck a chord with me. 

If you don't know the story, here is Gladwell explaining it to Fortune magazine:

Korean Air had more plane crashes than almost any other airline in the world for a period at the end of the 1990s. When we think of airline crashes, we think, "Oh, they must have had old planes. They must have had badly trained pilots." No. What they were struggling with was a cultural legacy, that Korean culture is hierarchical. You are obliged to be deferential toward your elders and superiors in a way that would be unimaginable in the U.S.

Gladwell says the Korean language has no fewer than six different levels of conversational address that depend upon the relationship between the addressee and the addresser. A pilot wouldn't dare to use a plain form of conversation with their superior; it is simply how they were raised to speak culturally. The problem is that the formal version of Korean is very subtle, and in an airplane cockpit that causes problems: You don’t have the luxury of time to unwind each other’s meanings. [Source]

[...] Boeing and Airbus design modern, complex airplanes to be flown by two equals. That works beautifully in low-power-distance cultures [like the U.S., where hierarchies aren't as relevant]. But in cultures that have high power distance, it’s very difficult.

I use the case study of a very famous plane crash in Guam of Korean Air. They’re flying along, and they run into a little bit of trouble, the weather’s bad. The pilot makes an error, and the co-pilot doesn't correct him. But once Korean Air figured out that their problem was cultural, they fixed it [by adopting English as its official language in 2000].

Having Turkish as a mother tongue, I was used to the informal "you" versus the formal (polite) "you". 

In fact, the state made sure that we knew how to address our elders by making us say the Student Oath every morning in primary school, between ages 5 and 10.

I am a Turk, honest and hardworking. My principle is to protect the younger, to respect the elder, to love my homeland and my nation more than myself. My ideal is to rise, to progress. My existence shall be a gift to the Turkish existence.

If it sounds Orwellian, just watch this video and imagine doing this every morning:

This gives the kids the message, not quite subliminally, that their elders are not their equals and should be treated differently. I'm no sociologist but I've seen enough times that people carry those ideologies forward and in later life believe there will always be people who are above them. What better way to form a hierarchical culture that Gladwell can use as a case study later?

He is above you!

In a patriarchal culture such as the Turkish culture, consequences of the inequality propaganda are quite puzzling, especially if you are looking in from a more democratic country.

People with a certain job, such as police or doctor, for example, may feel above others and general public treat them as such.

And certain other jobs, such as politician, are above everyone else.

If you are a minority, it gets worse. If you are one of the 15 million Kurds in Turkey, for instance, you are considered a minority (yeah, I know) and you are treated horribly by Western standards.

And these days, if you are an atheist who believes in democracy unconditionally and have liberal political views, you are the smallest minority in Turkey. Everybody else is above you.

In fact, there is always someone above you!

Money makes things worse (duh!)

I don't know where this photo is from, but it tells a good story:

There are newly developed areas in Istanbul where this sort of view isn't uncommon. It's often said that there millions of people in Istanbul who haven't seen Bosphorus, the magnificent strait that connects Europe to Asia.

Photo credit Deniz Mert Icoz

That's like a Londoner who has never seen the River Thames...

I was lucky. My family, although middle class, managed to save up enough to allow me to get a private education. I was the one living in those towers rather than the slum next to it, because of the family I was born into. I was taught English from the age of 10 and the school I went to had an aspiration to educate the future movers and shakers. Almost like Eton of Turkey...

Then I moved to the UK

It was 1996. I was only 17. I was taught to think but not politically. When I started university in Manchester, I had my first taste of politics as the president of Turkish Society: I had to figure out how to react to Cypriot protests within the university. Trying to listen to such others makes you question what your state wanted you to believe. This quest took me to the president of Northern Cyprus:

7 January 1999, with Rauf Denktas, President of Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus

Long story short, this journey made me realise politics wasn't for me, but I was forming very strong opinions about some of the issues in the UK, in Turkey and indeed the rest of the world.

"Ekin, what do we do about inequality?"

In March 2005, I created the following video for BBC's Red Nose Day.

This was before we had YouTube and Facebook. People had to download this video from my web site and email each other the link. Yet it received millions of downloads. It was translated to 30+ languages and broadcast all over the world.

People were now inviting me to conferences to talk about inequality [in Africa]. One invitation was an all expenses paid trip to Brasil, for example. It made no sense whatsoever. I had no training on the subject and had nothing to say. Even worse, thousands of people were now emailing me and asking me what they should do about this "issue".

I felt like a cheat, so obviously I didn't attend any of those event, but this pressure made me research inequality, poverty, etc in depth. Afterall, research was something I knew how to do. I read books, found web sites, spoke to experts, got in touch with people from various charities, and in the end came up with this recipe:

MAKEPOVERTYHISTORY campaign started soon after I published my video. We focused on encouraging action for nations to achieve Millennium Development Goals as outlined above.

Did we succeed? Well, the Millennium Campaign has achieved some great things but extreme poverty is not eradicated. I haven't checked the latest global figures, but the inequality between the rich and the poor is still there in Great Britain; richest 1% own as much as poorest 55% of population.

As Harlan Ellison says "The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity." Maybe that's why we're still not further forward in terms of equality.


After the age of 30, I started looking at things a little differently. I started caring about pavements, for example. This is why:

You might have come across the following quote from Enrique Penalosa, the for­mer Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia:

A developed country is not a place where the poor have cars. It’s where the rich use public transport.

I believe a developed country is where people can walk anywhere they want, without having to step on the road.

OK, a developed country may not have solved the financial equality problem (see the UK example above), but at least I expect it not to have any problems with freedom of movement.

In other words, because I see inequality as a human rights issue, I see pavements as a manifestation of a country's maturity when it comes to human rights. One of many...

I can go out of my house in London, start running on the pavement, run for many kilometers (with beautiful scenery too), and come back. In Turkey, people can't walk from a newly built ultra luxurious flat to the shopping mall just a few hundred yards away without stepping on a fast road and risking their lives.

Hope for the future

I stopped taking certain things for granted in the UK, but to be honest I had lost hope for Turkey. So you can imagine how I felt when people in Istanbul reacted as they did when the Metropolitan Council tried to cut a few trees in Gezi Park last year. Maybe there was still hope for Turkey.

The most important thing about Gezi was that people were now asking for their right to have that space. It was never about a tree - it was about human rights. In this connected age, you can't stop people from seeing what is possible and wanting that.

And what gives me hope for the future is this: Those who understand how pavements can change the world, will actually change the world! Slowly perhaps, but they will make us more equal.

So my message to friends is to ask for move pavements and keep asking until you get them...