Javid Ramazanli



08.03.2018 / We Azerbaijanis do not express ourselves: we are deprived of this ability

Chess player Shahriyar Mammadyarov was invited to one of the programs broadcasted by local channels. The program, which is in fact a local adaption of a well-known foreign concept, involves two women and two men, four anchorpersons, who ask the chest player questions in order to explore his image. Shahriyar Mammadyarov is one of the world’s most successful Azerbaijanis in recent times. Suffice it to say, Mammadyarov is ranked second in the current world ranking list for chess players, having gotten 2800+ points in Elo rating system and being one out of 13 players who have achieved this record in history of the game.

Both the concept and the guest are interesting, so we supposedly have something to sit, watch, and enjoy. Yet, the presenters could not cope with their work. As if they had entered into a contest of not allowing the guest to speak, with the visitor smiling politely while the hosts kept interrupting each other.They were clearly trying hard to look, behave, and sound interesting, natural, and open-minded, which in the end was all artificial. This coercion was manifested in their faces, while they were obviously fighting fear and hesitation in themselves. It would have been better had they not forced themselves to look free, real, and attractive, and had thus avoided that self-torture. But they constrained themselves to playing a role instead.

The difficulty of self-expression

Indeed, if television is the mirror of society, then society is best observable on TV. Normally people on TV are expected to express themselves well - to flourish, if that is the proper word. But people on our televison sets give the impression of rather self-constrained persons than eloquent ones. As ordinary people almost bragging about not watching the local TV channel, as they are of no interest to them, boring and vulgar.

On another local channel they show a foreign pop star's concert in "Baku Crystal Hall." The stage is virtually shaking, musicians are at their top performances, three backing vocalists are accompanying in harmony, the lead singer dancing and jumping all around, all in sweat, calling the audience to join in, be more involved, and sing aloud together. At this moment, the camera turns to the full audience, most of which is constituted by young people, and there is no movement among them at all. As if people had come to an opera instead of a pop concert. There is a sharp contrast between the stage and the audience. The singer is repeatedly asking the audience not to be shy, but without success: all are sitting in quiet, unwilling to join.

Our mentality, our dogmatic culture, which is forged from thousand-year-old traditions, particularly of conservative and religious worldviews, is focused on the production of a self-restrained type of person rather than of free, emancipated individuals. Our inertia and banality are rooted in society's dogmatic rules: we have problems in expressing ourselves due to the excessive judgement and prohibitions in our moralistic society.

"One must not do this," "One should not wear that..."

A lot has seemingly changed, but in essence, in most cases things are not much different from how they were in previous centuries. In our culture, influenced by dogmatic religious doctrines, such judgemental rules as "it must/must not be done" control even the smallest particular details of human life. In Azerbaijan you can see on the street, in the public space, in the meeting, on the bus, or in the concert show how everyone controls everyone else. Our neighbors’ minds are constantly busy with judgements such as, "One should/should not wear that", "One should/should not act like this," and so forth.

With or without being aware of it, he or she takes that role of a guardian or a censor. The ancient tradition of being judged by surroundings demands that role. Thus, we have a person, whose individuality is reduced to zero, who is restrained in a cell of judgementalism, and therefore his or her mechanism of self-realization is simply ineffective. On top of that, another moralist and religious zealot is sitting inside of him or her, constantly condemning his or her own conduct. This is the case even among the most secular circles. Even being an atheist, you may still moralise, limit yourself, leave no space for self-expression. Our secularism is superficial, we are not independent and have this inner guardian in ourselves. We are forced to be so. Usually we are unable to assess the society's impact on it, as we are even more dependent on our environment than we think we are.

Escape from Freedom

Erich Fromm writes in his book titled Escape from Freedom, in which he reflects on human freedom, the problems related to individuality and self-expression, about the extent to which a society is dominant over human behaviour and decision-making, "Most people believe that their decisions belong to them, unless they are being clearly pushed by an outer force, or they do believe in freedom of their will and choice. But it is one of our biggest self-deceptions. In fact, the majority of our decisions do not belong to us, they are imposed by others, we behave in accordance with the expectations of others, because we are frightened by exclusion, and although the fear of possible risks that may threaten our freedom and comfort is always haunting us, we have convinced ourselves that it is we who make decisions."

Society bears certain expectations of us, preparing roles and demanding us to play them, all in order to meet its expectations. A person who depends wholly on a society is not an individual anymore: even if he or she tries to stand as an individual, the effort continues only to a point, breaking apart after some loose attempts of resistance, as it is virtually impossible to oppose to the majority. Usually people realize the meaninglessness of this struggle from their childhood. In a society where moralism and prejudice are common, uniqueness is a rare thing, and there is no real individual person whatsoever. Fromm writes in this regard, "Once true actions of thinking, feeling, and dreaming are replaced with artificial ones, true personality will give a way to a false one. Real personality intiates an intellectual activity, generates it. Whereas an artificial personality is a mean for one to perform a presupposed role, and this means, or in fact this role is veiled under personality image..."

The loss of true personality puts an individual in a great danger. He or she deep down is overwhelmed with the doubts about whether or not he or she is a reflection of others’ expectations from him or her, since he or she to some extent has lost his or her personality. Thus, in order to be able to cope with a sudden fear created as a result of the personality loss, he or she has to adapt, regularly receive approval and recognition from others, while seeking his or her true identity. Since he or she does not know who he or she really is, one assumes that acting in line with the expectations of others will help to reveal one's real personality, as they will know it, and if they know then eventually he or she will get to find it. Therefore, it is enough to just trust them.”

Run when you see an Azerbaijani?

Our contrast with the modern world becomes more obvious once ordinary Azerbaijanis leaves the country. Azerbaijanis have this peculiar advice that they give to their fellows planning to go abroad: "If you see Azerbaijani people, run away!"

Often their argument is clear for the other side, because "our people cannot behave," in other words cannot express themselves. So they can easily fail you anytime.

The man with a free nature is a rare thing in our society. Our people as a rule are dependent, closed, reluctant to openly express themselves. The reason for that is not only the ancient mentality, since the Soviet system was also creating a dogmatic society, we have inherited many dogmatic rules from our Soviet past as well.

The opportunity for political manipulation

And as might be expected, the existence of these dogmas in a society enables politicians to manipulate this society and they exploit this situation in every way they wish. Dogmatic societies are often just toys in the hands of opportunistic politicians.

Related to the self-expression in a political context there is a common expression among our people: It would get only worse if Azerbaijani society finally started to express itself, as they would establish a Sharia regime of mullahs, so it is better to remain closed and apathetic. People who say that often act from their personal interests and fears, but it does not matter, such thoughts do exist in the society. There is an apparent destructive element in crowds expressing themselves, but there is no flawless evolution or development. Keeping a society in handcuffs out of the fear of its actions is like confining a person in a room for a lifetime just because there is a risk that something will happen to him or her once he or she out. One afraid that he or she would make a mistake, something will happen to him or her, so one would not let her or him to school, university or work, and at the end this person gets terminally ill or loses his or her humanity and functionality.

The independence

Throughout our history, we have never been completely independent, most of the times we were a closed society, and for some small parts of it semi-independent. If there is any real achievement or success, it is due to the semi-independence periods. Liberal reforms at the end of the nineteenth century in tsarist Russia affected our society as well. As the result, intellectual and intelligent individuals began to emerge, they understood what was the primary problem so they instigated a struggle against the prejudice, old mindedness and fossilized rules in the society. If it were not for confronting a society, there would not appear bright minds such as Akhundov, we would not witness Jalil Mammadguluzadeh and his "Molla Nasreddin" school, also there would not be any Democratic Republic, which was created by those individuals during the times of semi-independence. Unfortunately, this process was suddenly stopped by the Soviet repressions of 1937, the whole generation was uprooted. And the next wave of intelligentsia and free individuals who came after the second independence of the country was devoured by the politics and also by the help of society. Even during the recent periods there were some successful attempts in creating and expanding of progressive youth movements such as, AYO (Azad Yazarlar Ocagi) or AFU (Free Thought University), later they have all been swallowed this or that way.

Eric Hoffer writes in his book The True Believer, "..in order to maintain a society's vitality it is necessary to have a critical mass of literate and intelligent people. Of course, those people in the avant-garde of free thought should avoid a union with those in power. There are several reasons for Far East's social stagnation, but undoubtedly the most important of them is firstly, historically small number of intellectuals, and secondly the fact that they organized in a government's branch - as a governmental or as a religious official.

We are complaining about the lack of democracy in the country. How we can speak about a collective election culture in a society where a simple attempt for free expression is being suppressed? An election is only one of many elements of democracy - democracy is a cultural process of collective expression and consciousnes. Is there no place for effective cinema, theater, and literature in a society where individualism is being condemned? A society which is deprived of the ability of agreement cannot be successful in business. And finally, how can we find a common language between the state and the society?

In every society there were and there will be prejudices, moralism, and dogmatism, however in our society they are far more pervasive. And finally, this situation worsens our functionality and renders us incapable of expressing ourselves.