‘Literature can help to re-humanise people who have been dehumanised.’ Elif Shafak at the Edinburgh International Book Festival online

Internationally renowned Turkish writer, Elif Shafak, spoke to the Director of the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nick Barley, about her latest non-fiction text How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, in a special online event examining how stories and storytelling can help improve our lives during times of anxiety, division and crisis.  Shafak, who is all-too-aware of just how politicised a story can become – following the publication of her novel The Bastard of Istanbul she faced legal action by the Turkish government for ‘insulting Turkishness.’ – argued that “we all need to become more engaged, more active, more vocal citizens.”

Opening the event, Shafak reflected on the role of writers during times of crisis, “If you happen to be a storyteller from a wounded land, from a wounded democracy, such as Turkey, or Venezuela, the Philippines, Brazil, Poland nowadays, Hungary… – the list is getting longer and longer unfortunately –… I sincerely believe you do not have the luxury of being a-political, so you can’t just say, ‘I’m only going to write, or talk about, the story I’m working on, and I don’t want to talk about what’s happening outside the window.’ If a lot is happening outside the window, you have to go and look. And if what you see hurts your heart, your conscience, you need to speak up.”

Shafak believes that digital technologies have had a significant and dangerous role to play in the divisive and often horrifying narratives that are now so imbedded in cultures, conversations and politics across the world. She asserted that our initial optimism about the connectedness of things like social media, in fact blinded us to its dark side.  “When we go back to the late 1990s, early 2000s – not that long ago actually – there was so much optimism around the world… [People in the media and academia] had so much trust and faith in the power of digital technologies in terms of bringing democracy to those parts of the world that seemed to be lagging behind.” 

She went on to argue that in addition to being used as tools for political manipulation and control – for creating and disseminating dangerously divisive narratives - digital technologies are also changing the way we consume and wield information in an increasingly destructive way.  “I make a distinction between information, knowledge and wisdom… We live in an age in which we are bombarded with information… we don’t really go deep into the subject. Knowledge is something else than information. Knowledge requires us to slow down, knowledge requires books, it requires investigative journalism, more nuanced ways of thinking, and definitely not rushing to conclusions. But then there’s wisdom, which I think should be our aim. And wisdom requires bringing the heart and the mind together: it requires emotional intelligence; it requires empathy; and for that we need stories and the art of storytelling.”

When asked what she hopes the world will look like after the pandemic, Shafak replied “I do not want to go back to the way things were before the pandemic, because it was a world of inequalities, it was a world of climate emergency, there was a lot that we pretended wasn’t existing, and what the pandemic has done is to reveal those structural flaws and structural inequalities and injustices, in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore anymore.”

However, she reflected “There are no easy solutions… [we need to] to recognise that anyone who offers us simplicity and quick-fix solutions is actually lying.” And went on to warn that times like these are ripe for demagogues, “This is when the demagogue enters into the picture and says, ‘You know what? I’m going to make things simple for you, I’m going to simplify it, just follow me.’ And the demagogue always talks in binary oppositions – us vs them, polarisation, more tension, more division – we’ve seen examples of this in country after country. So populist nationalism, populist authoritarianism, these are not dead… my worry is with the pandemic, in the aftermath of the pandemic, we’re going to see more tribalism and this almost knee-jerk reflex to think that if we are surrounded by sameness we will be safer.” Her biggest issue being, that we cannot solve global challenges – for example, the climate crisis, cyber terrorism, another pandemic – with the forces of tribalism.

She warned that that we need to pay attention to the words and language being used by politicians, the media, and other influencers, as it’s language that precedes and incentives action.  “When we look at systematic discrimination, systematic inequality, it really doesn’t start with concentration camps, it doesn’t start with putting crosses on your neighbour’s house because she or he might be ethnically, or religiously or racially different, let’s say, all of those horrific stages come later. I think it starts with words, it starts with seemingly innocent jokes, how words, how language is used, so I believe the fight against dehumanisation is to also start with words, it needs to start with stories… literature can help to re-humanise people who have been dehumanised.”

In addition to recognising the harm of these dehumanising narratives, Shafak stressed that if we want things to change, if we don’t want divisive narratives to grow and seed into something even more dangerous – we need to call them out, and make our voices heard.  “What happens when moderates take a step back from the public space, unfortunately it’s the extremists… who have the passion to dominate the discussions, and I don’t think we should let that happen. So it is important that we celebrate, appreciate diversity, inclusion, and keep these democratic spaces and discussions – open discussions – alive.”

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