Like Zadie Smith’s recent Intimations, Elif Shafak’s latest was at least partially written during lockdown (although given that the subject she’s dealing with here has been nascent in some form since the Arab Spring or even earlier, it could be that she’s been gearing up to write this for a while). Know this: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is not really a self help book, although there are answers here. This is Elif Shafak – Booker-nominated author of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World – ruminating on the predicament in which we find ourselves, as democracies increasingly come under threat, as people lose themselves in vicious online echo chambers, as misinformation runs rife. It’s only 80 pages long but it is supremely well written and altogether much more cogent and informed (less personal, perhaps) than Smith’s own effort.
Like in Ashley ‘Dotty’ Charles’ Outraged (although again, significantly more erudite), Shafak tries to get to grips with the dilemma. “The moment we stop listening to diverse opinions is also when we stop learning,” she writes. She talks about narcissism and group narcissism, about group think and social media bubbles (which “aggressively feed and amplify repetition”).
“Central to group narcissism is an inflated belief in the clear-cut distinctiveness and indisputable greatness of ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’. One unsurprising consequence of this conviction is an enduring resentment towards others.”
This “threshold moment” in which we find ourselves is perplexing, but Shafak offers us the bounty of her reading (and reading and books play a big part in this – which won’t come as a surprise to readers because duh, but there is a question – and it’s a question Shafak doesn’t address – of how books can change the world if a significant group of people resist anything but the online word; what’s more, the breadth of her erudition sets her up for taking down as one of the metropolitan elite that the quacks are so quick to parrot about – which we’re not saying is a good thing, but is nevertheless a thing – you start quoting freely from lots of books, you won’t reach out to the people who we arguably need to reach out to). We hear from Erich Fromm and Gramsci and Toni Morrison and countless others (including Shafak’s grandma, who talks a lot of sense – “We inherit our circumstances, we improve them for the next generation”).
“Ours is an age of contagious anxiety,” she writes (reminding me a film I saw recently called She Dies Tomorrow).
“A deep and ever deepening worry about the state of the world and our own place in it, or placelessness. From newspaper headlines to lead stories to social media posts, there is one term that frequently appears in our daily lives: crisis.”
Time and again you can’t help but feel seismic jolts as you read Shafak’s words and think oh my God, yes:
“In badly fractured societies that have lost their appreciation of diversity and their regard for pluralism, opponents will be seen as enemies, politics will become replete with martial metaphors and anyone who thinks and speaks differently will be labelled as a ‘traitor’.”
Thankfully, Shafak has solutions (and it’s genuinely satisfying to see the overlap with Outraged):
“We live in an age in which there is too much information, less knowledge and even less wisdom. That ratio needs to be reversed. We definitely need less information, more knowledge and much more wisdom.”
“Do not be afraid of complexity,” she writes, because demagogues like Trump and Johnson feed from your confusion, providing easy answers to things that do not have easy answers. “Perhaps,” Shafak continues,
“in an era where everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism. In the words of Gramsci, “the pessimism of the intellect, the optimism of the will.””
I certainly felt better for reading How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division and I suspect you would feel a mite better for reading it too.
Any Cop?: Last word to Shafak on this one:
“In a world that is ever shifting and unpredictable, I’ve come to believe it is totally fine not to feel fine. It is perfectly okay not to be okay. If truth be told, if from time to time you do not catch yourself overwhelmed with worry and indecision, demoralised and exhausted, or even incandescent, maybe you are not really following what is going on – here, there and everywhere.”