There was a lot of optimism throughout the 1990s and early 2000s that the world was moving fast and progress was indisputable. Back then, the tech optimists were the staunchest proponents of development and advancement. They believed digital technologies and social media would bring a wave of democratisation across the world, generating more avenues for freedom, opportunity and fulfilment for everyone. If individuals were given enough information, they argued, they would certainly make the right choices.

But no one wondered how totalitarianism would survive in the face of digital platforms. Back then, not many realised that social media is like a moon, with a bright and a dark side. That the same digital platforms could contribute to the spread of slander, misinformation, hate speech, division and falsehood and would be received enthusiastically by autocratic regimes, extremists and demagogues. These cons of social media have been aptly penned down by the Prime Minister Imran Khan-endorsed Turkish writer Elif Shafak.

Shafak’s How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is a long essay, written after the breakout of the pandemic. Beginning by shedding light on her personal life and family history, Shafak writes of her mother’s divorce right after her birth, and how her maternal grandmother took care of her as a child while her mother completed her education and then began working.

While childhood experiences had a huge role in developing the author’s personality and sense of self, she does not confine herself to a single identity. Born in France, raised in Turkey, Spain and the United States, and now a citizen of the United Kingdom, she considers herself a citizen of the world. But she calls herself an Istanbulite, feels deeply attached to the Balkans, and carries many elements of the Middle East.

The booklet is divided into six chapters. The first chapter is untitled, and is followed by ‘Disillusionment and Bewilderment’, ‘Anxiety’, ‘Anger’, ‘Apathy’, and ‘Information, Knowledge and Wisdom’.

In the first chapter, the author discusses at length how the pandemic impacted her own life as well as of people around the globe. She also asks questions; “What is democracy?”, “What is normal?”, “What is happiness?”, “What is selfishness?”, and the most important question we all ask ourselves at some point in our lives: “Who am I?”

Elif Shafak’s long essay in the shape of a booklet, ponders the big issues of the times, which trouble people around the world and have led to global unease

Shafak attempts to solve the mystery behind this question and, at the same time, delves deeper to answer an existential question: “Do I have a single identity — based on nationality, ethnicity, religion, class, gender or geography? Or am I a mixture of multiple belongings, cultural allegiances and diverse inheritances, backgrounds and trajectories?”

In ‘Disillusionment and Bewilderment’, Shafak discusses at length that disillusionment is widespread and it should not be a surprise, as the system is broken and the solution to fix it has not been found yet. She is of the view that trust in governments is fast eroding as little has been done to transmute big promises into reality. That people have been let down again and again, and amid big talk of giant leaps of technological progress, people continue to feel irrelevant and insignificant — mere spectators, not beneficiaries.

As a consequence, this vicious, never-ending cycle has led to anxiety among the restive masses, and today this anxiety has turned into anger. The anger has manifested itself as widespread aloofness, apathy and indifference, and also led to lesser communication among people of different backgrounds, shrinking space for inclusivity and diversity, and more satisfaction for demagogues.

In ‘Anxiety’, the author comes to the conclusion that ours is the age of contagious anxiety. The one term which appears frequently in our daily lives is “crisis” — a crisis of refugees, of liberal democracy, of Western civilisation, of climate, of healthcare systems, etc. Worth mentioning here is how Shafak goes beyond a simple discussion of crisis and compels readers to ponder the adverse ramifications of this hackneyed rhetoric. She states that gargantuan amounts of our energy are invested in discussing the various types of crises, making us forget the toll this negative discussion takes on our mental health.

In the chapter titled ‘Anger’, Shafak presents a rather unique definition of the emotion. She considers anger — a trait often dubbed bad —as a guiding force and a friend in the long run. Owing to the injustices each person faces in today’s world, anger and resentment have become a force to be reckoned with. This anger in individuals can be turned to collective rage and be directed towards the attainment of some utilitarian purpose. Keeping this view under consideration, the writer concludes that “Anger in the face of injustice and oppression is not only dignified human response, but antithesis to indifference.”

‘The world suffers a lot. Not because of the violence of bad people, but the silence of good people’ is exactly what Shafak tries to explain in ‘Apathy’. According to her, “apathy, a combination of anxiety, disillusionment, bewilderment, fatigue and resentment, is a most pernicious emotion.” She argues that the darkest chapters in history have resulted from a mixture of these emotions, because acts of barbarity cannot be committed by people with questionable moral standing alone; the silence of ‘good’ people acts as an accomplice.

Hence, it is the disconnectedness, isolation and silence of moderate people that provides the breeding ground for apathy. This bolsters the stance of people with evil designs and leads to the rise of populist demagogues.

Towards the end of her booklet, Shafak poses the final challenging question: “How do we simultaneously remain engaged and manage to remain sane?” She believes that, to achieve a true version of sanity — not the false, which is like a hall of mirrors that offers reflections of us, but never a way out — we must open our ears to vast, multiple belongings and multiple stories that the world has for us.

Despite the anxiety that we harbour, the anger that has consumed us and the apathy we have developed, in order to stay sane we need to sharpen our aural faculty and be more observant of the world around us.

Each individual chapter sheds light on aspects of the ‘new normal’ post Covid-19, but the central intent is to find the answer to a question she has seen written on boards scattered through London’s parks: “When all this is over, how do you want the world to be different?”

The answer is beautifully summed up in a simple statement: “When all this is over I want to live in a different world where I can be heard.”

Shafak thinks it might be a personal cry, but in many ways, it feels like a collective cry.

The reviewer is an occasional writer

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division:
By Elif Shafak
Wellcome Collection, UK
ISBN: 9781-788165723
96pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 21st, 2021

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