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It's Friday, August the 20th, and you are very welcome to the Inside Politics podcast from the Irish Times on Hewlin. Elif Shafak is an award winning British Turkish novelist whose work has been translated into more than 50 languages. Her most recent novel, Ten Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World, was shortlisted for last year's Booker Prize. She holds a Ph.D. in political science and she's taught at universities in Turkey, in the United States and in the United Kingdom.
She's an advocate for women's rights, for LGBT rights and for freedom of speech. And in her new book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division. She reflects on this particular time of political polarization, anger and apathy. And she makes the case for a more empathetic post pandemic world.
I talked to her earlier and it's Shafaq.
You are very welcome to the podcast. I'm having read your book, How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division. One of the very many welcome things about it is I read a lot of books on this general theme and subject over the last couple of years and they tend to be long and weighty and huge and yours is small and concise and dare I say, almost poetic, actually.
How did you come to write it and write it in this way?
I appreciate you saying that. The thing is, I have a different book in mind with a different structure and outline. But when the pandemic starts and the lookdown starts, it's I put everything aside and and I started everything from scratch all over. And I think my desire at the time was, first of all, to understand what I was feeling, how people were feeling at the time, and to respond directly to that moment in time. And that very much shaped the book, the structure of the book.
And I want to deliberately it to be very concise. And if it's poetic, that would make me happy. I wanted it to be a bit like a manifesto to tell the truth.
And the book starts in Istanbul, and your own experiences of growing up in Istanbul inform quite a lot of your your thoughts as well.
Could you talk a little bit about that phenomenon, the political phenomenon you've talked about, which is about extremism, authoritarianism, the rise of populism, heightened divisions, how that has manifested itself in in Turkey, where I suppose Erdogan was one of the first harbingers of of this type of politics?
Indeed he was.
But we didn't know it at the time because it didn't happen immediately. Took a long time. We need to bear in mind that this government has been in power for almost 18 years now. And when they came to power, they they were making liberal, almost progressive promises of reform. And at the time, they wanted Turkey to be part of the EU. Things have changed. The longer they stayed in power, the more authoritarian they became, for sure, but also more ultranationalists, more religious, more inward looking.
And I also believe as Turkey went backwards first gradually, but then with a bewildering speed, we've also seen an increase in sexism, homophobia and in a way, the consolidation of patriarchy. And I don't think that's a coincidence. These things always go hand in hand. History has shown us over and over again whenever we see a rise in ultranationalism, extremist ideologies, there will be an increase in sexism and homophobia. So that's what we've been experiencing in Turkey.
But it's not only in Turkey. Of course, it's a long list, actually. We see signs of the same or similar developments in in Poland, in Hungary, in the middle of Europe, but also in Brazil, in Venezuela, in the Philippines. So I think we need to bear in mind that no country is solid and and we're all living in a liquid world in which everything can change. There's a lot of uncertainty. We cannot take democracy for granted.
And maybe we need to understand that democracy is far more fragile. It's a delicate eco system of checks and balances because Turkey has elections, Russia has elections, some kind of elections, but they're not democracies. So clearly, for a democracy to survive, we need more than the ballot box and we need rule of law. We need the separation of powers. Definitely a free, independent media, an independent accademia, women's rights, minority rights, together with all those components of democracy, can survive.
And I think we're living in an age in which we all need to become more engaged, active citizens in order to help our democracies to get better.
So do you think that we were living in a dream world previously when when people generally. Thought that fascism and authoritarianism and some of the other elements that you just mentioned there, that they would be prevented by the rule of law and by democratic institutions, that we put too much store by the strength of those democratic institutions. And they've proved not to be as strong as we thought they were.
I think we suffered from too much optimism, especially in 19, late 1990s and early 2000s, because back then the assumption was, well, now that the Berlin Wall has come down, the Soviet Union is no more. We. The assumption was liberal democracy was the only triumph of ideology. Communism was no more fascism had lost. So from now on, people thought history could only go in one direction, linear and progressive. And that brought a certain arrogance, in my opinion.
Also, the assumption back then was that the countries that were lagging behind would sooner or later have to catch up with the rest of the developed world. And as for the citizens in the developed world, they didn't really have to worry about things like freedom of speech, women's rights, LGBTQ rights, because these things had already been achieved. It was the citizens of those liquid lands over there that had to worry about these things, and particularly that after two thousand sixteen more and more of us understood together, that wasn't the case, actually, that history can go backwards.
In fact, there is no guarantee that tomorrow is going to be more developed or better than yesterday. And I think we now know that that kind of extreme optimism was was naive.
So there's a lot of that go back then to a flaw in core elements of the progressive project. One is, as you say, that sense of inevitability, that quote that Barack Obama used, that the arc of history bends inevitably towards progress. Maybe that's not so inevitable after all. And the other point might be that some would argue that progress in individual rights and the rights of women and LGBT people and other minorities were decoupled from economic rights, perhaps for the broader part of the population.
And we saw rising inequality at the same time.
Yes, absolutely. And I think we need to maybe highlight two more things back then. The biggest optimists, in my opinion, were tech optimists. Every now and then, they would come and tell us that thanks to digital technologies in particular, thanks to social media, societies would have to reform, would have to democratize, and that would go hand in hand with economic development. People thought that China, now that China was opening up towards capitalism, would inevitably become more democratic.
And what the last two decades have shown us, that actually there is no direct correlation and an inequality is still there. It is it's survives and it is actually very deep. So the second thing that I think we need to highlight is always inequality. We didn't we didn't really tackle inequalities. And this is not a footnote. It is not a side issue. It's not something you can postpone, in my opinion, when people say, when are we going to go back to the way things were before the pandemic?
I always posed because I don't want to go back to how things were before the pandemic. We have to see this as a crossroads. First of all, we won't be able to go back to that world. But secondly, do we really want to go back to that world because the pandemic did not create the inequalities it just revealed then it just made them more clear. And we have to deal with these inequalities, whether it's class or racial inequality or regional inequalities between our city centers and countryside.
But there's a lot that we need to deal with urgently.
Obviously, we're right in the middle of the pandemic still, and we don't know how long its effects, its direct effects are going to go on and its economic and social consequences could go on much longer.
But right at the very start, there was a concern that it would be an opportunity for authoritarians and autocratic leaders because of the level of state intervention which which would be needed.
But actually, so far, it seems that it's the more democratic, more liberal countries that have coped best with the challenge.
And in many cases, it's the autocrats who have been exposed.
That is true. And it's also interesting that female leaders all over the world actually have done a much better job, in my opinion, in terms of dealing with the coronaviruses crisis, taking precautions much earlier, taking it more seriously. Those are good signs. But I wish I could say that autocrats have suffered from from the pandemic. I'm afraid it's also the opposite, because, you see, there's we're talking about a monopoly of power. We're talking about societies in which there's no free circulation of information or knowledge anymore.
So things can be information can be hidden data. Can be distorted and we're seeing a lot of that's going on, and I think it's a very alarming sign what's happening in Poland, what's happening in Hungary in the middle of the pandemic. We've had we've seen neo-Nazi groups getting together in Hungary chanting slogans to kick the Roma minority out of the country they call home. We have seen in Poland LGBTQ minorities becoming the new enemy number one. So autocrats will always find imaginary enemies.
And I am worried that we might see a continuity in terms of the rise of nationalism, tribalism, isolationism, because that's bear in mind, as you pointed out, the pandemic is going on. We're yet to understand the gravity of the economic inequalities that it's going to bring further. And all of that might embolden populist nationalists.
At one point of the book, you you quote the Marxist writer Antonio Gramsci, who talks about crisis, the crisis that he was experiencing in Italy between the wars when Mussolini came to power, when he was in prison, he wrote about, I quote, The oldest dying of the new cannot be born in this interregnum. A great variety of morbid symptoms appear.
That does sound kind of familiar. All right.
It sounds so familiar. And I think we are in that moment once again. That doesn't mean that things are the same as in several years. But we need to understand this is a threshold moment. The old is no more, but the new cannot be born, and that's where we are. It is also exciting in the sense that women being more active in the public space, more minorities raising their voices, more young people actually raising their voices. So there is that kind of engagement and passion that wasn't there maybe two decades earlier.
And that is a good sign. More people are coming into the public space and are aware that we cannot be apolitical in this age, but at the same time as threshold moments in between them when the new cannot be born. Yet we will see a lot of uncertainty and unpredictability. And this is why we need to speak up. We need to hear each other. And I also believe we need to be very careful about not being pushed into tribes.
This is something that worries me, extreme polarization, because I've seen in country after country the only people who benefit from extreme polarization are the populist demagogues themselves. And there's a reason why they always want to divide people into us versus them. They thrive upon that tension. So we need to do better. We need to find a new language, a new narrative that also brings people together from different backgrounds. And I think that's going to be one of our biggest challenges from now on.
And as you say, uncertainty leads to anxiety. Uncertainty and anxiety can often lead to people going back to a position that they think of others as being safe, being frightened of new ideas. But also the other phenomenon which you referenced in the book is this tribal tribalism.
And the tribalism isn't just on the on the authoritarian race. It seems to be on the rise across the culture, perhaps exacerbated by the way that media works now and the way that social media works. And there's a critique that people just align with the people who they're supposed to align with, regardless of whether whether they agree with a particular opposition or not. In other words, that the traditional liberal idea of interrogating ideas and discussing them openly is kind of in trouble.
It is in trouble.
And I think we need to talk about this. On the one hand, it's quite understandable, especially if you come from a minority position, from a more vulnerable, disempowered, disadvantaged position. Of course, you're going to look for people who come from similar experiences. That's very human. And I'm definitely not judging or criticizing that. But all I'm saying is that can be a good starting point. It cannot be where we end up. And one of the things that left a big impact on me when I used to live in Boston as a as a visiting scholar, I studied during that time the works of African-American women's movements, particularly throughout the nineteen sixties and seventies.
And one thing that struck me was back then, there was so much emphasis on multiplicity, pluralism within progressive circles, because many of them were women. They were on the receiving end of sexism. Right, because many of them were women of color. They knew how racism worked again, because many of them came from sexual minority backgrounds. They knew how homophobia, transphobia worked. And equally, I think it's important that many of them came from disadvantaged communities so they knew how class inequality work.
Which means when they spoke about power, they talked about power in a much more nuanced way than we tend to do today. And when they talk about themselves versus someone like Audrey Lourdes, when she spoke about herself, she would say, you know, look at me, I'm a woman, I'm black, I'm a put on this. I'm not. And I'm many more things that you might not be aware of when you look at me. So that emphasis in a poetic way that the way Walt Whitman would use I contain multitudes is something that perhaps we have forgotten to a certain extent in the progressive within the progressive movements today.
And I don't want us to forget that. Of course, our racial identity is important, our ethnic identity is important, and I'm not underestimating any of that. But all I'm saying is we each contain multitudes. So rather than identity politics, I'm interested in multiple belongings. To this, to me, is a much more progressive and healthier way forward.
So do you have some sympathy, then, for the kind of sentiments expressed in that famous letter to Harper's last month by a wide range of well-known intellectuals expressing concern about a narrowing of the space in which debate is allowed?
If I may put put the letter aside for a moment, because I really want to have a much more nuanced conversation about that. There were things that disturbed me in the letter. There were things that I agreed in the letter. And because, again, we are so polarized, it's difficult to bring out all those nuances. But I'm happy to do that if we have more time. But if I can maybe highlight this, I am a big believer in freedom of speech, and I come from a country that has lost freedom of speech and I've seen the consequences of that.
But that said, I also know that at least for me as a storyteller, my priorities are not how to give more voice to the center. My priority is how to give more voice to the periphery, to the margins, people who already are voiceless and these people that are already suffering. There's a lot of lots of inequalities that we have failed to tackle systematically. So personally, my choice is to try to give at least more voice to people I think are voiceless and to try to make a little bit more visible the injustices that are invisible.
So as the rights that when I when I speak in my public speaking engagements, it is the periphery, it is the margins, it is the minorities, it is the others that I think I like to turn my attention to.
But it is also implicit in in your book and in your your writings more generally that that we need to reach out to people with whom we disagree and people whose views sometimes we may find even intolerable, because if we don't communicate with them, there's no possibility for for progress of any sort.
So the kind of people who support Erdogan in Turkey or law and justice in Poland or Viktor Orban in Hungary to cut off all communication with them is to deny the possibility for political progress is enough.
I think those are very important examples. And also, of course, with Brexit, we have gone through major divisions, even within families, within friendships, rights circles.
I have seen friends falling apart because of Brexit. And it was very interesting for me to observe that when I moved to the UK more than 10 years ago now, I used to think rich people are very calm when they talk about politics and that feeling disappears. I've seen people getting more emotional and angry at each other, even if they're old friends or family members. And I think it's an important question that we shouldn't cut off our ties of communication. We need to bear in mind that one simple rule which every storyteller knows actually had I been born into a different family in a different part of this country or that country into different circumstances, actually, I might have voted in a very different way.
I might have thought in a different way. We cannot lose sight of that. But I think I make a distinction between populist demagogues who are exploiting anxiety, fear, resentments, bitterness and the negative emotions that we all struggle with.
So I make a distinction between the demagogues who are exploiting these feelings and the people who are afraid of uncertainties, who are looking maybe for a bit more safety, for a simpler life. I think we should always connect with the people, never cut off our communication, but at the same time be very critical of all kinds of racism, sexism, all kinds of totalitarianism, and particularly people in positions of. Who are trying to exploit these feelings and we can do both at the same time.
One of the notable things, many notable things of your writing career has been your engagement with history, both creatively as a as a as a fiction writer and in your in your nonfiction writing.
And it strikes me that Turkey and its its long history is particularly fascinating in that regard. I mean, you you got into difficulties with the regime when you wrote about the Armenian genocide, which the Turkish government still denies that took place.
But I was listening to you talking as a lecturer, I think about a year ago about the moment when you read for the first time the bridge across the arena, the novel by Evil and Rich, and how that changed very much the way you thought about the turkey, the turkey in which you lived.
Is it is it lack of knowledge of history, a part of the problem here that even though history itself needs to be interrogated and interrogated and rethought again and, you know, history is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose to some extent lack of history or lack of memory, I think is a big, big part of this.
Of course, Turkey has a very long and rich and very complex history. It's very multilayered, especially given the fact that we're talking about the Ottoman Empire in the past, which was a multiethnic, multilingual, multireligious empire. But the fact that it has such a rich history doesn't mean it has a good memory. Actually, it's just the opposite. I think we are a society of collective amnesia. Our connection with the past is full of ruptures, and many people sincerely know nothing about their own history, including their own family histories.
Because what happens is when we go to school, our textbook tells us that we were a mighty empire and we brought just the same civilization wherever we went. It never occurred to us to think, how would I feel if I had if I had lived, you know, if I was a peasant or a silversmith or a miller living in one of those lands that have been, let's say, Concord's, how would I feel if I had been in a very different position?
And this is the power of literature because it helps us to ask these seemingly small but incredibly powerful questions about minorities, about those who have been forgotten, whose stories have been erased and censored. And this has always been my starting point. If I were an Armenian silversmith, if I were a Jewish miller, if I were a concubine in the haraam, what would my life be like? And then you realize the story of the Ottoman Empire that we have been told that school is not the same story.
And then, of course, the question is what happened to those stories? Why do we never hear them? You might say, well, every nation state has its own official version of history. And in that regard, France is no different than India or Israel is no different than Venezuela. Sure. But I think where there is a difference is between a democracy and the non democracy. In a democracy, you can walk into a bookstore and you can buy dozens of books.
That question official historiography. And the authors of those books are not arrested or the journalists who ask those questions are not prosecuted. Right. Or the young people who march on the streets and saying, wait a minute, you put up this statue here, but this is the statue of a slave owner. What about my story? And those young people are not arrested. So that's that's what the difference is. Otherwise, there's always an official narrative. But in an authoritarian regime, all other narratives are constantly being suppressed.
The metaphor which you mentioned earlier of the ledge, that we're at it at a point and a ledge, a door, I suppose, to which we might go through. And we don't know what's on the on the other side. How optimistic are you about what might be on the other side of of that door? Is this a dark future or is there a potential for something else?
You know, I think the age we're living in right now requires us to be OK with some dose of pessimism. And a healthy dose of pessimism actually is not a bad thing because it makes us more alert, maybe more aware of what's happening in the world. And sometimes I think if you're not angry right now, if you're not anxious or if you don't find yourself feeling worried from time to time, maybe you're not following what's happening in the world. This is also something I'm telling myself.
So it is understandable to be to feel a bit more demoralized. And that's OK. It's OK not to be OK. That's the conclusion that I've arrived at. But I also know that too much pessimism pulls us down and it also leads to apathy after a while, because if nothing is going to change, if nothing is going to get better. Why polls are right. Why even try? So we have to be able to balance that with a healthy dose of optimism.
And that's why I was referring to Gramsci in the book, because he does talk about the pessimism of the intellect, but the but the optimism of the HODs, the optimism of the will. And I think we need both let let let the mind be more pessimists. But our hearts will need to be more hopeful. And for that to happen, we need to keep talking to each other. We need to listen to each other, because the dose of optimism that we're going to need is going to always come from our fellow human beings.
Do you think it's possible that what we're seeing at the moment, this phenomenon is a reactionary backlash against many political things which had happened in the preceding decades, as you mentioned, the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, combined with definite economic problems. In other words, is it a sort of a a kick of a dying mule or is it the start of a of something bigger and more dangerous?
Definitely something is coming to an end, but that doesn't mean it's going to end so, so soon. So in other words, there is a backlash and we have seen this backlash against women's rights. Just to give you a small but important examples, even in countries like Spain where we thought we would never see this happening with a Volks movement which talks about the good old days of Franco, you know, they are hiring buses with pictures of Hitler on drone, on the buses and underneath it says hashtag feminazi.
And they claim is that feminists have gone too far and they're destroying traditional Spanish family values. We see the same kind of nonsense taking place in Italy with Salvini, with the populist nationalist, the organizing family conferences with money coming from evangelical organizations in the US. And again, they say LGBTQ movement went too far, feminists went too far. They're destroying family values. So we are protecting them. So there's clearly a backlash that is that is taking place.
We also see it. We are also seeing it in and across the Middle East. Just to give you another example, Turkey was the first signatory of Istanbul convention, which protects women's rights and now the same countries trying to withdraw from it. And because of this campaign of misinformation, slander, and this is happening in a country where women are killed every day and we've seen an alarming increase in domestic violence and gender violence. So there is a backlash, but I don't think that's the whole story.
We also need to bear in mind that now more women, more minorities, more disempowered people are saying, I want equality, I want justice, I want dignity. I'm also entitled to these things. Add on top of that economic inequalities and add on top of that demographic changes in many parts of the US right now, the minority majority ratio is changing. So I think what we're seeing is a world in which nothing feels solid anymore and even the ground under our feet is constantly shifting.
And this creates lots of emotional, negative emotions and emotional baggage. And we don't know how to deal with all those emotions. There's too much anger, anxiety, fear, resentments that each and every one of us needs to learn to deal with. And that's really a lot. And within this complicated picture, when the demagogue comes in and says, you know what, don't worry, I'm going to make things simple for you. I'm going to simplify everything, many of us are inclined to follow him.
It's usually him, but it could also be her because we think our lives will be more simple and safer. But that's an illusion. So I'm sorry for giving you a long answer, but all I'm trying to say is the problems are real. What is fake? What is phony is the illusion that by going into our tribes, by following some populist demagogues, we will make our lives better. Rather than that. I think as human beings, we need to understand that the age we're living in is complex.
We need to accept this as a reality and work within that ground and work together because we have major challenges ahead, whether it's the climate emergency, another pandemic, cyberterrorism, economic, financial deregulation, everything is interconnected. If our challenges are global, how can we solve these problems with the forces of nations?
It is. Thank you very much indeed for joining us today. Thank you so much for having me.
And How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is published this week by Profile Books. That's it for today, thanks to our producer Susanne Brennan. And just another reminder that if you are not already a subscriber to the Irish Times, you can remedy that omission. Straight away, by heading over to Irish Times dot com slash subscribe, or you can sign up for unlimited access to all journalism for the introductory price of just one euro for the first month.
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Thanks for listening.