How To Stay Sane in an Age of Division — Elif Shafak

Briony Greenhill
13 min readJul 14, 2021

January 2021

Yesterday I read a wonderful book for our times: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by Elif Shafak, the Turkish author, Dr of Political Science, and visiting lecturer at Oxford University.

She’s poetic, intelligent, wise, gentle, strong, deeply informed, a beautiful thinker and writer.

Digesting her work, I am weaving an understanding I have been seeking for four years. I want to write of this now, of the insight her work illuminates, on the connections I see that her light does not, in that book, shine upon.

* * *

Brexit broke my heart. The day it happened I was ensconced in an emerging Love Ashram on the Maltese Island of Gozo, in a former Retreat Centre that couldn’t be a retreat centre due to covid, so rented out its rooms by the month or two to free people and runaways like me, who formed a deep, beautiful ‘conscious community’ on it’s way to becoming an “Ashram of Love”, led by teacher Ohad Pele.

The day of Brexit, I went into the centre of the Zegg Forum circle. The only Brit in the room, I looked at the circle of European, American and Israeli faces, and I said, “Brexit is happening today.” They gasped. I paced, then I knelt, then I wept.

“My parents sang at the Royal Albert Hall the day we joined Europe,” I said through my tears. “It was a national celebration. It meant something. It was before I was born. I was born into Europe. I was raised as a European. We learnt French and German at school so that we could connect with you. We had pen pals, exchanges, so that we could be part of you. To be torn from that and a wall erected hurts. It hurts.

“I don’t understand this force we’re with. Brexit, Boris, Trump, Steve Bannon, Bolsenaro.” I thwacked a big pillow with both forearms a few times in anger. It’s one of our tools for healthy emotional release. It’s part of what the Zegg Forum circle is for. “I have a first class degree in political science, I want to understand it, and I don’t understand it.”

Brexit hurts.

* * *

As I write, I feel in my body more grief that wants to move, for it has happened, the 31st December 2020 has struck, the cord has been cut and we live in a Separate Tiny Country now, the airport patrolled by police openly carrying machine guns walking in sixes, I saw yesterday at Gatwick as I returned.

A deep exhale.

Reading Elif Shafak helps.

I want to write this.

A few quotes, to sketch her line of thinking and share her wonderful prose:

“More than half of the people living in democracies today say their voice is ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ heard.” P7

“In losing our voice, something in us dies.” P9

“If wanting to be heard is one side of the coin, the other side is being willing to listen. The two are inextricably connected. When convinced that no one — especially those in places of power and privilege — is really paying attention to our protests and demands we will be less inclined to listen to others, particularly to people whose views differ from ours. Communication across the cultural and ideological spectrum will falter and, eventually, crumble. And when communication is broken, coexistence, inclusion and social harmony will also be damaged. In other words, if perpetuated and made routine, the feeling of being systematically unheard will slowly, gradually, seal our ears, and then seal our hearts. In retracting our willingness to listen to others, we ensure that they, too, feel unheard. And the cycle continues, worsening every time it revolves.” P15–16

“The thing about groupthink or social media bubbles is that they aggressively feed and amplify repetition.” P16

“If all my friends and acquaintances think like me, vote like me, speak like me, if I only read the kind of books, newspapers and magazines that are in line with what I have read before, if I only follow online sites that sympathise with my preconceived verdicts, if I only watch videos or programmes that essentially validate my worldview, and if nearly all my information comes from the same limited sources, day in, day out, it means that, deep within, I want to be surrounded with my mirror image 24/7. That is not only a suffocatingly claustrophobic setting, it is also a profoundly narcissistic existence.” P17–18

“Sometimes narcissism is not merely an individual trait, it is a collective one. The shared illusion that we are the centre of the world. This notion was examined in detail by various thinkers in the last century, especially Theodor Adorno and Erich Fromm. What these writers had in common was that they had witnessed, first hand, the rise of nationalism, jingoism, xenophobia and totalitarianism. Their warnings are apposite today. Central to group narcissism is an inflated belief in the clear cut distinctiveness and indisputable greatness of ‘us’ as opposed to ‘them’. …

“In a world that is profoundly complex and challenging, group narcissism has become a compensation for our personal frustrations, flaws and failures. But above all, it provides a counterbalance to two troubling feelings: disillusionment and bewilderment.” — p18–19

“The system is broken….. and we haven’t found a way to fix it — yet. Trust is eroding. Never were so many big promises made to so many for so long, only to have delivered so little in the end.” p23

<bored, The Elements>

Grooooaaaannn

Ok let’s paraphrase that.

Lots of people feel unheard. (Why is a good question.) Thus we become less willing to listen, especially to difference. Feeling under-represented we are looking to feel stronger together, sharing information and connectedness with those who share our perspective.

Using social media, we form echo chambers, and get shaped, ossified, into groupthink with the help of algorithms.

Shafak labels this narcissistic. I had to look up narcissism, I’m not sure I have fully owned my own.

Googling it I get, “An exaggerated sense of self importance, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.”

Ah Ok I see how I can be somewhat narcissistic sometimes.

So she says we can be collectively narcissistic; form a group of ‘we’, put ourselves at the forefront of the worldview; over and above others. This is in particular a response to or compensation for our feelings of bewilderment, disillusionment, frustrations, flaws and failures, which are partly a result of a “broken system” that we haven’t yet found a way to fix.

I’m tempted to linger on each stage of her reasoning and think it through… but that would make this fairly long.

“Feeling systematically unheard, unsupported and unappreciated can make me painfully resentful, and abiding resentment will probably turn me into a reluctant listener. If and when I am a reluctant listener, I will also become a poor learner. I will interact less and less with theories and opinions that do not agree with mine. And there will come a point when I will simply stop talking to people who are different from me. Why should I even trust them?

“When coexistence is undermined in this way societies become extremely polarised and bitterly politicised, ever wary of the ‘other side and their intentions’. Democracy, which is essentially about compromise and negotiation, conflict resolution and pluralism, a system of checks and balances, suffers from this constant tension and escalating antagonism.

“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 ‘traitor’.” — p30–1

“In John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath there is a moment when a character describes her suffering with the words: ‘I am just pain covered with skin.’ It seems to me, more and more, we are pain, and hurt, and loneliness covered with skin.” P69

She describes the slide from voiceless alienation into tribalism deaf to plural views, fuelled by the pain of living in a broken system “that we haven’t figured out how to fix — yet.”

A vicious cycle of consumers abused by capitalism and citizens abused by… what? Shit democracy? Leaders disconnected from voters? Media more responsive to Rupert Murdoch than the reader?

The why of the voicelessness which she is placing as the aetiology, the provocation, the source of the cycle

Is not clear.

Me, from my ‘New Culture’ tribe, in my echo chamber, would see it thus.

We live in a power-over paradigm. Money over other stuff. Humans over nature. Men over women. The head over the body and heart. White over black and brown. Morality over sex. Heaven over hell.

We’ve gone overboard in our own paradigm

A paradigm I base in Christian, Capitalist and Patriarchal Roots

Which Dieter Duhm calls a trauma matrix, or a fear-violence-trauma matrix

You seek power-over because you are fearful. You are fearful because you are traumatised. You were traumatised because someone, or someones, was/were violent. In your seeking of power-over, flavoured by the fuel of your fear and the numbness of your trauma, you are violent — personally or collectively — and the cycle continues.

Me, I’m with the hippies. The ones who say, let’s step out of that paradigm into a new one; from a Trauma Matrix to a Sacred Matrix, where the instinct for cooperation is in every cell of all that lives. Men beside women. Humans beside the earth and all who live on her. White beside black. Money beside everything else. Morality beside sexuality. Power with.

Charles Eisenstien, Ian MacKenzie, Pat McCabe, Tamera, ISTA, Network for New Culture, these are the people who are making most sense to me in recent years. Going beneath the analyses of the policy, activist, social entrepreneurial and media crowd I lived among previously, the hippies go deeper into the root system of the issue tree. See the earth and all who dwell in and on her as sentient and sacred, they say. Heal your trauma to cease your violence. They deconstruct the historical roots of monogamy, and cultivate more open, free and trusting love. We talk of paradigm shift, and work to build ecovillages and temples so the sacred earth, body, sacred sexuality, healing, and conscious communication, conscious community. We are bringing these values, “emerging in collective consciousness,” from the fifth dimension of dream and spirit, to the third dimension of bricks and mortar, investments agreements and the physical.

I am fully in and with this. I listen to the podcasts, read the books and blogs, I sing the songs of it, I improvise them. I believe in it. It is the one thing that gives me hope in this yucky, shitty, violent, hurtful world. Without this hope I lose my hope. Without this light I lose my reason to live. Music alone is not enough if it is not in communion with the divine and in service to paradigm shift. Love alone, in a separate home with one single man in a tribe-less atomic partnership, severed from or only weakly connected to community, buying our goods and services from a global supply chain of people less fortunate than us made invisible by the supermarket and online shopping front ends…. I say no to this life, and I refuse to bring children into a world whose ecological crises may be much, much more than we can manage before the child’s hair turns grey.

Am I right?

Am I a zealot?

Am I a narcissit?

Am I sharing collective narcissism with my a-forenamed influencers, my ‘tribe’?

Here is what I know, here is what I believe.

The power over paradigm is dying and covid is more nails in the coffin. We face crisis after crisis and I don’t see this abating.

When I listen to Steve Bannon videos, I find his description of the problem of the world compelling. I even agree with him! But it is his cure, his prescription, that I so profoundly disagree with.

Tribalise, by ethnicity and place. Ethnic cleansing. Retreat from plurality, complexity, diversity. No to cosmopolitanism. Walls, and guns. Protect the in-group, keep the out group out, use force if necessary.

I can criticise this as blind to our colonial history and present, blind to the global inequalities of climate chaos production — we richer countries make it, we all suffer from it, but richer countries and people are more buffered from suffering.

Not seeing the past, not taking responsibility. Not managing mass migration with foresight and international cooperation.

And the fact is, I share my world with these people, and they have quite a lot of power. They just ripped Britain from Europe.

*

Pat McCabe:

“Ok so this is a power-over paradigm. I always see it in the form of a pyramid. All the fruits of the labour and all the natural resources from the “lower” parts of the pyramid are continuously flowing up to the top, so that’s our dynamic we’ve been looking at about the 1% etc. At first it was really screwing over people who couldn’t even get in the paradigm; brown people, women, people who didn’t speak English. It’s gradually been creeping up the paradigm to affect more and more and more people until, you know, the white Euro descent male is finding themselves in a very difficult position. And so suddenly, we have everybody’s attention.”

As for the white Euro male finding themselves in a very difficult position…. Richard Wolff wrote well about the decline of the middle class household economic in his 2012 book, Occupy The Economy: Challenging Capitalism. Following on from the Occupy movement, who were Occupying Wall Street to say, the economy is broken, hey, please change. With a distribution of wealth in the US that looks like this

See the video here: https://youtu.be/QPKKQnijnsM

- currently more extreme, I’m told, than wealth inequalities at the time of the French Revolution — one can understand why the movement had traction, at least for a while.

Then Extinction Rebellion and Greta Thunburg, emboldened in the UK by David Attenborough’s work highlighting climate change.

Can we say this.

Are we in three camps? Today’s attitudinal tribes.

On the ‘right’ — the separatist tribalists. Brexit, Bolsenaro, Bannon. Us vs them. Fences and guns. We’ll do better on our own. Build the walls. Go away. (is there any way I could express their values in the positive?)

In the middle: my sister. My parents. My ex. It’s working ok for me. I own a home. I’m fairly comfortable and secure. I’ve lived in a way that’s placed security at the center. It’s worked. Most of the goods and services I need are met by a mix of private and public services, the market. I work hard and in some ways am suffering, but on the whole, it’s a good world and it’s suiting me ok. I pay my taxes and help others. This and that are bad and wrong and this and that would be better. But on the whole it’s good.

On the ‘left’ — we’re dying. We’re in the 6th mass extinction. Don’t have children. We’re in a power-over paradigm rooted in Judeo-Christianity monotheism, and 2000+ years of a heady male God. Look where we are. We’re in an ecological crisis that is creating social and economic crises like Covid. We need to balance in the feminine, the earth, the body, the demos, be less hierarchical, a spiritually that is not Christian or dualist, separating heaven from earth and consecrating a hell where the goats, dancing, violins, love making and warm fires can be found. I’ll take it. I’ll take hell, laugh at your false construction of evil, and make a new world from a new paradigm with different values at the core.

On the right:

Brexit, Bolsenaro, Bannon, Boris, Trump.

In the middle: the BBC, the Guardian, my family, Hilary Clinton

On the Left: AOC, Bernie, Marianne Williamson, Pat McCabe, Charles Eisenstein, Ian McKenzie, myself, my friends, Caroline Lucas, etc.

In the middle, Elif Shafak saying, hey you all, Listen To Each Other! Try to Communicate! Practice Plurality!

Us in these three camps — does everyone feel like I do? That the other camps Just Don’t Get It, are Dangerous, don’t represent me, talk my language or express my boundaries, therefore I largely try to avoid them?

Ok. What would it look like, to live the values I live, and rise in leadership in this camp, whilst not being Totally Sure of my ideological greater-accuracy; to actively seek to understand and relate with the views of the other two ‘camps’ — how?

Is my picture of the three camps accurate?

I really like and buy Elif’s description of hard feelings, group placement, echo chambers, more and more siloing of thought, un-listening, societal breakdown. I don’t buy her source point of voicelessness. Is that it? Is that all? You feel that way but is it true?

We don’t get votes in the digital landscape. But we do have MPs and we can write to them. If they don’t represent us we can try to vote them out, and campaign to get others to join us. Hell, if no one represents us we can run for office ourselves. We can write letters to the paper, and if they don’t publish them, and if we don’t like what they’re writing, we can change our news sources. We can use social media to have a mini platform. You could write an article, a book, I can sing a song. Anyone can blog. Am I blind because I am educated and all of the above come fairly easily to me? And I had parents who did all the above, and grand parents and great grand parents, so it seems obvious and second nature to be an active citizen?

It definitely feels like the “right” over there have more power, more formal political power than my “left” side right now, and particularly since 2016.

We over on the left are for the most part, it seems, not so much running for office. We’re in retreats. We’re healing. A lot of folks are taking ayahuasca. A lot of folks are doing as close to nothing as possible and celebrating it. Hummmmmm……

Elif. Do you believe in your source point of voicelessness?

What do you say about ecological crisis, a crisis of capitalism, and a power-over worldview beneath it all that is perhaps 3000–5000 years old, and apparently dying / crumbling?

Elif doesn’t go into too much details about the sources of the troubles, rather the psychological and sociological dynamics of how polarisation arrises and, in some cases, what to do about it — namely, feel our emotions and practice plurality.

Humm…. A piece. Pieces of the picture.

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Briony Greenhill

Briony Greenhill is a folk-soul improvisational artist who teaches Collaborative Vocal Improvisation (CVI); formerly a researcher with a 1st in politics.