EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Elif Shafak: How to Remain Sane in the Age of Populism, Pessimism, and Political Uncertainty
DATE: 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm, 20 June 2019
VENUE: Committee Room 8, House of Commons, Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA, United Kingdom
SPEAKER: Elif Shafak
EVENT CHAIR: Lord Hylton
Lord Hylton: I’m Lord Hylton, and I’m an independent crossbench peer. But it is my great pleasure to introduce to you, Elif Shafak, who is an author of apparently no less than 17 books already, and she’s now, she tells me, a resident in England, but has many strong connections with distinguished universities with both in England, Britain, and the United States, so may I call on you now to give us the benefit of your wisdom.
Elif Shafak: I appreciate it. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for inviting me, for coming to this talk, and to be honest, rather than giving a presentation, I am very eager to hear your thoughts, your comments, if anything I say doesn’t make sense to you please feel free to disagree, to share your thoughts. I’m really looking forward to the questions after the talk. I thought I could perhaps briefly take you back in time a little bit. Not very long ago, but recently, just maybe two decades. If you could travel with me, you will remember the late 1990s, early 2000s, the world was very different place, and I think back then it was a time of optimism, perhaps extreme optimism. The Berlin Wall had come down, the Soviet Union was no more, and it was hailed, it was regarded as the triumph of the liberal democracy in so many circles. I used to teach back then in the States, and I remember reading article after article, talking about how this was about the end of history, the end of conflict, perhaps there will be a clash of civilization in the future, but other than that, the history had come to a point where liberal democracy was definitely the one that had succeeded, the only political regime that had succeeded. So, in other words, history was regarded as a linear procession, and it was thought that tomorrow would always be more progressive than yesterday. That kind of extreme optimism was kept on for a long time, and again, perhaps you will remember when Obama was elected in the States, people said now America has become a post-racial society. Now, no longer race was an issue and for a long time, actually they used that term post-racial society, but what was interesting to me was coming from the Middle East, I think most of the optimism at the time came from techno-optimists, mostly from people who are in the Silicon Valley, every now and then they would leave Silicon Valley, they would come to come to conferences, international conferences and they would tell us about the great achievements, how we would all live up to 250 years, how we would all become one big global village, thanks to digital technologies, thanks to the circulation, the movement of ideas, capital, and people, that nationalism is going to wither away, that religious fundamentalism would be no more, and actually the nation-states are going to melt down, they were going to lose their significance and power, so we would become so interconnected that sooner or later those countries that were lagging behind would have to catch up with the rest of the liberal democratic world, and the reason why I am saying I was intrigued these comments, coming from the Middle East, is because most of the techno-optimism was projected to the Middle East. So, for instance, again you might remember when the rebellion took place in Iran, it was regarded, it was called Twitter Rebellion, and there were New York Times columnist saying “from now on, the youth in Iran would not have to go out on the streets, but they would fire tweets to topple down the autocratic regimes.” Again, that techno-optimism was for instance projected to Egypt or to the Middle East, when the Arab Spring started. The very early days of the Arab Spring, extreme confidence and optimism all across the world, so much so that a young couple in Egypt named their new born baby daughter Facebook. Right? And the family in Israel, they named their third child, again to honour Facebook, because people thought that Facebook was going to help democratize the region. The entire region. So the Egyptian couple named their daughter Facebook and the couple in Israel their third child to honour Facebook like. So I always think about those kids who are almost teenagers now. Facebook and Like, you know, what are they doing now? How is their life now? And these children, their very names, their very existence, symbolizes the kind of optimism that is no more, you know, the optimism of a bygone era. Because I think fast-forward to now, we have entered the age of pessimism. It’s almost like the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, and I believe this is the age of anger, there is a lot of fear, a lot of resentment, frustration, and most importantly, perhaps, our trust in the basic democratic institutions is evaporating, and I am worried about this, because I think that this has major consequences. Perhaps we can also say that until recently, probably until the year 2016, there was again very confident assumption in the Western world that some parts of the world were turbulent lands, they were the liquid lands, and you needed freedom of speech, you needed human rights, you needed women’s rights, minority rights in those lands over there, because there were not settled yet, right? It was always in flux. But then some other parts of the world were regarded as solid lands. Solid, safe, and steady, mostly in the Western world, particularly Europe, in general, and in America, of course were regarded as solid lands. So, I personally remember talking to academics who have told me with all the good intentions, it was very understandable for me to be a feminist, because I came from Turkey, and the people who said this made it sound as if there is no need for women’s rights in America, or Canada, or in Norway, or Scandinavia, because they were so beyond the threshold. and I think what has happened after 2016, with Brexit, with Trump’s election, and also with the rise of populist nationalisms, plural, all across Europe, I think that realistic way of reading the world has been shattered to pieces, and now we know, more and more of us have come to the realization that there is no such thing as solid lands or liquid lands, I think we all live in the liquid times. No country is immune or inoculated against the toxic politics, and I think we all have much to lose. Perhaps we also know in the year 2019, that history doesn’t always necessarily go forward. Sometimes it draws circles, sometimes it zigzags and sometimes it also goes backwards. And I honestly think that if that is true, if countries can go backwards, if they can tumble into ultra-nationalism, religious fundamentalism, and toxic politics, I honestly think that we women should be more alarmed, because women’s rights will be the first to be curtailed, as we are seeing in Alabama, in Georgia, state after state in the many other parts of the world. I lived in Spain as a child, and again, my background is in political science even though I am a story-teller primarily, and I remember reading all these predictions saying that there were four countries in the world where we would never ever again see the rise of the far right or extremist politics, and those four countries were thought to be primarily Germany, because having experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, how could they ever make the same mistakes again? Surely not. Another country was Spain, because having experienced Franco, how could they not appreciate liberal democracy, of course they would. That was the prediction. The third country that was thought to be immune was Sweden, interestingly, because it was the bastion of the social democracy, welfare state, and the fourth prediction always referred the UK, because in this country, liberal democracy is so strong. It goes all the way back centuries. But what we are experiencing right now in all of these countries something is happening. So the predictions of the political scientists were about four countries, mostly Germany. And all these predictions revolved around Germany because people thought now since they have experience the worst chapters in human history, they won’t ever go to the extremes again, and yet we now see in Germany for the first time, since the second World War, the far-right entering the parliament. The other countries are Sweden, Spain, and the fourth prediction always concerned the UK. This country. Because it has very solid traditional liberal democracy, democratic norms, traditions, so much so that you don’t even need a written constitution, you know, it’s more solid, but again in this country, as we have experienced, all of us, things don’t feel that certain anymore. Another idea I want to share with you when I look at the particularly more recent studies, what worries me is the number of young people who are identifying themselves with either radical left or radical right has doubled in three countries, and that is Germany, UK and US. And there is one country in which that number has tripled, and that is Sweden, so clearly something very unusual is happening, the centre-left, centre-right, they are losing their magnetic pool, and people are looking for alternatives outside the system, and I want to think about this more carefully, because I think when we lose coexistence, when we lose shared values, shared trust in liberal democratic institutions, things can go wrong very fast. Why do I say this? Because I come from Turkey, and what we’ve seen in Turkey, and not only in Turkey, of course, in country after country including Hungary, including Venezuela, Nicaragua, Poland, the list is so long, right? What we’ve seen is rather than democracies ending by outside forces, democracies melting gradually from within, so we need to talk about populism, I think, we need to talk about toxic populism, and how it changes the system, how it changes the culture, how it changes us people, maybe I should also add that for me, democracy is not only about the ballot box. I think we often make that mistake, which gives the veneer of democracy to autocrats because they say well we have the ballot box, we have been elected, but that is not democracy, I think that is majoritarianism, which is something else, and once the majoritarianism kicks in, from there, authoritarianism is a very short slide, so for proper democracy to exist, in addition to the ballot box, we need rule of law, we need separation of powers, we need checks and balances, no one should have too much power in this world in my opinion, we are all human beings, whether we are on the left or we are on the right, we are all fallible creatures, we do make mistakes, we need to be balanced. Each and every one of us. So, checks and balance are very important. Definitely independent media, definitely independent academia, women’s rights, LGBT rights, minority rights, together with all those components, in my opinion, democracy can survive and thrive. So what is happening in countries like Turkey is one by one, all those institutions are being broken, damaged, and then lost, and then you only end up with the ballot box, which as I say, it gives us the facade of democracy, but it’s not democracy anymore. The reason why I mention this is because as you might have seen in 2017 when the Freedom House they issued their report, they mentioned that 35 countries across the world have made progress. They have become more democratic, which sounded like a good news, but in the next line, in the same report, said that 71 countries, twice as many, have been going backwards, with an unprecedented rate, with a bewildering speed, so that means this is happening in different degrees, in many different parts of the world, finally I leave you with this thought. I think we have entered an age in which we all need to become more politically engaged, and I’m not necessarily talking about political parties, definitely not about partisan politics, I’m not interested in that. But we need to become more vocal, both in the civic space, but also in the digital space, you know, when I talked about the optimism, of the early 2000s, I think we have over-romanticized the bright side of the digital world, but social media is a bit like a moon. It surely has the bright side, but it also has the dark side. And we need to talk about the dark side. And we need to take on the tech companies. I sincerely believe, and we might debate this should we like, I think faith is way too important to leave to the ultra-religious. I think patriotism is way to important to leave to ultra-nationalists. I think technology is way to important to leave it to the tech companies, and I think politics is way too important to leave to the career politicians. We as citizens need to become more involved. And I want to leave you just one small example that stayed with me when the election was taking place in France, perhaps you have seen this little video of Macron. Like many politicians, he was chatting with people on the streets and he goes to a factory where they clean fish. They are cutting eel. And he starts chatting with the workers there, so there is this little video of him, while he is chatting with the workers, he rolls up his sleeve and he starts cleaning the fish, because it is a message of he looks at his hands and then he washes his hands, and he shakes hands with the workers, and then he leaves. The far-right in the France have taken that video and they have edited that video. In the new video, there is no more fish, no more eel, yeah? So, in the new video, Macron goes to the factory, he shakes hands with the workers, he looks at his hands, he is disgusted, because he’s just touched an ordinary person, he washes his hands, and leaves the factory. So what was before and what was later, it was all replaced. My point is, whether our views are on the right side of the ideological spectrum or the left side of the ideological spectrum, I think we should all be concerned about the erosion of the truth. What happens to democracy, what happens to the culture, when the truth is lost, you know, when we can’t even agree on what is happening, then how can we find the consensus. And my worry is when consensus is lost, when countries become more polarized, I think the only people who would benefit from that are the populist demagogues at the top. It is not a coincidence that the all demagogues at the end of the day, they love to divide. Right? So, we’ve seen this with Erdogan, we’ve seen this with Orban, but even in Trump’s America in one of his rallies, he said, it was really interesting to me, he said the important thing for me to do is to unite the people. And then the next line in his speech, he said as for the other people, they don’t even matter. Who are the other people? Maybe today the other people are immigrants, maybe today the other people are Muslims or Jews or anyone who seems different for whatever reason. Tomorrow, the others will be liberals, social democrats. Tomorrow, it will be more and more people. Anyone can be labelled as the other people. So I think we should be very careful about all kinds of rhetoric that tries to divide us. We might disagree, but we need to agree at least the importance of the liberal pluralistic democracy. It’s not a perfect system, but it is a system that can be improved, and in my opinion, it is the best system that we as human beings could come up with. So rather than losing democracy, I would rather reform democracy, for more equality, for more inclusivity, but my worry is that in many parts of the world, people are losing their trust, faith in democracy and the very ideal of democracy is today melting away. Should you like, I’m happy stop here and carry on with the comments and questions.
Lord Hylton: Well, may I thank you for a very thought provoking, stimulating (inaudible) address. And I’m sure we are all grateful. Now we’ve got plenty of time for questions and discussions. Would you please say who you are, when you get up to say something, and tell us what are your closely connected to a particular organization. Gentleman on my left there.
Audience 1: Thank you very much, and I want to (inaudible) fighting for central tendency of democracy (inaudible) I’m a head of information systems and (inaudible) for international settlements in (inaudible). I wanted to ask you what kind of practical ways you have in mind to further the very important agenda? (inaudible) I’ve seen one initiative which was (inaudible) bring together people from the left and from the right in personal discussion, kind of match them up, that were making them to speak to each other, because there seems to be such a divide that these people are not talking to each other and I think it is important to gain this kind of common understanding of what we share and (inaudible) I was wondering whether you are aware or can think of other kind of initiatives that would be fruitful?
Elif Shafak: Thank you for your question. I really find it so important. Maybe for full closure, I’m sure you’ve already realized it, but I’m someone on the left side of the ideological spectrum on more liberal left, but I’m also someone who very much cares about what we have in common, coexistence, and how can we communicate as human beings. So to me this always has been very important and I don’t like to belong in any tribe. I don’t like tribes, collectivistic identities, when I meet a human being I see that person as a human being, and I want to connect on that individual basis. So that is my approach. I think there is a lot we can do and we must do, and perhaps that the impetus, the motivation needs to come from us citizens, from the civil society, from bottom up, because in many ways our political structures feel broken. They can’t keep up with the changes. So much is happening and more and more it feels like the career politicians are failing either failing to grasp the complexity and the speed, or perhaps lacking the means because of those structural, the slowness of the structures, but the change is happening faster. So the gap is widening. For me, it is very important that we talk about inequality. I think in the year 2019 inequality has to be at the centre of all of our debates. It can’t go on like this. For a many long time, many people have pretended as if inequality wasn’t happening, but it is happening. And I’m not only talking about, of course, the 1 percent, 99 percent, which is completely unacceptable, but I’m also talking about inequality when it comes to opportunity, when it comes to access to power, access to education, and primarily because you mentioned Austria, one of the major inequality we need to pay attention today is the gap between the countryside and the urban centres. It is not a coincidence that in country after country the urban centres and the countryside are voting completely different, and there is a resentment all across the rural areas towards the urban centres. People accuse the residents of the major urban centres of being arrogant, elitist, away from their reality so that gap should also concern us. Again, I wonder if you would agree with me, but for instance, I thought when Hillary Clinton made her speech about Trump, about half of Trump’s voters being a basket of deplorables, I felt incredible sadness. I felt it’s gone, the election. I thought it was very wrong. You might be critical of Trump, you might be critical of people who are leading these populist movements or riding on these populist waves for their own benefits in my opinion, but at the same time we need to understand why are people voting differently than me. Because otherwise with if my friends think like me, if all my friends dress up like me, vote like me, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with that. It’s a very narcissistic existence. So my worry is we are drawn into echo chambers and that is not helping us. We have these epistemic tribes. People are getting their sources of information from completely different channels. When that is happening in a country, the centre is gone. So those are the things that I find dangerous. I think there’s a lot we can do just one of the things we can do is, you will remember, when the Westminster terror attack happened, there was a tweet that was circulated, and it said, it was a picture of a heads carved woman holding her mobile phone and there were injured people on the pavement. And the caption was “you see, she doesn’t care,” And it turned out that actually it wasn’t the case, she was calling her family. Just like many people she was worried. And she was saying that she was safe, but I’m giving this example because when we come across tweets that are full of disinformation, even the decision not to retweet that is an act of responsible citizen saying “wait a minute, there is something here, there is something problematic there.” We need to be careful about the language of hatred, the rhetoric of division that puts us into different tribes that makes us think that we don’t have anything in common. So, how do we build the centre, a healthy centre is going to be one of the biggest challenges, but also how do we communicate across the epistemic tribes? For that to happen, I think we need to go beyond London. We need to go beyond our chambers and communicate with people from very different backgrounds and be ready to hear things that we might disagree with.
Audience 2: So I have (inaudible) you were referring to in Africa and Middle East. It is very depressing to see (inaudible) formerly established democracies. (inaudible) trying to find some sanity. (inaudible)
Elif Shafak: I really appreciate your question. And I think there is an element of optimism, but perhaps there is a reason why I started with the extreme optimism of 1990s was in my opinion it’s not that healthy to be extremely optimistic, but on the other hand, it’s not that healthy to be extremely pessimistic either. Because what happens when we are too pessimistic is first of all we lose our energy. It pulls us down. And then also, it is not a coincidence that because so much is happening today, after a while it feels like we can’t deal with it anymore. So we lose that interest in what is happening in other parts of the world, because it feels like well something is happening everyday anyhow and the complexity makes us in need of more simplicity, maybe more clarity. I think that is a very dangerous crossroads because that is exactly when the populist demagogues enter into the picture. And they promise us simplicity. They say I’m going to make things simple for you, which is an illusion. So the question, as you said, is how do we remain balanced? How do we remain sane in an age in which we are bombarded with information, disinformation, when too much is happening, and it feels like too complex. I think we need a healthy dose of optimism, and a healthy dose of pessimism, and we need to have them both at the same time, because extreme optimism will make us complacent. And we need to understand that democracy is in fact much more fragile ecosystem. We need to put effort into it. We can’t take it for granted. On the other hand, extreme pessimism is going to make us disconnected from our fellow human beings. And if I may share this with you, I read the memoirs of writers, poets who have survived very dark chapters of human history, including the Holocaust. So what’s interesting to me is that almost all of them are saying something similar. They are saying bad things happen in human history, not because people are bad. There are some bad people but their numbers are not that large in fact, but nonetheless awful things can happen. So why is that? And they are saying the opposite of goodness is not necessarily badness. The opposite of kindness is not necessarily wickedness or evil. They are saying the opposite of goodness is in fact numbness. The moment we become desensitized, indifferent when we lost that interest in the story of another fellow human being, in the pain of another human being. I think those who (inaudible) of indifference are very dangerous. So a little bit of pessimism is going to keep us more alert, more aware, but not too much and a little bit of optimism is needed so that we can more engaged. So that is why I go back to Antonio Gramsci, the Italian thinker. He used to talk about the pessimism of the intellect. Because the mind has to remain sharp and pessimistic, but the heart has to be optimistic. So he would talk about the optimism of the will, and I think this is an age in which we are going to need both.
Audience 3: What do you think accounts for the values of nationalism where like India, Myanmar. (inaudible)
Elif Shafak: Of course, we’ve been talking a little bit about populism. Populism is a very weak ideology. Right? It needs to be accompanied by a more robust ideology, and historically all the ideology. So in some cases, it is accompanied by socialism, so there’s populist socialism, as we have seen in many countries in South America, but in many other countries it is accompanied by nationalism, so we need to talk about populist nationalism. Because populism is in fact more reactionary. It always wants to say what doesn’t work. It doesn’t quite tell us what it is going to replace it with. It’s easier to destroy. Nationalism is older ideology. In my opinion, it is a very dangerous ideology, you know, I’m critical of all kinds of extremist ideologies, so what is happening is we are being more and more told that we can only have one identity. To me, as someone who comes from a world of culture, it’s very important that we talk about culture. And I am worried because when I look at our analysis. Most of our analysis, most of our debates are data driven. I’m not underestimating the importance of the data, I’m not underestimating the importance of the quantitative research, but there are things in this world that can’t be measured and turned into numbers and yet they matter. Such as emotions, such as perceptions, such as culture. And I think most of the clashes that we are experiencing today are related to the field of culture, and yet we don’t have the academic or the conceptual tools to talk about emotions. We don’t even have a narrative about that. So I would like to see more emotional intelligence perhaps. I think it’s important. Maybe I will make a distinction between information, knowledge, and wisdom. I think we live in an age in which we have too much information, less knowledge, and very little wisdom. So how can we change the ratio? I think we need less information, because too much information is an obstacle in front of knowledge. It makes us think that we know that subject, whereas we don’t, so we need to lessen our information. Also, there is an interesting research that shows if you go to a talk that is primarily built on information, data, data, data. In the next one hour, the human mind forgets 45% of the entire information. And couple of us forget more than half. What we remember, we usually remember through emotions. So we, I think for more progressive, more democratic narrative, we need to put more emotion on the table so I want to increase knowledge, and I want to increase the wisdom. I think wisdom increase the heart and the brain communication. With regards to nationalism, people I think were, again, very complacent, they thought it had withered away, I think, this is not going away, and we will see more and more nationalisms, because that is the vicious circle, like we’ve seen in Spain for instance, with Catalan nationalism, in a way triggering volks movement, one type of nationalism always breeds another type of nationalism. We should also be very careful about those vicious circles.
Audience 4: Thank you. I write for (inaudible) I am wondering (inaudible) one, you mentioned democracy as if it were obvious that democracy was liberal. And actually they are not. And I think there are big problems is that the West has gone preaching democracy (inaudible) of 1989 everywhere around the world when it should have preaching liberalism, because if you had liberalism, in other words, all the things that you’ve mentioned that are particular to democracy which are not, freedom of press, protection of minorities, all these sort of things, (inaudible) really doesn’t matter what democracy you have, because whoever (inaudible). And the problem is if you preach democracy and (inaudible) people will say well I have a majority, I rule. So I think that is one of the problem. The other problem is you mentioned in the beginning of your talk, when you said that this big revolution that we had after 1989, demise of the Soviet Union and so on, and the emergence of technologies. And people said it’s a revolution and it’s important (inaudible). And after every revolution, there is a counter revolution, after 1789 in France, after Lenin revolution (inaudible), so what we have, is a mark of counter revolution because Facebook is still there, technology is still there, it’s just (inaudible) very cheaply everywhere and therefore (inaudible) that is now subject of the counter revolution. Is it not going to go further? And when you mention the deplorable, actually when you look at the people who are voting for these populist regime, they are overwhelmingly older, they are less educated, and they live outside of the city. Could they be the future?
Elif Shafak: Thank you so much. I appreciate it. And actually that is why deliberately mentioned liberal democracy. Rather than democracy, because you are very right. Only democracy could very easily go to majoritarianism. So we need a liberal component, because that is what brings checks and balances, the diverse media, the independent academic, however, I think liberalism without democracy could also end up in a very either elitist model or a system of inequality, as we have seen in neoliberalism. And I think we need to talk about that too. Perhaps it is unfortunate that all these concepts can be easily put in the same box, but I make a distinction between liberal political philosophy, from which I’ve learned a lot, going all the way back to John Stuart Mill. As a woman, I also have a lot of respect for that tradition, the fact that they could talk about equality at such an early age, coming out with the first feminist manifesto all of this matters to me. But neoliberalism is something completely different, and when we apply neoliberalism to everything from education to health, it is inescapable that we are going to have these humongous repercussions and all of them relate to inequality. So coming back to your point, I always to emphasize liberal plural inclusive democracy. That is I think very important. But perhaps one of the questions we need to ask ourselves at this stage honestly, whichever party we vote for, is this question. How is it possible that so many experts and these are very well educated knowledgeable people, how is it possible that they got so many things wrong? You will remember the financial crisis. They didn’t see it coming. The Euro crisis they didn’t see it coming. Definitely the Arab Spring, they couldn’t analyse it. Or Brexit, or Trump, and I can give you many other examples. So in the last twenty years, what we have seen is many polls misleading, getting the results wrong, but also experts getting the outcomes wrong. So I think we need to have a very honest conversation. Why is it like that? Because these are very clever people. These are people who research, they dedicate their live to information, to data, and I think one of the problems is because we don’t have in our conversations across the disciplines. Everybody is so atomized. So we miss really the bigger picture. Somebody might be incredible expert in the field of technology. If that person doesn’t understand what is happening in the Middle East, something is going to fail in the predictions.
Or, another person might be a very good political scientist, but if that person is not interested in culture, that person is going to fail in their predictions. So I think again, we need to have, we talked about possible solutions, we need to have more interdisciplinary conversations, across culture conversations. To me it’s more interesting when people become or respond to literature which is outside their field. And how do we deal with that kind of knowledge. Too much isolated expertise didn’t help us in any way.
Lord Hylton: Could I just ask the contributors from the floor to keep your remarks as compact as possible? That will give a chance to as many as possible.
Audience 5: (inaudible) it’s something which you mentioned few times (inaudible) And in India, we just had a government elected which is to me, a Hindu nationalist party. (inaudible) What do you do in a situation like that? (inaudible)
Elif Shafak: I thank you for this question. And of course I see lots of similarities with Turkey. Because that’s where we were once upon a time, it was majoritarianism that was established no longer I think Turkey is a very authoritarian state and it has become the world’s leading jailer surpassing China’s or Russia’s record. But it didn’t happen in one day or in one year, it happened gradually and then with a bewildering speed, but in a way that’s where we were, you know, once upon a time. So this idea that the majority decides how everybody is going to live, eat, dress up, and then one by one, what is happening with populist nationalism is, and this is the same pattern in almost every country, they change the electoral system, they target the judiciary, and they change the constitutional court. And then, the crackdown on the civil society starts, and then anyone dares to speak differently are labelled as a traitor, and you are accused of not loving your country. And then all these people are targeted in pro-government papers. How do we deal with that? First of all, we need to be aware of this danger, that this could happen anywhere, it can happen, this could be the next step in India, so we need to embolden democracy pluralistic democracy. The biggest mistake in my opinion, for particularly mainstream politicians, and I see this happening in Europe as well, is to make the mistake of the strategies of the populist nationalist. In other words, to try to prove, that they are even more nationalist than the nationalists, that they are even more populist than the populists. We’ve seen this in the Netherlands, for instance. I think that is a huge mistake. Just like it was a big mistake to bring them on board in Austria, and put them in government. In charge of places like the Ministry of Interior and Intelligence. It is insane that there came a moment when European countries could no longer share intelligence with Austria, in the middle of Europe, this is happening. So, I think we need to be aware of this stages and always go back to coexistence, go back to democracy. One of the things that happened in Turkey, and I think it’s a big lesson for progressive minded people everywhere, we became divided, fragmented. We became divided into angry islands or islands of angry people.
And once communication lessens between this minority and that minority, that weakens the entire civil society. And it emboldens majoritarianisms, so again always going back to the basic principles, also protecting journalism. We might all be journalists for this reason and that reason, I understand that, but we need to have respect for the professional proper journalism. We live in an age, in my opinion, in which words are becoming dangerous, words are becoming heavy. Just the other day a woman journalist was killed in Mexico. Just the other day in Poland, a feminist for opening a sign, they have been arrested and beaten by the ultra-right people so, it has become difficult to be a liberal, you know, to say even that I believe in liberal democracy means dangerous thing in today’s world. So I think we need to have a lot of respect. How can we encourage proper journalism and protect free diverse media? I think it’s going to be very important.
Audience 6: Hi, my name is Hannah (inaudible), and I’m actually an intern at the Henry Jackson Society. So, you mentioned the dark side of the tech companies, whether (inaudible) too much power, or the increase of disinformation, (inaudible) or increased censorship. How do your ideas of checks and balances system apply to tech companies, is it government regulation (inaudible) they’re so global, they don’t just exist in one specific region.
Elif Shafak: That’s a great question, and I think it’s so universally important. So what we have been told by the tech companies for a very long time was “we’re an independent platform, we give everyone an equal voice,” which sounded wonderful, you know, very egalitarian. But in fact, what’s happening is something else. Rather than each person having an equal voice, we have seen the fringes, extremist, including Islamists, including Neo-Nazis having a voice and power beyond their numbers and seeping into the mainstream, through algorithms. So let’s say if you’re someone who has antisemitic tendencies or Islamophobic tendencies, what YouTube algorithm does, is to feed you more of the same, more of the same, so you’re all of a sudden surrounded with all these conspiracy theories that show either this minority group or that minority group as the dark forces ruling the world. I see this happening in Turkey and it’s frightening. It’s frightening because people believe it. When I buy a paper, a newspaper, whether it’s the Sun or the Guardian, you know, whichever paper, I as a reader have an idea about their editorial policy. So I have my own filter when I see a video on YouTube, I have no filter, because it looks objective. I have no idea that there is also an editorial policy behind that YouTube video, but it doesn’t look that way, it looks objective, regardless of politics, and that’s an illusion. So, things need to change, and earlier I mentioned, honestly I believe in this, no one in this world should be too powerful. None of us should have a monopoly of power. Why should a tech company have too much power? We need to decentralize, to break it, and the irony is, this was their argument. They said one day it started, it was going to be decentralized, there was no more going to be a monopoly of information, that we are all going to be more connected wherever we were, but what happened was just the opposite, we have become more divided, into our islands, and I am worried about this epistemic tribe that I mentioned. I was in America, I’ve never forgotten, one of the, whom Trump likes a lot, Rush Limbaugh, this right-wing radio host, he said something interesting in early 2000s he said there are four corners of deceit, and he mentioned media, government, academia, and science. And he said one by one we need to have alternative institutions. Alternative media, alternative science, alternative academia, now that alternative science is telling us that there is no climate change, that alternative media is telling us that vaccinations are very dangerous, so you see, if we believe in completely separate set of truths, what happens to democracy? It should be a big concern for all of us.
Audience 7: Would you say in the UK that the whole Brexit process that we’re all tired of, it’s just (inaudible) form of the things that you’ve mentioned, the tribalism, they had the urban vs. rural, and the fact that (inaudible) talked to each other (inaudible)
Elif Shafak: I don’t know if you’ve seen this. There was just this week a YouGov poll has been shared with the public. It made me really
pause and look at that graphics for a few minutes. It showed that the majority of Tory voters at the moment said that they would rather see
Brexit happening than, sorry, the other way around. They wouldn’t mind the disintegration of the UK into, you know, independent Scotland,
independent Wales, right? The entire country, in a way separating into pieces. They would be okay with that if Brexit is going to take place.
How do we come to this point, you know. What kind of a patriotism is that? I really have trouble with that. You might disagree with me, but
I find a problem there. If we’re going to lose our sense of unity, I moved to the UK more than 10 years ago now, and more and more this
country became my home, and I care about this country, and despite what Theresa May said I think you can have multiple belongings, you
can be a citizen of the world, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have emotional attachments. I care enormously for Istanbul, for Turkish
democracy. I also care very much about this country and for Europe and for the globe in general, for the world in general. So why not
multiple belongings? So what’s happening here does worry me. When the elements of fear and anger is being stopped, it does worry me. When I see billboards saying that the Turks are coming, like the barbarians are coming, 70 million of them so it’s time for us to leave. And the people have put up those signs. They knew that Turkey was not joining the EU anytime soon. Even if it does join the EU in the foreseeable future, the movement of people can always be negotiated, controlled, but that wasn’t what they were after. They went after the truth. They just wanted to stoke fear. So, I’m worried about these things whether it comes from the left or the right, because I’ve seen the
consequences of such things in a country like Turkey, and one more example if I may share with you again when I first came here I used to think the British people are so calm when they talk about politics. It’s admirable. But do you really think it will tip our calm? I don’t feel that way anymore, so we are losing that calmness, the ability to listen to each other, and this is the debate I have with my own students at different universities over the years. I don’t like these safe spaces, vetoing speakers. You know, not inviting speakers who have different opinion, of course we have to engage. My only red line is the hate speech that incites violence. I don’t know if you’ve seen this. There was just this week a YouGov poll has been shared with the public. It made me really pause and look at that graphics for a few minutes. It showed that the majority of Tory voters at the moment said that they would rather see Brexit happening than, sorry, the other way around. They wouldn’t mind the disintegration of the UK into, you know, independent Scotland, independent Wales, right? The entire country, in a way separating intopieces. They would be okay with that if Brexit is going to take place. How do we come to this point, you know. What kind of a patriotism is that? I really have trouble with that. You might disagree with me, but I find a problem there. If we’re going to lose our sense of unity, Imoved to the UK more than 10 years ago now, and more and more this country became my home, and I care about this country, and despite what Theresa May said I think you can have multiple belongings, you can be a citizen of the world, that doesn’t mean that you don’t have emotional attachments. I care enormously for Istanbul, for Turkish democracy. I also care very much about this country and for Europe and for the globe in general, for the world in general. So why not multiple belongings? So what’s happening here does worry me. When the elements of fear and anger is being stopped, it does worry me. When I see billboards saying that the Turks are coming, like the barbarians are coming, 70 million of them so it’s time for us to leave. And the people have put up those signs. They knew that Turkey was not joining the EU anytime soon. Even if it does join the EU in the foreseeable future, the movement of people can always be negotiated, controlled, but that wasn’t what they were after. They went after the truth. They just wanted to stoke fear. So, I’m worried about these things whether it comes from the left or the right, because I’ve seen the consequences of such things in a country like Turkey, and one more example if I may share with you again when I first came here I used to think the British people are so calm when they talk about politics. It’s admirable. But do you really think it will tip our calm? I don’t feel that way anymore, so we are losing that calmness, the ability to listen to each other, and this is the debate I have with my own students at different universities over the years. I don’t like these safe spaces, vetoing speakers. You know, not inviting speakers who have different opinion, of course we have to engage. My only red line
is the hate speech that incites violence directly. That’s something else, but other than that, we need to be able to talk with people who are completely different side of the ideological spectrum and see what we have in common. So what is happening in the UK is that commonality, that common ground is melting. And that I find worrisome.
Audience 8: (inaudible)
Elif Shafak: Yes. Identity is a very big part of this conversation.
Audience 9: Could you please repeat the question?
Elif Shafak: Yes, so I mentioned culture, if I am rephrasing it correctly. Can I talk about identity, because that is also a big part of this conversation and I think you’re very right. I believe we live in an age in which again all kinds of extremist ideologies are telling us that we can only be one thing, that we need to choose our tribe, and stay in that tribe. And I hear that a lot, when I look at Islamist movement across Europe, they are telling to particularly European youth of Muslim background, they are saying are you Muslim? Are you Dutch? Do you belong here? Choose your tribe and stay there. And that’s an illusion because again, we have multiple belongings. You can be Dutch, and Muslim, and many many more things that perhaps I won’t understand at first glance, or you won’t understand at first glance. So why can’t we be multiple, we need to be resist that tendency and I’m also very critical of identity politics. And I know this is a major debate, particularly among the left and the liberal circles. I have an issue with that. I can respect identity politics if that is a starting point to our conversations, but I honestly don’t think that that should be where we end up. I find it very regressive. I want to move beyond identity politics. I admire it when people of course celebrate their ancestors, understand their lineage, the traditions, but at the same time, show me what I have in common with someone who comes from a different background. So there is a part of me who believes in a more radical humanism. And I think we need to revive that tradition. We have lost. That’s why I mentioned feeling attached to Turkey. Of course, I’m an Istanbulite, but I also feel very attached to (inaudible) you know, put me next to a Greek author, I have so much in common. Of anyone from the Balkans, Romania, Bulgaria, you know, Bosnia, again so much in common, but I also have elements in my soul from the Middle East. And then I’m a European, by birth, by choice, then I became a Londoner, then I became a British citizen over the years, I would like to think of myself as a world citizen, and a global soul, if I may. Now, if someone else thinks that way, there’s a better chance that we overlap, we will have more things in common, but if we retreat into mutually exclusive identities, the clashes are inevitable.
Audience 10: (inaudible)
Elif Shafak: Yes, and who get to decide the story, right? Who gets to, for instance, what history was like? I think every nation state has their official history, and every official history excludes the voice of the minorities in some way or another, however, the difference between democracy and non-democracies, in a democracy, when I walk into a book store, I can easily come up with so many books that question official history, and say wait a minute, you know, you forgot to include this group’s voice, or that group’s story, and the writers of those books are not prosecuted. In a non-democracy, you walk into a book store, you can’t easily find any other narratives that question official historiography, because they are suppressed, particularly for minorities, I think, to embolden democracy, because then we can have a
plurality of voice saying “Wait a minute, what about my story? I want my story to be also included in the public space.”
Audience 11: (inaudible) within academia, for the general public (inaudible) how do we carry that safe space (inaudible) to public space, that includes (inaudible) because then you see the concept of political correctness as a tool within the political society, So, how would you (inaudible).
Elif Shafak: I mean other than preachers who preach hatred, violence, extremism. They are different, and I think we need to treat those speakers differently if there is a violence in their rhetoric. Same with the digital media. Other than that, I should be able to engage with people who think differently than me, you know, and they should be able to engage with me. Especially in the academia, which is supposed to nurture freedom of thinking, nuanced thinking. I think we need more and more speakers from different backgrounds to be able to engage with each other. Now one thing that worries me, however, is because of these ratings, you know, we’re always obsessed with ratings, and that’s what the media has done to us in a way. So, even when we organize an event, we think about the ratings of the event. So we end up with two speakers who are on two extremes. Opposites, and they speak as if they have nothing in common. And they try to speak to the gallery. They try to gain more votes from the audience. I don’t think that’s a proper intellectual exchange. A proper intellectual exchange means I have my thoughts, but I am here to listen to you, and if something you say makes sense to me, I will embrace it. I am ready, it’s more fluid, it’s more liquid. We forgot that. I think we also forgot to say sometimes there is a third way. Not, you know, just two opposites, but a fifth way, sixth way, can I please look into that as well? More nuanced way. So, I think we should resist both in media and academia, we should definitely have speakers from different backgrounds, but at the same time, resist this temptation to pull us into opposite camps and make us think that we have nothing in common. That is not a proper intellectual exchange.
Lord Hylton: Well, I think we only have this room until two p.m., but thank you all for coming, and allow me thank our speaker, most warmly, because she’s given us really, I think, two warnings. The first is the importance of the dialogue in any society, and secondly, the importance of the civil society, which can contain all kinds of people, all kinds of differences and somehow hold them together. So thank you very much.