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Book Review: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

Book Review: How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division

In How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division by author Elif Shafak, readers are taken on an insightful journey that analyzes the world and the impact social media has had on individuals. Though Shafak has authored many books, this one stands out not only for its size (only 90 pages), but also for the conciseness with which it addresses timely issues.

Shafak manages to do an expert job at pointing out the core issues facing today's society. She reminds the reader of the initial promise made by social media: the ability for "a platform on which everyone could communicate with the elite on more or less equal terms, and on which status and real-life power differentials would be eroded". Unfortunately, while there were some who were able to break free of the mold and achieve this, the advent of sponsored content, paid ads and influencers caused social media to become a reinforcer of the same norms it sought to subvert.

She instead advocates knowledge and inclusion as driving forces in creating a better social structure: "There is a difference between information, knowledge, and wisdom. We have way too much information, let alone misinformation, and the truth is we can't deal with it. It's too much. Our brains are not wired like that... We kind of skim... but we really don't stop and think about what we're reading. So rather than promoting more information, I would rather we focus on knowledge."

This knowledge, she hopes, would include allowing each individual to be given an opportunity to share his/her story. This would in turn counter the "current climate of intolerance, censoriousness and blind moral certainty," and cancel culture that seem to have such a dominant voice in current media. She argues that "the internet has become a world of self-reinforcing bubbles – for group narcissism seems like some 'compensation for personal frustrations'" Only with appreciation for diversity can a more effective dialogue be had.

In her opinion: "If we lose diversity and inclusion in our public space, that is incredibly harmful for any democracy. Because at the end of the day, democracy is not only about the ballot box, it's not only about the parties, it's also about a good robust civil society. It's about people feeling welcome, that they have a seat at the table and they are treated equally. It's about dignity. It has to be about justice, equality. I find all of these subjects incredibly important. They're not side issues, they're not things we can postpone or put as a footnote, they should be at the heart of all of our struggles, in my opinion."

Addressing the current climate of racial injustice and the issues of violence and police brutality, "she recognises the dignity of rage 'in the face of injustice and oppression'". The book was written during the time of George Floyd's murder, and while she points out the value in the anger that this event generated, she cautions against making anger a “guiding force and a good friend” because it can become “blindly destructive.”

Again, she advocates for an appreciation for the voice and identity of each individual, something she argues is being lost in this current digital world due to an abundace of information but a lack of knowledge. This, she believes has forced people into a position of presumption, a lack of humility, and an unwillingness to be open to learning about perspectives outside their own. Additionally, the more extreme, fringe voices have become amplified.

Regarding those extremist idiologies, she says: "There is a danger with the digital world. What we have been promised was that each and every one of us was going to have an equal voice. Which sounded great. This is not what happened in reality because of algorithms. In fact, what has happened is extremist voices, the loudest voices with no facts, have managed to not only shape the mainstream more and more, but also to have more power than their numbers. So there is an inequality there, and we cannont be naive about it."

Given the current climate of social unrest in our country, authors such as Elif Shafak are needed now more than ever. Her ability to illuminate the problems social media represents as well as the paths society needs to embark upon to begin the process of recifying its inadequacies are a welcome addition to anyone's library.

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