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How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division? A Recap of STEAR’s Book Club Session

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division is one of Elif Shafak’s shorter reads, but it is definitely a worthwhile read. Interestingly, Shafak does not answer the question she poses in the title of her book. After reading the book you are still left wondering how to stay sane in an age of division. The insights from Shafak’s book are also not revolutionary: the growing polarization, for example on social media or in political debates, can be witnessed by everyone. What makes Shafak’s book a good read is that it does touch upon some of the most important issues of our time, from the role of social media, to COVID-19 to the future of democracy. Moreover, the story Shafak tells is very recognizable. She has put the questions, emotions and anxieties that many people feel into words. In short, Shafak’s book is not revolutionary or ground-breaking, but it is very thought provoking.

The book therefore proved to be a good starting point for discussion during the STEAR Book Club Session, which was attended by six STEAR members. The role of social media loomed large in the discussion. What became clear in the discussion is that social media is complex, it means different things to different people. In some contexts, social media can be a force for the better, it may for example help people with staying connected to their loved ones over a long distance. In other contexts social media can be harmful, as people use it to vent their anger and hate. As one participants phrased it: ‘Social media is a tool.’ It is thus up to everyone to be ensure that this powerful tool is used in a positive manner.

But this is easier said than done, for instance because not all voices are heard equally loud on social media. Social media is a hierarchical place where some voices are more prominent than others. Unfortunately, the loudest voices seem to be the voices that spread anger and hate, so that too often social media is not a place of connection, but of division. People have different ways of dealing with that, and everyone needs to find their own balance. Some people turn away completely from social media, others are trying to limit their social media consumption. The key seems being mindful of how you use social media.

A reason why we see so many anger on social media is because people want to make their voice heard. They feel overlooked and unheard, and find a platform for their message on social media. Although not every voice on social media is constructive, it is important to make sure everyone’s voice is heard. That requires one important skill: Listening. Maybe the key to a less divided world is not that we talk louder, but that we listen more. Also to those, especially to those that we disagree with. We do not need a cancel culture, where we cancel everyone with whom we disagree, but we need a culture of meaningful dialogue between people with opposite views. It is up to all of us to foster the right environment for such dialogues, and listening more seems to be a central aspect of that.

So, how do you stay sane in an age of division? At our discussion we did not arrive at a final answer, because there is not one. People have different ways of staying sane, and everyone should find out what works for them. This may entail talking to others about the anxieties or the frustration that you feel, but it may also be something entirely different. However, one thing that all participants could agree is that reading Elif Shafak’s book is good for your sanity. It will not give you all the answers you need, but it will help you with starting to ask the right questions.

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