Elif Shafak on the legacy of lockdown: The pandemic made it clear there is such a thing as society


Show caption ‘The lesson is that we are a family, undivided by religion or race or geographical proximity.’ Photograph: Wavebreakmedia Ltd IP-201115/Alamy Two years on: the legacy of lockdown Elif Shafak on the legacy of lockdown: The pandemic made it clear there is such a thing as society In the face of death and disease, it became urgent to appreciate family and friendship. But in the face of global challenges, the author argues we now need to embrace humanity more widely Elif Shafak @Elif_Safak Thu 17 Mar 2022 06.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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Early in the pandemic, several international publishers – with good intentions, no doubt – posted tweets claiming that the lockdown probably would not make a huge difference for fiction writers, who are, as a general rule, solitary creatures, used to working from home. Not knowing office work or team effort, novelists would be less affected by the changes brought about by Covid. My experience, however, has been the opposite. The pandemic upended life as we knew it; authors and artists were not outside the struggles of wider society. Just because we are hopeless introverts doesn’t mean we were not thrust into a liquid world along with everyone else.

This is a major crossroads for all of us – shaped by the pandemic but also the urgency of climate destruction, growing inequalities and conflict on the European continent and beyond. The decisions that we make now will determine the quality of life for generations to come. None of us has the luxury of being disconnected, disengaged or numb.

In my latest novel, The Island of Missing Trees, one of the characters says something that I keep churning in my mind: “There are moments in life when everyone has to become a warrior of some kind. If you are a poet, you fight with your words. If you are a painter, you fight with your paintings … but you cannot say, ‘Sorry I am a poet, I’ll pass.’ You don’t say that when there is so much suffering, inequality, injustice.” Ours is the age of anxiety, and many of us are struggling with negative emotions ranging from anger to fear, frustration and confusion. It is emotionally taxing, but if this were to evolve into the age of apathy, it would bea much harder and darker world to live in.

At the heart of our most vital present debates is a set of basic concepts which have been taken for granted for too long: democracy, society, family, freedom. What do these words mean, exactly? This is a time when our most fundamental terminology needs to be defined and redefined. Despite what Thatcher, Reagan and their international counterparts claimed under the banner of the New Right, there is such a thing as “society”. The pandemic made clear that we are not atomised individuals each occupying our own little corner of the free market. At the root of the word “society” is the Latin societas, from socius – companion. When we define what a society is, we are also defining who is a part of “us” – and who, therefore, is not.

‘Despite the claims of the New Right, there is such a thing as society’ … Shafak. Photograph: David Hartley/REX/Shutterstock

This world of polarisations and constant tension does not encourage us to celebrate diversity, pluralism and multiplicity. We are constantly reduced and pushed into monolithic boxes. The word “identity” is too deeply and stubbornly associated with uniformity and sameness – but in truth, identity is more fluid than solid, more diverse than homogeneous. It does not have to be reductionist; it can grow and expand, like ripples in water. The early Stoic philosopher Hierocles developed the idea of oikeiôsis, a theory of belonging represented by concentric circles. The innermost circle represents the individual, with the surrounding circles symbolising immediate family, extended family, townspeople, countrymen, citizens of the land and, finally, humanity as a whole.

The pandemic was a good time to embrace this idea. In the face of death and disease, we could have recognised our common humanity and interconnectivity like never before. Yet, while to some degree this was achieved, we also ended up with another type of division and duality: vaccine nationalism. Richer countries hoarded vaccines while large swathes of people across the world had barely any access to such protection.

This is the age of anxiety – we must not let it become the age of apathy

Then came war on the European continent and a horrific humanitarian crisis following Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Again, instead of bringing people together and uniting around common values, populist demagogues are busy dividing humanity. The response of the European public towards Ukrainian refugees gives me hope, but if we cannot show the same solidarity and sensitivity to other refugees – from Syria or Afghanistan, or the climate refugees of the future – we are not learning the lessons of our times.

That lesson is that we are a family, undivided by religion or race or geographical proximity. We are an international community. But it is this notion of humanity as family that is being attacked right now, from the terrified women and children in basement shelters across Ukrainian cities to women’s rights activists in Afghanistan, human rights activists in Syria, climate activists in Brazil and LGBTQ+ activists in Bangladesh. We have entered a new era, with massive global challenges ahead of us. We cannot deal with these challenges by reviving the forces of isolationism, tribalism and a me-first approach. Likewise, we cannot be single-issue people: if you care about climate injustice, you also need to care about gender injustice. Women and children are affected disproportionately by environmental destruction, and whenever there is massive displacement, there is also an alarming increase in sexual violence and gender discrimination. If you care about gender inequality, you should also care about racial inequality, class inequality, regional inequality and so on. Unless we connect the dots, nothing will improve.

I am sick and tired of culture wars and the way they are stoked by politicians in power. In a time of real war, we cannot afford to be divided. Too much is at stake. Time to abandon, once and for all, populist myths of identity that have been used to divide people and keep them apart.

The pandemic made it urgent to appreciate the immaterial things in life: family, friendship, sisterhood. Now, we must broaden our horizons: family is humanity, friendship extends beyond national borders and sisterhood means nothing unless it is translated globally.