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Elif Shafak: The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought (Transcript)

Elif Shafak

Here is the full transcript of Turkish author Elif Şafak’s TED Talk:  The Revolutionary Power of Diverse Thought.

Listen to the MP3 audio: The revolutionary power of diverse thought by Elif Shafak


“Can you taste words?” It was a question that caught me by surprise.

This summer, I was giving a talk at a literary festival, and afterwards, as I was signing books, a teenage girl came with her friend, and this is what she asked me.

I told her that some people experience an overlap in their senses so that they could hear colors or see sounds, and many writers were fascinated by this subject, myself included. But she cut me off, a bit impatiently, and said, “Yeah, I know all of that. It’s called synesthesia. We learned it at school. But my mom is reading your book, and she says there’s lots of food and ingredients and a long dinner scene in it. She gets hungry at every page. So I was thinking, how come you don’t get hungry when you write? And I thought maybe, maybe you could taste words. Does it make sense?”

And, actually, it did make sense, because ever since my childhood, each letter in the alphabet has a different color, and colors bring me flavors. So for instance, the color purple is quite pungent, almost perfumed, and any words that I associate with purple taste the same way, such as “sunset” — a very spicy word.

But I was worried that if I tell all of this to the teenager, it might sound either too abstract or perhaps too weird. And there wasn’t enough time anyhow, because people were waiting in the queue. So it suddenly felt like what I was trying to convey was more complicated and detailed than what the circumstances allowed me to say.

And I did what I usually do in similar situations: I stammered, I shut down, and I stopped talking. I stopped talking because the truth was complicated, even though I knew, deep within, that one should never, ever remain silent for fear of complexity.

So I want to start my talk today with the answer that I was not able to give on that day. Yes, I can taste words — sometimes, that is, not always, and happy words have a different flavor than sad words. I like to explore: What does the word “creativity” taste like, or “equality,” “love,” “revolution?” And what about “motherland?”

These days, it’s particularly this last word that troubles me. It leaves a sweet taste on my tongue, like cinnamon, a bit of rose water and golden apples. But underneath, there’s a sharp tang, like nettles and dandelion. The taste of my motherland, Turkey, is a mixture of sweet and bitter. And the reason why I’m telling you this is because I think there’s more and more people all around the world today who have similarly mixed emotions about the lands they come from.

We love our native countries, yeah? How can we not? We feel attached to the people, the culture, the land, the food. And yet at the same time, we feel increasingly frustrated by its politics and politicians, sometimes to the point of despair or hurt or anger.

I want to talk about emotions and the need to boost our emotional intelligence. I think it’s a pity that mainstream political theory pays very little attention to emotions. Oftentimes, analysts and experts are so busy with data and metrics that they seem to forget those things in life that are difficult to measure and perhaps impossible to cluster under statistical models. But I think this is a mistake, for two main reasons.

Firstly, because we are emotional beings. As human beings, I think we all are like that. But secondly, and this is new, we have entered a new stage in world history in which collective sentiments guide and misguide politics more than ever before. And through social media and social networking, these sentiments are further amplified, polarized, and they travel around the world quite fast. Ours is the age of anxiety, anger, distrust, resentment and, I think, lots of fear.

But here’s the thing. Even though there’s plenty of research about economic factors, there’s relatively few studies about emotional factors. Why is it that we underestimate feelings and perceptions? I think it’s going to be one of our biggest intellectual challenges, because our political systems are replete with emotions. In country after country, we have seen illiberal politicians exploiting these emotions. And yet within the academia and among the intelligentsia, we are yet to take emotions seriously. I think we should.

And just like we should focus on economic inequality worldwide, we need to pay more attention to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide and how to bridge these gaps, because they do matter.

Years ago, when I was still living in Istanbul, an American scholar working on women writers in the Middle East came to see me. And at some point in our exchange, she said, “I understand why you’re a feminist, because, you know, you live in Turkey.”

And I said to her, “I don’t understand why you’re not a feminist, because, you know, you live in America.” And she laughed.

She took it as a joke, and the moment passed. But the way she had divided the world into two imaginary camps, into two opposite camps — it bothered me and it stayed with me. According to this imaginary map, some parts of the world were liquid countries. They were like choppy waters, not yet settled. Some other parts of the world, namely the West, were solid, safe and stable.

So it was the liquid lands that needed feminism and activism and human rights, and those of us who were unfortunate enough to come from such places had to keep struggling for these most essential values. But there was hope.

Since history moved forward, even the most unsteady lands would someday catch up. And meanwhile, the citizens of solid lands could take comfort in the progress of history and in the triumph of the liberal order. They could support the struggles of other people elsewhere, but they themselves did not have to struggle for the basics of democracy anymore, because they were beyond that stage.

I think in the year 2016, this hierarchical geography was shattered to pieces. Our world no longer follows. This dualistic pattern in the scholar’s mind, if it ever did. Now we know that history does not necessarily move forward. Sometimes it draws circles, even slides backwards, and that generations can make the same mistakes that their great-grandfathers had made. And now we know that there’s no such thing as solid countries versus liquid countries.

In fact, we are all living in liquid times, just like the late Zygmunt Bauman told us. And Bauman had another definition for our age. He used to say we are all going to be walking on moving sands. And if that’s the case, I think, it should concern us women more than men, because when societies slide backwards into authoritarianism, nationalism or religious fanaticism, women have much more to lose. That is why this needs to be a vital moment, not only for global activism, but in my opinion, for global sisterhood as well.

But I want to make a little confession before I go any further. Until recently, whenever I took part in an international conference or festival, I would be usually one of the more depressed speakers. Having seen how our dreams of democracy and how our dreams of coexistence were crushed in Turkey, both gradually but also with a bewildering speed, over the years I’ve felt quite demoralized.

And at these festivals there would be some other gloomy writers, and they would come from places such as Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, China, Venezuela, Russia. And we would smile at each other in sympathy, this camaraderie of the doomed. And you could call us WADWIC: Worried and Depressed Writers International Club.

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