Avoids using methods which implicitly reinforce stereotypes and discriminationIntercultural CompetenceReflecting acceptance of ambiguity and changeSkill to deal with ambiguity and change

The dangers of oversimplification and ambiguity avoidance

Why is the world today becoming increasingly polarized? How come populism seems to be taking over in countries where the population should be intelligent and forward-thinking? Why are people becoming so quick to stereotype and stigmatize certain groups of people, even when there is no real factual basis for it? This tool aims at answering these questions, and perhaps bring up new ones.

Why did I choose this tool? There is no simple way of dealing with this topic, and if we try to make it into a step by step formula we risk falling into the trap of oversimplification described above. This TED talk by Elif Şafak addresses the topic in a way that circles a variety of seemingly different topics and links them all together, bringing out also the emotional perspective and personal experience needed to understand the points being made. This makes the topic, while not simple, at least relatable and easy to grasp.

How does this apply to being a trainer? Apart from the topic being deemed relevant for trainers as per the competence model, this tool gives insight into a different way of dealing with stereotypes and avoidance of ambiguity. It is hard to convince someone of an idea opposite to theirs by taking only the intellectual route. It usually causes them to formulate and hold onto their own intellectual arguments, and even if we manage to “win” the argument the other person retains the same frame of mind, and in addition to this can end up upset and disappointed. Storytelling and appealing to the emotions in a way that is sincere and genuine can have an entirely different result. As trainers, we can be more effective when we balance our intellectual knowledge and input with stories and emotions that the participants can relate to and that can help them to sincerely get on board with what we are saying.

Main content: 

Following is the talk by Elif Şafak, including the most relevant portions of the transcript:


“One should never, ever remain silent for fear of complexity.”

In this talk, Elif Shafak talks about emotions and the need to boost our emotional intelligence. She believes it’s a pity that the standard political hypothesis gives almost no consideration for emotions. In many cases, investigators and specialists are so occupied with information and measurements that they appear to overlook those things in life that are hard to gauge and maybe difficult to bunch under factual models. Be that as it may, she thinks this is an error, for two principal reasons: Firstly because we are emotional beings. Secondly, and this is a rather new development, we have entered another phase in world history in which collective sentiments guide and misguide politics more than ever before. What’s more, through social media and social networking, these sentiments are intensified, polarized, and they travel far and wide very quickly. It is a time of uneasiness, outrage, doubt, hatred and lots of fear. Be that as it may, stop and think for a minute: although there’s a lot of research about economic components, there are hardly any studies about emotional components.

Why is it that we underestimate emotions and perceptions? I believe it will be one of our greatest intellectual challenges, on the grounds that our political frameworks are packed with feelings. In a great many nations, we have seen illiberal politicians misusing these feelings to their advantage. But inside the scholarly community and among the intellectual elite, we are yet to pay attention to feelings. She believes we should. What’s more, just as we should concentrate on monetary disparity around the world, we have to give more consideration to emotional and cognitive gaps worldwide and how to bridge these gaps, since they do make a difference.

Quite a while back, when she was still living in Istanbul, an American researcher taking a shot at women authors in the Middle East came to see her. What’s more, sooner or later in their exchange, she stated, “I comprehend why you’re an activist for women’s rights, since, you know… you live in Turkey.” And Elif said to her, “I don’t comprehend why you’re not an activist for women’s rights, since, you know…you live in America.” She chuckled, took it as a joke, and the moment passed.

However, the manner in which she had divided the world into two imaginary, opposite camps disturbed Elif and it remained in her mind. As per this imaginary map, a few pieces of the world were fluid nations. They resembled uneven waters, not yet settled. Some different pieces of the world, in particular the West, were strong, safe and stable. Therefore, it was the fluid terrains that required women’s liberation and activism and human rights, and those who were unlucky enough to originate from such places needed to continue battling for these most basic rights. However, there was hope. Since history progressed, even the most unstable countries would at some point catch up. And at the same time, the residents of strong countries could relax because of the advancement of history and in the triumph of the liberal order. They could help fight the battles of others in other lands, yet they didn’t need to battle for the basics of democracy any longer since they were past that phase.

She goes on to say that in the year 2016, this hierarchical geography was broken into pieces. Our world doesn’t follow this dualistic pattern in the scholar’s mind anymore if that was ever really the case. Presently we realize that history doesn’t necessarily progress. Now and again it draws circles, even goes in reverse, and those generations can commit similar errors to the ones that their great granddads had made. Also, presently we realize that there’s nothing of the sort as strong nations versus fluid nations. Truth be told, we are generally living in a fluid time, much the same as the late Zygmunt Bauman told us. Furthermore, Bauman had another definition for this time in history. He used to state that we are all for the most part going to be walking on moving sands.

She confesses that until not long ago, whenever the occasion arose for her to partake in a worldwide meeting or festival, she would normally be one of the more depressed speakers.

Having observed how our dreams of democracy and coexistence were squashed in Turkey, both gradually but also with incredible speed, throughout the years she has felt very disheartened. What’s more, at these festivals, there would be some other gloomy authors, and they always originated from places such as Egypt, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Philippines, China, Venezuela and Russia. And the authors from these countries would smile at one another in compassion, like a fellowship of the damned. You could call us WADWIC: Worried and Depressed Writers International Club.

At some point, however, things started to change. Suddenly their club started to become more popular, and they began to have new authors joining them. As she recalls, Greek authors and poets joined first, followed by authors from Hungary and Poland, and afterward, surprisingly, authors from Austria, the Netherlands, France, and soon authors from the UK and USA. All of a sudden, there was a greater amount of them feeling stressed over the destiny of our countries and the eventual fate of the world. Furthermore, perhaps there was a greater amount of them currently feeling like outsiders in their own countries.

Soon an unusual thing occurred. The authors who were depressed for quite a while began to feel less depressed, though the newcomers since they were not used to feeling this way, became even more depressed. You could see authors from Bangladesh or Turkey or Egypt attempting to support their associates from Brexit Britain or the post-election USA.

She believes our reality is loaded with phenomenal difficulties, and this accompanies an emotional backlash because despite fast change many people would like to slow things down, and when there are so many unknowns, people crave even more the things they know. Furthermore, when things get too confusing, people often crave simplicity. This is a perilous junction since it’s actually where the demagogue enters the scene.

The demagogue sees how collective sentiments work and how he – it’s normally a “he” – can profit from them. He tells us that we all belong in our tribes, and he reveals to us that we will be more secure if we are encompassed by similarity. Demagogues come in all sizes and all shapes. This could be the whimsical leader of a marginal ideological group someplace in Europe, or an Islamist fanatic imam preaching dogma and hatred, or it could be a racist Nazi-appreciating speaker elsewhere. Every one of these figures, from the start – they appear not to be connected to each other. However, she believes they feed one another, and they need one another.

And all around the globe, when we observe how fanatics talk and how they inspire movements, she thinks they share one definite quality: they firmly, emphatically despise diversity. They can’t handle plurality. Adorno used to state, “Intolerance of ambiguity is the sign of an authoritarian personality.” But what if intolerance of ambiguity is the mark of the age that we are living in? Everywhere she looks, she sees subtleties fading away. On TV we have an enemy of something speaker arguing with a supporter of something speaker. It’s good ratings, especially if they yell at one another. Indeed, even in the academic community, where our mind should be nourished, you see one atheist researcher contending with a staunch theist researcher, yet it is anything but a genuine intellectual exchange because it is merely a conflict between two certainties and is completely unenlightening.

She believes that binary oppositions are all over the place. So gradually and methodically, we are being denied the privilege to be unpredictable. Istanbul, Berlin, Nice, Paris, Brussels, Dhaka, Baghdad, Barcelona: we have seen one horrendous terror attack after another. Furthermore, when you express your distress, and when you respond against the brutality, you get a wide range of responses and messages on social media. One such response is very upsetting, simply because it’s so far-reaching. They state, “Why do you feel sorry for them? Why don’t you feel sorry for civilians in Yemen or civilians in Syria?”

She thinks that the individuals who compose such messages don’t comprehend that we can feel sorry for and stand in solidarity with victims of terrorism and brutality in the Middle East, in Europe, in Asia, in America, any place, all over the place, equally and simultaneously. They don’t appear to comprehend that we don’t need to pick one agony and one country over all others. But this is exactly what tribalism does to us. It shrivels our brains, without a doubt, yet it likewise shrivels our hearts, to such a degree, that we become numb to the pain of others.

She thinks that both in the East and the West, plurality is being lost, both inside our social orders and ourselves. What’s more, being from Turkey, she realizes that the loss of multiplicity is a very significant misfortune. Today, her country turned into the world’s greatest jailer for journalists, outperforming even China’s tragic record. Furthermore, she likewise accepts that what occurred in Turkey can occur in any country. In the same way that “strong nations” was an illusion, singular identities is also an illusion, since we all have many diverse voices inside. The Iranian, the Persian poet, Hafiz, used to state, “You carry in your soul every ingredient necessary to turn your existence into joy. All you have to do is to mix those ingredients.”

She believes that we can definitely mix. She is an Istanbulite, but on the other hand also connected to the Balkans, the Aegean, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, the Levant. She is European by birth, by decision, about the values she abides by. She has become a Londoner throughout the years. She likes to consider herself a worldwide soul, a world resident, a migrant and a wandering storyteller. She has numerous connections, and so do we all. And multiple connections mean multiple stories.

Authors generally pursue stories, obviously, but are also inspired by silences, the things we can’t discuss, political, social and cultural taboos. They are additionally interested in their own silences. She has consistently been vocal about and expounded broadly on minority rights, women’s rights and LGBT rights. Yet, as she was considering this TED Talk, she understood something: She had never had the fortitude to state in a public space that she was bisexual herself, since she so dreaded the defamation, disgrace and scorn that was certain to follow. One ought to never under any circumstance, remain silent for fear of complexity.

What’s more, even though she is no stranger to anxieties, and although she is speaking here about the power of emotions – she has found out over time that emotions are not limitless, and that they do have a limit. There comes a moment – it resembles a tipping point or a threshold – when one becomes weary of feeling afraid, or weary of feeling anxious. Furthermore, she believes people, maybe even countries, have their own tipping points. So much more grounded than her feelings is her awareness that not only gender, not only identity but even life itself is fluid. They want to partition us into clans, however, we are connected across borders. They preach certainty, yet we realize that life is full of magic and uncertainty. They also like to promote dualities; however, we are certainly more nuanced than that.

So what can we do? The Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran used to state, “I learned silence from the talkative and tolerance from the intolerant and kindness from the unkind.” She believes it’s a great motto for our times.

So from populist demagogues, we can understand how essential democracy is. From isolationists, we can understand how essential worldwide solidarity is. From tribalists, we can see the beauty of cosmopolitanism and the beauty of variety and plurality.

In closing, she leaves us with one word. The word “Yurt” in Turkish means “motherland.” It means “homeland.” But strikingly, the word likewise means “a tent used by nomadic tribes.” And she likes that blend since it makes her realize that homelands don’t need to be fixed in one place. They can be movable. We can take them with us anywhere we go. Furthermore, for writers, for storytellers, at the end of the day, there is one main homeland, and it’s called “Storyland.” And that word gives us the true taste of freedom no matter where we are.

Reflection questions:

Based on the TED talk above, what is the reason why someone would want to oversimplify and avoid ambiguity?

Would you say that people in your country are mostly tolerant or mostly intolerant of ambiguity?

Would you say that you are mostly tolerant or mostly intolerant of ambiguity?

Do you find yourself trying to avoid ambiguity at times? Can you think of a scenario where you clearly did so? What was the result?

What are some instances when ambiguity is productive? And what are instances where it is unproductive?

What steps can you take to increase your tolerance of ambiguity?


How to apply it in everyday life:

Whenever you want to give an immediate answer to something and shut down the ambiguity, practice staying in it just a little longer then is comfortable for you. Try not shutting down that discussion or that argument that makes you feel uncertain. Remind yourself “it’s ok to be uncertain, it’s ok not to know”. Every time you stay in it a little longer without shutting it down or running away, you increase your tolerance of it. And the time that you wait before jumping to a conclusion, or getting into fight or flight mode, is the time that allows you to make a better decision then you otherwise would and get better results.

Leilani van Rheenen

has been active in youth work, training and coaching since 2008. Her specialty is emotional intelligence, emotional fitness, since it is the primary ingredient in competences such as inter-cultural competence, learning to learn, cooperating successfully in teams, etc. Leilani’s contribution will combine the information and methods she has created with the vast array of tried and tested materials available. Leilani has developed herself as a trainer from the Salto training for trainers, but also from renowned coaches and authors, and adapted methods learned from these sources to meet the needs of youth workers.

Click here to read more about Leilani van Rheenen

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Shafak, E. The Revolutionary Power Of Diverse Thought. Retrieved December 12, 2018

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