Moving beyond black-and-white Trumpisms
When we consume fiction, we put down our shield of defences and accusations, and we allow ourselves to be immersed, to see and hear and listen.
2016/12/04 Issue: 84 Page: 22
The Arab Weekly
One of the most unsettling sentiments to emerge from Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory is the idea that he is simply saying what others think. That his gross, fear-mongering prejudices are truths the rest of us have merely been too scared to utter. Too put upon to say. Constrained by the liberal-elite establishment he promises to overhaul.
But now, we can say stuff. Like the fact that Muslims are innately the problem. Or that Jews control the world. Because they do, don’t they? And all the terrorists are Muslims, aren’t they? And it’s OK to hate people if there are such valid reasons for it. Isn’t it? Apparently, large swathes of people have been convinced.
This is not the first time that we have been moved to make a monster of those different from ourselves. As recently as 2014, I felt this acutely. During the Israel-Gaza conflict that summer, there was an unnerving zeitgeist in Europe with a surge of anti- Semitism. In London, I will never forget the sight of thousands of people marching next to banners declaring that “Hitler was Right” or “Hamas, Jews to Gas”.
In France, things were worse. In Belgium, a café posted a sign saying: “Dog allowed but no Jews.” The echoes of 1930s Germany were clear. But of course in Gaza there was devastation. And some of those same Jewish friends who felt that thud of anti-Semitism responded to news about unspeakable death in Gaza, not with the sensitivity and compassion they would normally show, but with impassioned justifications about why Israel was still right.
Whether moved by conviction or defensiveness or whether stewarded by the black-and-white, us-and-them dynamic that is too often cultivated by the media, people on both sides of the conflict seemed to be moving towards more and more extreme positions. We seemed to be losing the ability to in any way empathise with the other side, to even acknowledge the narrative of an Other.
That, I believe, is a dangerous place to be. And that is why I wanted to write Chains of Sand, a fictional address of the conflict that, through stories of family, love and war, attempts to move away from the black and white to explore instead the mass and mess of grey. Fiction can reach people in a very different way than news stories. It steps back from headlines and statistics, and it looks at people. The personal rather than the political. The intimate rather than the distant. The hope, the fear, the dreams, the aspirations, the resentment, the bitterness, the grief, the loss, the humanity that exist on all sides and in us all.
When we read, or watch a movie, or see a theatre production, suddenly, we can be in a room with our enemies, seeing the world through their eyes, walking in their shoes. Acknowledging that Other. Who hasn’t read The Kite Runner and gained an insight into the plight of Afghans under the Taliban? Who hasn’t read The Diary of a Young Girl and felt for 13-year-old Anne Frank?
When we consume fiction, although there is a contract between writer and reader that the politics or history will be mainly authentic, we suspend our judgment in a way we refuse to do at other times. We put down our shield of defences and accusations, and we allow ourselves to be immersed, to see and hear and listen. It’s like being in love. For that brief interlude in our existence, we want to be transported. We want to see the world through the eyes of the person we are with. We want to understand them. Go on their journey. Instead of boycotting the artist, we see the art.
As much as this conflict, and the countless others the world faces, is about tangible issues, it is also about hardened prejudices and a refusal to look beyond ourselves. But we must not allow our mindsets to be narrowed into black-and-white Trumpisms. Who knows if fiction can play more than a trivial role in effecting real change, but what it certainly does is enable readers to engage more deeply with both conflicts and the people who are touched by them. It fosters that crucial — missing — empathy. And that can only be good.