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The evil of banality | Financial Times


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You meet someone, get on, accept an invitation to their home and, as refreshments are prepared in the next room — hear that muffled tinkle of ice on glass — browse their bookshelves. And there it is. Not quite as predictable as death and taxes, no. But at least as heart-sinking. 

Sapiens.

The problem isn’t the book itself, whose alleged glibness and historical imprecision I haven’t the scholarship to judge. The problem is the obviousness. Like naming “Guernica” as one’s favourite painting, or watching the Oscar winner for Best International Feature as one’s annual world cinema ration, there is something pro forma about putting the Yuval Noah Harari title on the shelf. It is thoughtful enough

The expansion of higher education began a human lifetime ago. People under 40 have grown up with the internet and therefore with access to the total sum of human knowledge at zero marginal cost. Formal curbs on thought and speech have been few since the decline of the Church. By now, bourgeois life should feel like a London coffee house circa 1690: all learned symposia, amateur intellectual experiments and dissenting subcultures.

What strikes me instead is the sameness out there. We degree-holding urbanites throughout the western world have converged on a more or less common ground of tastes and sensibilities. One term for this genre of person is “midwit”, but that implies the core problem is a lack of brain power, which it almost never is. A better fit is “Normie”. 

Normie wants to talk about Succession. Normie thinks that Los Angeles is an urban sprawl, in the grip of cars and shallow people. Normie’s profile photo is a selfie taken on those steps in Santorini. Can you picture the kind of person I mean? No? Let me keep going, then. Normie has private qualms about new gender doctrines but doesn’t relish confrontation with friends or juniors. Normie, if English, thinks Gareth Southgate has done a great job of reconnecting the national football team to the people. Normie’s politics incline to a sort of path-of-least-resistance liberalism. Normie went to see Hamilton.  

Look, I understand the trap here. Define yourself against bourgeois convention for the sake of it, and you can end up in dark places. Quite often, some weasel in a gilet, having read half of a blurb of a John Mearsheimer book between trades, will tell me that Nato should have ceded eastern Europe as a “buffer zone” with Russia. Give me a thousand Normies over the contrarian right. 

Also, no doubt, each era has its clichés and commonplaces. Gustave Flaubert’s posthumous Dictionary of Received Ideas was an attempt to catalogue those of late-19th century France. The entries under “Animals” (“If only they could speak. Some are smarter than men!”) and “Beethoven” (“Don’t pronounce Beet-hoven. Praise the legato”) give you a sense of things. He is spoofing long-dead Parisians, but he also evokes the atmosphere of one of those modern dinner parties where nothing of real penetration will be said. The difference is that there is much less excuse now.  

This is, to invert Hannah Arendt, the evil of banality. Perhaps I am more sensitive to this because of my job. Columnists live and die by ideas. The kindest thing someone can do for me is to say something original, and therefore provoke a column. And the worst disservice is to expose me to an evening of Normie jibber-jabber (“But what does Keir Starmer stand for?”) as a deadline approaches. For this reason, in my treatment of people, I do increasingly resemble one of those medieval kings who execute their jesters for being insufficiently diverting.

I remain unconvinced that the internet has poisoned the public square. (Was Joe McCarthy using Facebook?) I also go back and forth on the Peter Turchin theory that a surplus of graduates — trained in conceptual thought, but lacking career prospects — is driving extremism. No, in the end, the best case against the great boom in knowledge and communication over recent decades isn’t that it has been a civic or social disaster. It has just been a flop. What should have been a thrilling mass culture has become one it doesn’t take a Flaubert to lampoon.

Email Janan at [email protected]

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