Yuval Noah Harari’s half-baked guide to the 21st century

This review was first published by Arc Digital on 25 October 2018.

There is something immensely comforting about Yuval Noah Harari. In an era when a writer’s success often depends on a willingness to provoke, Harari’s calling cards are politeness and equanimity. In the new class of so-called “rock star intellectuals,” he is analogous to Coldplay: accessible, inoffensive, and astoundingly popular. I find no other writer so frequently referenced by friends who don’t generally read. On YouTube he is a man for all seasons, discussing #MeToo with Natalie Portman, contemplating the nature of money with Christine Lagarde, and considering “Who Really Runs the World?” with Russell Brand.

Harari, a historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is by no means undeserving of this success. His first book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, displayed a rare talent for condensing vast epochs of history into simple narratives. In his second, Homo Deus, he showed all the imagination of a science fiction writer in presenting the dystopian possibilities of artificial intelligence and biotechnology.

But now Harari has abandoned the speculative realms of past and future, turning his attention to the thorny problems of the present. And here we find that his formula has its limits. 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a collection of essays taking on everything from culture and politics to technology and spirituality. Undoubtedly, it offers plenty of thought-provoking questions and insights. By and large though, the very thing that made his previous works so engaging — an insistence on painting in broad, simple brushstrokes — makes this latest effort somewhat superficial.

Many of Harari’s essays are just not very illuminating. They circle their subjects ponderously, never quite making contact. Take his chapter on the immigration debate in Europe. Harari begins by identifying three areas of disagreement: borders, integration, and citizenship. Then he walks us through some generic and largely hypothetical pro- and anti-immigration stances, guided mainly by a desire not to offend anyone. Finally, after explaining that “culturism” is not the same as racism, he simply concludes: “If the European project fails…it would indicate that belief in the liberal values of freedom and tolerance is not enough to resolve the cultural conflicts of the world.”

Here we glimpse one of the book’s main questions: whether liberalism can unite the world and overcome the existential challenges facing humanity. But what is liberalism? According to Harari, all social systems, whether religious or political, are “stories.” By this he means that they are psychological software packages, allowing large-scale cooperation while providing individuals with identity and purpose. Thus, liberalism is a “global story” which boils down to the belief that “all authority ultimately stems from the free will of individual humans.” Harari gives us three handy axioms: “the voter knows best,” “the customer is always right,” and “follow your heart.”

This certainly makes matters crystal clear. But political systems are not just ideological dogmas to which entire populations blindly subscribe. They are institutional arrangements shaped by the clashes and compromises of differing values and interests. Historically, liberalism’s commitment to individualism was less important than its preference for democratic means to resolve such conflicts. Harari’s individualist, universalist liberalism has certainly been espoused in recent decades; but as a more perceptive critic such as John Gray or Shadi Hamid would point out, it is only for sections of Western society that this has offered a meaningful worldview.

Overlooking this basic degree of complexity leads Harari to some bizarre judgments. He claims that “most people who voted for Trump and Brexit didn’t reject the liberal package in its entirety — they lost faith mainly in its globalizing part.” Does he really think these voters were once enthusiastic about globalism? Likewise, to illustrate the irrational character of liberal customs, Harari states: “If democracy were a matter of rational decision-making, there would be absolutely no reason to give all people equal voting rights.” Did he not consider that a key purpose of the ballot is to secure the legitimacy of government?

Harari is frequently half-sighted, struggling to acknowledge that phenomena can have more than one explanation. I confess I chuckled at his reading of Ex Machina, the 2015 sci-fi about a cyborg femme fatale.“This is not a movie about the human fear of intelligent robots,” he writes. It is about “the male fear…that female liberation might lead to female domination.” To support his interpretation, Harari poses a question: “For why on earth would an AI have a sexual or a gender identity?” This in a book which argues extensively that artificial intelligence will be used to exploit human desires.

Nor are such hiccups merely incidental. Rather, they stem from Harari’s failure to connect his various arguments into a coherent world-view. This is perhaps the most serious shortcoming of 21 Lessons. Reading this book is like watching a one-man kabuki play, whereby Harari puts on different masks as the situation demands. But these characters are not called on to complement each other so much as to prevent the stage from collapsing.

We have already encountered Harari’s first mask: postmodern cynicism. He is at pains to deconstruct the grand narratives of the past, whether religious, political, or national. He argues that the human subject, too, is a social construct — an amalgam of fictions, bound by context and largely incapable of rational thought.

However this approach tends to invite relativism and apathy. And so, to provide some moral ballast, Harari picks up the mask of secularist polemic. Though never abandoning his light-hearted tone, he spends a great deal of time eye-poking and shin-kicking any tradition that indulges the human inclination for sanctity, ritual, and transcendence. But not to worry: you can keep your superstitions, “provided you adhere to the secular ethical code.” This consists of truth, compassion, equality, freedom, courage, and responsibility.

What, then, of our darker impulses? And what of our yearning to identify with something larger than ourselves? Enter Harari in his third mask: neo-Buddhist introspection. This is an especially useful guise, for whenever Harari encounters a difficult knot, he simply cuts it with a platitude. “If you really understand how an action causes unnecessary suffering to yourself and to others,” he writes, “you will naturally abstain from it.” Moreover: “If you really know the truth about yourself and the world, nothing can make you miserable.”

I am not saying these outlooks cannot be reconciled. My point is that Harari does not attempt to do so, leaving us instead with an array of loose ends. If the imperative is to deconstruct, why should secular shibboleths be left standing? Why should we worry about technology treating us as “little more than biochemical algorithms,” when Harari already thinks that “your core identity is a complex illusion created by neural networks”? And given that “both the ‘self’ and freedom are mythological chimeras,” what does Harari mean when he advises us to “work very hard…to know what you are, and what you want from life”?

You might object that I’m being ungenerous; that the most popular of popular intellectuals must necessarily deal in outlines, not details. But this is a slippery slope that leads to lazy assumptions about the incuriousness of a general audience. When it comes to current political and philosophical dilemmas, being a good popularizer does not consist in doling out reductive formulas. It consists in giving a flavor of the subtlety which makes these matters worth exploring. In that respect, 21 Lessons falls short of the mark.

Does Free Speech Need Boundaries to Survive?


 “Opinions,” Walter Benjamin wrote, “are to the gigantic apparatus of social life what oil is to machines. No one goes up to an engine and douses it in machine oil; one applies a little to the hidden spindles and joints one has to know.” Those defending free speech today may recoil from this advice. The idea of society as a machine, which came naturally to the Marxist Benjamin, is a long way from the ideal of free and creative individuals that many of them cherish. Nonetheless, it strikes me as a useful metaphor, if only because of the image it brings to mind of the era we’ve now entered: an engine drowning in so much oil that it has begun violently shaking, sputtering and threatening to collapse.

It wouldn’t be misleading to say that the greatest threat to free speech today comes from free speech itself. In particular, it comes from the sheer volume and chaotic nature of that speech. The current polarization of politics is rooted in an endless, sprawling argument about values taking place online – an argument that is now spilling over into demonstrations, acts of violence, and other culturally charged spectacles. While it is important to resist the calls for censorship coming from campuses, boardrooms, and the op-ed pages of newspapers, it’s also important to realize that these, too, are symptoms of that explosion in public discourse. For it is precisely the sensation of shaking and sputtering that makes people long for society to be handled like a carefully engineered machine.

Countering this need for order is the real challenge facing advocates of free speech, and their conventional manual isn’t offering much help. It demands that the right to express unpopular, or even anti-social opinions must be defended – but given the Internet’s steady drumbeat of racism and misogyny, this stance is easily portrayed as anti-social in itself. Likewise, it’s difficult to argue that toxic ideas are best heard and examined, or that speech is the final bulwark against violence, when men appear on our screens with a swastika in one hand and a protest permit in the other.

In this desperate position, free speech defenders have come to sound like the resentful father who scolds his son for being too soft. “They’re just words!” they insist, “Learn to argue back! This is about facts, not feelings!” These jibes are aimed particularly at the cultural left, whose attempts to remold science, language and thought carries the unmistakable whiff of puritanism. However, the popularity of this agenda reflects a wider desire, especially among young people, for a Hobbesian authority to step in with a clearly defined notion of what is true and what is right. Nor is this surprising, in an atmosphere of pernicious skepticism that makes meaningful consensus impossible.

Therein, I think, lies the ultimate weakness of the free speech position today. It is similarly anchored in a delusional vision of society: that of the rational, truth-seeking forum for debate. The suggestion that there has ever been such a debate – or worse, a golden age where everyone started with the same facts – appears to be a case of liberals drinking their own bathwater. Before the Internet, as one recent blog put it, “exposure to awkward political views were limited to tense exchanges at Thanksgiving or Christmas, when relatives shared their strongheld offensive opinions over the punch bowl.” The business of public discourse, meanwhile, was handled by established institutions, such as the press and media, popular arts and entertainment, politics and academia.

The way these institutions facilitated discussion is worth considering. Since everyone needed access to them, they developed certain norms – or informal rules and rituals, if you prefer – which provided the common ground for different perspectives to meet on equal terms. Thus, adopting the language and trappings of a print magazine, or of popular cinema, or an academic paper, gave an air of familiarity to even radical views. These norms also included unwarranted prejudices and taboos, of course, so discursive institutions have always had a problem with exclusivity. However, since they enabled a measure of free discussion, they could be reformed. There’s a reason we measure social progress by how successfully our institutions have incorporated new voices.

It is the case that everywhere we can argue and disagree without causing lasting hostility – in pubs, at dinner parties, and in families – there are norms regulating our behavior. On a wider, societal level, these become more like moral and aesthetic frameworks, the likes of which were essential in husbanding the growth of public discourse to begin with. Larry Siedentop has detailed how the principles of reason, equality and freedom of conscience could only emerge as a result of the Catholic Church’s firm grip on medieval Europe. Likewise in the 18th century, when The Spectator was bragging that it had “brought philosophy out of closets and libraries… to dwell in clubs and assemblies, at tea-tables, and coffee houses,” a new fad was being promoted to make this reading public manageable. It was called “politeness.”

It’s true that social media has its own norms, but they are rather fragile, and generally operate within groups of more or less like-minded people. Indeed, it’s natural that rifts should appear in a space with radically diverse views, and none of the overarching norms that might have made them palatable. In the absence of such common ground, principles like granting your opponent the possession of reason and a free conscience are being eroded. Thus we see a good deal of amateur psychology, with large groups of people being suspected of confirmation bias or motivated reasoning. Even worse, we see paranoia emerging whereby individuals subside into categories of race, gender or social class—and it’s imagined that forces are advancing sinister agendas through ideologically possessed puppets.

Indeed, unfamiliarity and estrangement is the very essence of that machine-like view of society that is so hostile to freedom of expression. Yet there’s little that promoting free speech can do to solve this dilemma, and potentially a great deal it can do to make it worse. John Stuart Mill argued that the whole point of free speech is to interrogate our norms from as many angles as possible, so as to expose any erroneous ideas they might be sheltering. Not all free speech advocates subscribe to this rationalistic ethos, but in the present circumstances, they could end up there by default. At the very least, a commitment to free speech means being skeptical towards normative boundaries, since they are likely to prevent certain viewpoints from being heard. That said, as those viewpoints multiply, you will eventually run out of boundaries to draw.

Ultimately this brings us to a broader problem faced by secular liberalism, whose emphasis on the rights and interests of individuals tends to undermine social solidarity. There have been recent attempts to square this circle, notably by Jonathan Haidt. In The Righteous Mind, Haidt asked those who see society in individualistic terms to “recognise that human flourishing requires social order and embeddedness,” and suggested they acknowledge the “binding” value of beliefs related to sanctity and loyalty. But as the philosopher Thomas Nagel commented, the interesting thing about this theory is where it falls short. Nagel points out that you can’t adopt beliefs simply because they are useful – they are only useful if you really believe them.

There are really no simple answers here. Liberal conventions such as free speech undermine the very social frameworks that they depend upon. But equally, you can’t impose a sense of community on a society from the top down. I’m inclined to agree with Karl Popper, then, when he emphasizes “the effort which life in an open and partially abstract society continually demands from us… to be rational, to forgo at least some of our emotional social needs, to look after ourselves, to accept responsibilities.” In the long run, maintaining freedom of speech will depend on persuading people to make that effort. But it will be a tough sell, and needs to be done carefully.

The article was first published by Quillette magazine on 19 October 2017