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27 July 2023

The cultural divide no one wants to talk about

Liberal societies need to rediscover humour.

By Kit Wilson

Until recently my days generally started with the same basic wellness routine: wake up, open Twitter and allow my mind to enter into a higher state of all-encompassing rage. It’s a lifestyle hack shared by tens of thousands across the country, which goes some way to explaining why our public discourse is in such a tremendous state right now. But one morning last week, cheerfully doomscrolling away, something inside me suddenly snapped. Somewhere between the Remainer lawyers, cartoon frogs, and Greek statues chastising me for not building gothic cathedrals any more, I suddenly realised I’d just completely lost the will to live.

My immediate reaction was to get off social media altogether, but I’m too vain for that. Instead, I thought, if I could simply figure out which Twitter subcultures really irked me, I could cut them from my timeline once and for all. But when I started drawing Venn diagrams in my mind to distinguish those people who annoy me, I couldn’t find a consistent overlap. My anger, I realised, was heterodox, sparked by the woke and anti-woke, left and right, conservative and progressive, religious and atheist alike – a seemingly scattershot set of individuals.

Then it clicked. None of these supposedly unbridgeable binaries actually matter. Far more important, ultimately, is a much more basic divide that cuts through all groups: that between the joyful and the humourless.

To be clear, by “humourless” I don’t mean unfunny. Nor, before you break out in hives, am I complaining that you “can’t make jokes any more”. Rather, I’m talking about two basic dispositions. On one side are those who take a liberal delight in life, who relish its absurdities, embrace its ironies, and enjoy its contradictions. They feel an instinctive generosity of spirit towards others and work on the basic assumption that online political and cultural debates are ultimately of secondary importance. On the other side are dour, literal-minded, myopic pedants who allow themselves to become, as it were, “single-issue people”. They become so obsessed with a particular subject that it sucks all joy from the rest of their lives.

This – at the risk of sounding a little overblown – is the great divide of our time. It cuts like a dubiously gerrymandered boundary through every imaginable subgroup of society, and everywhere the humourless are winning.

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Look around. Scroll along. We all know the “social justice” left is plagued by interaction-by-algorithm bots like Robin DiAngelo, but the other side fields an equally dour team of anti-woke critics. It boasts the permanently frowning Jordan Peterson and faux-macho grifters whose only idea of fun is a “joy-by-numbers” routine seemingly designed just to wind up the libs – “honey, can you take a photo of me holding this raw steak and cigar?” In the middle are “sensible” centrists from the Financial Times or Economist who just wish people would stop being so damn irrational and look at the stats. They’re joined by the red-faced talk radio hosts getting endlessly exasperated with the small-town dunces phoning in. Oh, and that’s before the tiresome pedants burst out from behind the bushes to inform you that, ackshually, St George was Turkish, or love is just your neurones fizzing, or every charming cultural tradition you ever cared about is just an arbitrary, worthless invention.

[See also: The age of digital outrage]

Alternative media isn’t much better. It seems mostly to be men at various stages of nervous breakdowns staring stony-faced into TV cameras, warning us about “The Regime” or “The Machine” coming to force fried insects down our throats. Disenfranchised teenage boys get to look up to Andrew Tate, a man I’ve never seen smile. Elsewhere, inexplicably popular “trad” Twitter accounts like “the Cultural Tutor” repeat their one tiresome schtick: that everything humans have produced since about 1910 just flat-out sucks.

Evidently, the internet is a large part of the problem. In the analogue world, goodnatured people of different ideological bents intermingle perfectly fine. Online, though, in part because it’s much easier to ascertain somebody’s views than it is the subtleties of their character, we construct our social circles around shared (and strictly policed) beliefs. Having a sense of humour – that is, preferring to have fun with, rather than at the expense of, other people – becomes a strange kind of disadvantage.

But a truly liberal (in the broadest sense of the word) society cannot function properly without humour. As the Native American activist Vine Deloria once put it: “When a people can laugh at themselves and laugh at others and hold all aspects of life together without letting anybody drive them to extremes, then it seems to me that that people can survive.” We can humorously recognise our own, and others’, flaws without defensively jabbing our fingers at each other. Laughter helps us to make sense of – even to enjoy – life’s contradictions, and to resist the temptation to collapse complexities into one algorithmically correct or totalitarian solution (or indeed, to resolve everything a little too conveniently with Venn diagrams!).

Humour reminds us, too, that something transcends the purely rational, material present. A simple irony can contain more concentrated meaning than a thousand dry facts. In the words of the recently departed Martin Amis: “The humourless as a bunch don’t just not know what’s funny, they don’t know what’s serious.” The world around us is, as though bursting with animist spirits, in a constant playful dialogue with us.

Without this sense of something greater, it’s hard to put our petty squabbles into perspective. Can we teach the dour to be less humourless and more joyful? Perhaps not. But those of us who want a humane, tolerant, generous society should at least resist the same temptation only to scowl and sneer. Let’s champion, instead, those on “our side” who actually make the world a more playful, funnier place.

[See also: Big Tech can’t erase politics from social media]

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