In the aftermath of the Capitol Building being stormed by fanatical, violent Trump supporters—an act not seen since the British breach over 200 years ago—empathising with them seems impossible. How can a sane, ethical person put themselves in the shoes of someone so batty and immoral; so dangerously flammable; so maddeningly illogical? And should we even bother?
America has never been so divided. Before the internet, extreme political views were spread through pamphlets, newspapers, radio and television shows, and the occasional book. Today, we can access them wherever we go. They’re the subtle lie in a humorous meme, shared by your racist cousin on Facebook; the insidious idea whispered into a podcast microphone by a radical influencer; the two-minute video that uses a simple data trick to convince people that global warming is a natural phenomenon. Before the internet, someone with these ideas needed to invest time and money to make themselves heard. Today, they can create a YouTube account in 30 seconds and step up to the tallest soapbox in history. The result is fanatical partisanship, political polarisation, and the election of someone clearly unfit for the job.
The formidable canyon between left and right must be narrowed, and it cannot be achieved with hostility, no matter how good it may feel. While we may never agree with a Trump fanatic, we can at least recognise the reasons why they’ve formed their political views, most of which are outside their control. This simple act of empathy can help to soften our animosity towards them, make conversation easier, and help to dilute the toxic polarisation that is poisoning the country.
It’s impossible to map the entire evolution of a Trump fanatic’s political views, but we can identify the strongest influences. The main determiners of personality, character, and behaviour are our genes, and the environment that we grow up in, i.e. our nature and nurture.
First, let’s talk about nature. Every single person receives 50% of their genes from each parent, which defines their susceptibility to disease, their physical characteristics, and most of their personality.1 We may inherit genes that bless us with a svelte outline, a sharp brain, and an inclination to hug everyone that we meet, or we may inherit genes that curse us with a turkey neck, a gullible mind, and an appetite for throwing molotovs at our political adversaries. Either way, we don’t get to choose, which means we can’t be held entirely accountable for our personality. Some people are just made from a blueprint with “Arsehole” stamped across the top.
Next, there’s nurture. As babies and children, we’re the most helpless species on the planet, counting on our parents to protect us, shelter us, feed us, and educate us. Some parents do wonderful jobs that help to create happy, confident children. Some do the best they can, creating children a little more cautious and anxious. Others are unfit to be parents, botching the job so badly that their kids turn into frightened, confused, and hopelessly angry adults. Again, a child doesn’t get to choose its parents, so can’t be held accountable for the quality of its upbringing. Some children are just raised by arseholes.
We also encounter thousands of people in our childhood, each one with the power to improve or subvert our character. There’s the uncle who shoots pool like a god; the smooth schoolyard friend who teaches us how to talk to girls, and the teacher whose explanation of black holes inspires us to become physicists. There’s also the brother who got a little too handsy; the hungover dentist who bungled a tooth extraction, and the local gang who hardened us with collective strength. Every experience helps to shape our personality in one way or another, and we cannot dictate how they’ll go.
Then there’s the cultural aspect of nurture—a powerful force that forges our most potent beliefs, including momentous forces such as religion, media, local customs, and the ideas of the community. Pluck a baby from Florida’s Big Bend and place it in the care of Californian parents, and it probably won’t end up as a Trump fanatic. It’s unlikely to give two figs about guns, same-sex marriage, or the rights of foetuses. Such beliefs are absorbed from our local culture, and when that culture changes, so do we. Again, something that we have no say over. Combine a horrible environment with genes that favour neuroticism, low agreeableness, and low openness, and you have the perfect storm for a Trump fanatic.
Everyone chooses their actions. The violent Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol Building are fully accountable for what they did, but not for the powerful causes that shoved them in that direction—their nature and nurture.
With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have draped yourself in the colours of the confederacy, placed a MAGA hat atop your head, and stormed the country’s most sacred democratic building. With their genes, upbringing, and environment, you may have turned out the same.
The Banana Bread Walk is a one-way Brisbane River jaunt that starts in Teneriffe and ends at our home in West End, passing some of the city’s most beautiful spots. It begins with a ride on board the City Glider, which as its name suggests, sails through the inner city suburbs of Brisbane, collecting and depositing humans along the way. As we climb onto the sapphire blue bus in West End, the driver usually offers an enthusiastic hello, and I can’t help but compare this to the bus drivers where I grew up in south-east London, who’ll barely make eye contact from fear of being stabbed.
If I’m first on the bus, I sit in the maroon-coloured priority seats near the front, which are reserved for the older residents of the city, and always empty at this time of morning. My fiance and long-term walking partner dislikes this, as she envisages hoards of geriatrics boarding at once, who’ll curse our young limbs and batter us with their hardwood walking sticks until we move to our proper place. I secretly hope it’ll happen one day.
The blue and white stripes of the bus flash past the Davies Park farmer’s markets, which at 7am, is already being descended upon by hundreds of West End residents on their Saturday morning ritual for fruits and eggs and vegetables and meats, pouring with sweat as they jostle about, dodging dogs and prams and granny-trolleys amidst yells of 2-dollar deals. The one-lane maelstrom is strewn with escape routes to a grassy nirvana, where the people and pooches no longer pay any mind to the position of their paws, but extend them fully in spacious rapture.
Davies Park disappears from view, replaced by the countless apartment blocks on Montague Road, where people nestle in their thousands and curse at the din of the Saturday morning traffic. Within moments we’re converging on what might be considered the centre of West End—the corner of Boundary and Melbourne street, enclosed in part by a large bug-like art installation, painted dull-white, creating shade for the indigenous folk who settle on benches and look as though they’re trying to forget themselves.
Soon the bus reaches Victoria Bridge, arching over the Brisbane River, and overlooking Brisbane’s luscious South Bank with its sprawling pines and cycads and luminescent purple bougainvillea canopies, its expansive lagoon and barbeques where tourists swim and sizzle while admiring the glassy swelling of the city across the river, showers of sparkles glittering in every window.
With the bridge behind us, we merge into the shadows of the central business district, where the weekend shopworkers rise from their seats, reluctant for another day of materialist madness, and unaware of the delights of the Banana Bread Walk, which they would surely quit their jobs and embark on immediately if they had an inkling. A few minutes later we exit the city into Fortitude Valley, a place replete with watering holes for the young, host to alcohol-fuelled weekend bedlam where the boys and girls drift from bar to bar and stick their chests out for different reasons. All is quiet in the Valley at this hour, its recent occupants dispersed to their homes, their shrivelled brains crying out for water as they sleep.
We reach our stop at the low end of the Valley, outside the Maserati showroom, where a brazen friend of mine took a $200,000 car for a test drive after dressing himself in a 3-piece suit and speaking la-di-da to the salesman. We make our way south-east through the towering office and residential blocks, past Bin Chicken Alley, where gangs of ibises will immediately stop scavenging to stare you down, as though you want a piece of their delicious trash. After a few minutes we arrive at the official starting point of the Banana Bread Walk: a cafe called Bellissimo that serves squishy sweet banana bread and some of the best coffee you’ll ever drink, evidenced by the queue that spills onto the street. There’s at least two cute dogs outside, one of which is a French Bulldog belonging to a girl clad in overpriced Lorna Jane activewear who doesn’t understand the word “cliché” and doesn’t carethank-you-very-much.
Once we’re fuelled with banana and caffeine, our 13km walk begins with a north-eastern beeline for the river at Teneriffe, passing rows of redbrick wool factories that have been converted into stylish properties, with a great deal more character than the cut-and-paste apartment blocks found elsewhere in the city. As we emerge on the riverside, the landscape opens up before us, swathes of early-morning sparkles scattered across the river’s surface, and enthusiastic rowers with bulging lats sweeping through them.
We walk south towards the river’s source, along a riverside path guarded by polished chromium railings, and placards that reveal Teneriffe’s industrial past. When the Brisbane River was dredged in 1862, wharves were constructed along the riverbank for trade, spawning ten woolstores in Teneriffe by the 1950’s¹, eventually being requisitioned for an American World War II submarine base where you could see up to eight vessels and hundreds of fresh-faced submariners⁶. Today, Teneriffe is one of the most desirable places to live in Brisbane, and as we saunter past triple-story red brick buildings, their huge facades filled with white-framed windows underneath looping arches, amidst lushious verdant gardens filled with prodigious Moreton Bay fig trees, it’s easy to see why.
A motley of humans roam the pathway—young families with wandering toddlers and little dogs with protruding teeth; glistening mums and dads jogging with prams; gym junkies with swollen limbs, squeezed into too-little fabric—coveting lungfuls of crisp winter air, the soft swishing of overhead leaves, and the post-dusk warbles of tropical birds. The Teneriffe riverside is a popular sleeping spot for pigeons, who tuck their feet into their bodies, nestle their heads into their chests, and pay no mind to the snuffles of passing dogs.
Soon we reach the suburb of New Farm, the battered facade of the Powerhouse rising in the distance. The Powerhouse is a decommissioned electricity station that provided power for Brisbane’s obsolete tram network, and at the turn of the millennium, was transformed into an arts and music centre for exhibitions, comedy, concerts, and more. The main entrance faces away from the river—a 10-metre tall glass box, striped with chrome, incongruous against its wall of crumbling bricks and blocks of white paint, as though the refurbers decided to leave this side unfinished for effect. Before reaching the momentous building, we feast our eyes on the bedlam of the New Farm dog park, with its schnauzers, collies, pugs, poodles, retrievers, labs, shepherds, snags, and every other dog you can think of, all mixed together in a frenzy of tails and paws, lolloping about and shouting at each other.
In a few moments we’re stepping onto the green of New Farm Park—an open stretch of grass scattered with trees and rose bushes that sits on the edge of the New Farm peninsula. The park is one of the few outdoor places in Brisbane where you can drink alcohol without punishment, so it’s common to see people picnicking and sipping beers under the shade of its trees. It’s also weirdly common to see cats on leads, who seem confused about the constraining ropes around their necks, and anxious to get out of them as quickly as possible.
The riverside path temporarily stops at the end of New Farm Park and Brunswick Street, forcing a little street walking. We pass a house that usually has two chocolate labradors resting against its gated entrance, and when we stop to say hello, they wiggle their butts and stick their pink noses through the bars. I’m disappointed if they’re not there.
We rejoin the riverside path at the edge of Merthyr Park, a belt of green edged by apartment blocks, and a quieter alternative for New Farmers to wile away the hours. At the eastern edge of the park stand six tall sentinels of dark timber, positioned a few metres away from each other, and containing little abstract paintings framed in silver. The path ends at a deserted ferry stop, requiring another few minutes of street walking before descending back to the riverside.
The Banana Bread Walk is as much about the delights of Brisbane as the delights of walking. The amount of physical and mental effort needed for walking is a perfect balance of focus and effort, raising our energy enough to release endorphins, and making us more alert, perceptive, agreeable, and open to the world. My inhibition tends to melt away, leaving a confidence to broach all manner of topics; to explore ideas that broaden our minds; to natter about anything and everything that fascinates us. We oscillate between being lost in our own little world and being enveloped by the sun-soaked sky. The doors of the world are thrown open, my anger at the current state of the world forgotten, the helplessness all but vanished; hypnotised by the never-ending delights of the city, and the company of my wonderful fiance, whose love seems more assured. My enslaving phone is forgotten during the Banana Bread Walk, no need to check messages, social media, the news, or weather radar. At that moment, the world is wider and more real and more fascinating than anything that could be offered by the measley LED display of my mobile. My partner and I are at our most open and accepting; loose-lipped and crinkle-eyed as the Banana Bread Walk leads us on yet another magnificent adventure.
The return to the river is the most spectacular part of the Banana Bread Walk. As we turn the corner of Merthyr Road and rejoin the path, where the river loops around to the city, the shimmering skyscrapers of the Brisbane CBD engulf the horizon, nestled behind the criss-cross steel of the Story Bridge. The entirety of the city is in full scope, to be appreciated all at once, set against the tree-lined bank of Kangaroo point, and the swirling brown of the Brisbane river. Being aware of the magnificence of this perspective, the city’s engineers created a floating boardwalk that hugged the western edge of New Farm (called New Farm Walkway), only to be swept away by the torrents of the 2011 flood, large chunks of which were rescued by tugboat captain Peter Denton, and repurposed as a pontoon outside of Brisbane². The boardwalk was replaced in 2014 by a solid, 840-metre structure of asphalt and steel, grounded in the bedrock of the river. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists and walkers, and dotted with shaded areas and drinking fountains, offering respite from the ferocious Queensland sun.
As we amble along the twisting walkway, on our right, the expensive riverside houses and apartment blocks gradually rise with the ascending New Farm cliffs, their ever-extending pontoons reaching out to connect with the boardwalk, until finally, the gradient of the weather-stained cliff defeats them. The Story Bridge—originally built in 1940 to reduce traffic congestion in the CBD, and the longest cantilever bridge in Australia—looms larger with every step, its two supporting structures rising into the sky, and dotted with tourists undertaking the “Story Bridge Climb.” 4 people died during the construction of the bridge, and many more have thrown themselves from its girders into the brown snake of Brisbane, resulting in the erection of curved fences along its perimeter, and telephones linked to suicide hotlines. At night, the Story Bridge is speckled with fluorescent colour which alternates to celebrate Australian events⁵, like maroon during State of Origin, pink during Brisbane Festival, and red and green during Christmas, which makes it look like a gigantic toppled Christmas tree. The Story Bridge marks the halfway mark of the Banana Bread Walk—roughly 6.5km.
As we align with the Story Bridge’s southern point, the boardwalk veers right and rejoins solid ground, an important area of land called Howard Smith Wharves that provided additional shipping resources for early 20th-century Brisbane, but fell into disuse a few decades later. The area underwent major redevelopment last year, and is now one of Brisbane’s most popular merrymaking spots, with a large brewery, a handful of bars and restaurants, a 5-star hotel, a selection of hireable venue halls for events such as weddings, and what seems like a million people eating, drinking, laughing and gesticulating their lives away in a frenzy of food and booze. Many of the buildings use timber from the original wharves, lending great character to the architecture. There’s stretches of immaculate grass, and a battered old trawler boat alongside Felons Brewing Co to commemorate the journey of the four felons—runaway prisoners who sailed from Sydney to discover the Brisbane River. Thousands of weekend beers are unknowingly tipped in their favour.
The Wharves are quieter in the morning, peppered with couples and families sipping lattes as they take in the views. As we pass under the gigantic cross-stitched underbelly of the Story Bridge, approaching the sprawling base of the first city skyscraper, we take a sharp left onto the City Reach boardwalk, which runs about a kilometre south along the eastern edge of the city, constructed of solid wood, polished chrome railings and torpedo-like concrete posts with little lights that illuminate the walkway at night. Across the river to the left is the lanky peninsula of Kangaroo Point and the Story Bridge, and to the right are the skyscrapers of the city, towering over waterfront bars, cafes, and restaurants. After five minutes we reach the majestic Customs House, a heritage-listed, classical style building with rows of Doric Greek columns set against a sprawling two-story colonnade, cream-coloured sandstone facade, and a lime-green umbrella dome that makes it one of Brisbane’s most handsome buildings, particularly at night when flood lamps repaint it an ivory gradient. The building opened in 1889, having originally been built for the collection of customs payments, and now a function venue and restaurant. When it was constructed, the building was an object of public pride³, becoming one of the city’s most loved landmarks. Even when overshadowed by skyscrapers seven times its size, Customs House wrenches your gaze and begs to be admired.
As we continue south along the boardwalk, the garbled murmur of tourists fills the air, as they recharge themselves in the slew of riverside restaurants and cafes. This is a popular area known as Eagle Street Pier, originally a gateway for visiting ships, now a gateway for visiting tourists. At night this area buzzes with locals who guzzle booze in its riverside bars and glance at the tumbled Christmas tree overhanging the river. The area is also home to the Kookaburra Queens II cruise boat—a 30-metre long, 3-story paddle wheeler, which would look more at home on the Mississippi than the Brisbane river. With its distinctive white beech posts and red cedar design, it looks like somebody has plonked a Queenslander house on the river and asked it to float. The vessel was named in honour of the bird that is “never seen to be drinking water,” in the hope that it’ll inherit the same future.
It becomes quieter again as we distance ourselves from Eagle Street Pier, save for the occasional thrashing of a cyclist, and the alarming rattle of wooden beams as they whoosh past in a flurry of colorful lycra. The boardwalk ends at the northeastern corner of the City Botanic Gardens, a voluminous 200,000m² of grassy splendour, filled with cycads, palms, figs, bamboo, mahogany, macadamias, jacarandas and dragon trees, with placards to identify and explain each, and sprawling frog-filled lagoons accosted by ducks, red-nosed Moorhen, lapwings with blades on their wings, cormorants, skittle-coloured lorikeet, damselflies, water dragons and beaky bin chickens taking a well deserved break from garbage rustling. The wonderful diversity of the gardens come from the actions of curator Walter Hill, whose experimental planting program in 1885 led to the creation of the botanical paradise that you see today. The site is considered so beautiful, and so culturally important, that the Queensland Heritage Register describes it as the “most significant non-Aborginal cultural landscape in Queensland.” It’s a cornucopia of flora and fauna—another priceless Brisbane gem that makes the Banana Break Walk such a joy.
As we enter the gardens from the northeast entrance, we join a shaded path that hugs the perimeter, just a little elevated from the river. In this corner of the park you can usually find an older Asian lady in an airy blouse of flowery chintz, wearing jet black sunglasses, taking slow and deliberate steps in what I assume to be some kind of meditative walk (possibly Tai Chi). Despite the flurries of people whirling past, jabbering, giggling, and Instagramming, the lady’s face is a picture of serenity. I like to think that any time we visit that northeastern corner of the park, she’ll be there—the Oriental spirit of the Botanic Gardens, demonstrating our beautiful capacity for peace. In sharp contrast on our left is a Scottish cannon sitting on the crest of the bank, shipped to Brisbane in the 17th century to defend the new colony of Queensland⁴, and somehow making the meditating lady seem even more honourable.
We continue on the path, the occasional beam breaking through the whispering canopy, creating dances of light on the criss-crossed pavement. Across the river on our left, the golden cliffs of Kangaroo Point rise up like a formidable defense, its volcanic rock dotted with fluorescent early morning climbers determined to overcome its craggy face, barely perceptible through the haze of the morning sun. We loop right with the formation of the river, skirting the southern end of the peninsula, until a lofty brick stage appears—Riverstage, a 9500-capacity venue that opened in 1989, and plays host to some of the world’s best musical talent. Riverstage’s sloped, amphitheatre-style layout allows even the shortest of hobbits to get a decent view—a symphonic feast for Tooks, Brandybucks, and Bagginses alike—with the crest of its hill only 50 metres from the stage. It somehow achieves the task of feeling intimate while also holding ten thousand people. We’ve enjoyed some serious musical debauchery at this venue, and will continue to do so until our backs and knees can no longer support us.
With Riverstage behind us, we exit the gardens under the sprawling branches of a Banyan Fig Tree, which in its thirst for ever-more water, grows mutant-like vertical roots from the upper-ends of its branches that stretch down to the ground, and to continue with the Tolkien metaphors, looks like an Ent from outer space. When my folks were visiting from the UK a couple of years back, my mum was amazed by the weirdness of its vertical roots (branches in England usually grow upwards).
The path splits into a few directions at this point—right and up towards the Queensland University of Technology, its glass and silver campus shimmering in the morning sun; straight ahead towards the western flank of the city, or left over the Goodwill Bridge, which is where we head. A green canopy of branches stretches over the start of this footbridge, which at night, twinkles with fairy lights, delighting party goers as they leave Riverstage. I was once scolded by a policeman on this bridge for not wearing a bicycle helmet, and forced to walk the bike home because he said I “couldn’t risk it,” as if I were riding a Vincent Black Shadow. This is one of Australia’s many nanny state laws—infringements on personal freedom, based on the assumption that the average person is an idiot who must be protected from himself. The list of bicycle-related fines in Queensland reveals the absurdity of it all. Some of my favourites include:
Riding a bicycle while not astride the rider’s seat facing forwards ($133)
Leading an animal while riding a bicycle ($133)
Riding a bicycle within 2m of the rear of a moving motor vehicle for more than 200m ($133)
You can even be breathalysed on a bicycle, and get penalty points on your driving license. This wonderful convict-descended nation seems determined to expel the once-cherished larrikin, to become a nation of—what? Docile law-abiding subservients, who’d sooner thrash their own mothers than slam their foot on the accelerator? Spineless toadies whose lungs would never feel the pungence of a mammoth choof hit? Thankfully, there’s still plenty of people in Australia who realise that nanny state laws are to be broken, and fuck the fines.
As we descend towards South Bank the Queensland Maritime Museum appears, which my dad insists we visit whenever he’s over, spending hours wandering around the decommissioned frigate that sits in the dry dock, and chatting to the rickety sailor who once served on it. Our path loops back towards the river, emerging onto the southern tip of the South Bank Parklands, where more tourists are satiating themselves with breakfast and magnificent views of the city. To our right is the River Quay Green—a semi-circle patch of grass on the riverbank that hosts free live music on Sundays, where you can sip booze and listen to the trilling of a twenty-something singer.
We continue through the shaded parklands, passing a little man-made stream lined with stones, leading to a shallow and colourful pool area where toddlers dart and delight in the jets of water shooting from the ground. Soon enough we reach the main lagoon of the parklands—a 100-metre stretch of water elevated from the riverside promenade, making it feel like an infinity pool, and skirted by a small man-made beach. 11 million people visit this area every year—they say you should keep your mouth closed if going for a swim.
Our twisting bougainvillea-clad path takes us past the South Bank Piazza—a 2000-seat amphitheatre that never seems to host any events. In the seven years I’ve been in Brisbane, I haven’t seen a single person in there, or anything being advertised, which is odd considering its prime location. You could put a wind-up monkey on its stage and people would probably sit there and watch it.
We exit the park into Brisbane’s cultural precinct, which includes the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC), the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, and the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA)—something for everyone when a summer storm comes rumbling. We once saw Italian pianist Ludovico Einaudi at QPAC, whose achingly beautiful performance sent scores of people to sleep, jolting awake to realise they’d spent $100 for an uncomfortable nap.
We cut left through the middle of the cultural precinct onto Melbourne St, finally turning away from the river, and after thirty or so minutes of streetwalking, with legs and minds aching from the effort, we arrive back at our apartment on Montague Road, gratified and charmed with all that the wonderful Banana Bread Walk has given us, and feeling lucky to call Brisbane home.
Is it just me, or are the managers of the world getting smarter? I’m constantly dazzled by a glut of long and complicated sentences, often needing careful analysis. Intelligence seems to be the most important currency in the modern workplace, and our bosses want to give as much of it away as possible.
This trend towards higher intelligence has been happening for years. I once worked with a shy blonde lad called Tim, who had narrow shoulders and was unable to hold a gaze. He sidled into the office each morning, worked for eight hours, and then left. He was obviously stupid because unlike our managers, he didn’t give away his intelligence. When forced to speak, he used words like “use” instead of “leverage,” “range” instead of “bandwidth,” and “complete” instead of “holistic.” We wondered how anyone so simple-minded got the job in the first place. His one saving grace was that he was easy to understand, but we scoffed at this too, because we didn’t want to side with someone with his affliction. Big words meant big brains.
Our direct boss Jakob, on the other hand, was clearly a genius. He wore expensive silk shirts and impossibly shiny shoes, and drove a new Mercedes. He would ask questions such as “how are we leveraging our existing pipeline?” and “what’s the projected ballpark figure for our 2nd-quarter strategy?” He was a real big thinker—a man rubbing shoulders with the Gods. He was success personified. We aspired to dress like him, to talk like him, to act like him; to live in a home like his, to play with a dog like his, to sleep with a wife like his. When Jakob went to the pub on a Friday evening, we followed him like rats to a piper, even though we were committing to hours of confusion as he went into great detail about how he was going to drastically curtail the company’s long-term pain points, by proposing a unique paradigm shift to the CEO.
After a few months of working for the company, the pedestal on which we’ve placed Jakob began to crack. The first time we noticed it was when he brazenly declared that our market scope for the last 12 months had been unequivocally myopic, and that going forward, we were going to penetrate not one, but two major markets. Double penetration. Who did this guy think he was? Elon Musk? But he spoke with such confidence, and such an impressive vocabulary, that we continued to trust him. If he thought it possible to penetrate two countries at the same time, we’d be right beside him, tools in hand.
Inserting ourselves ruthlessly into a second market proved to be a lot harder than Jakob made out. The first phase of his master plan was aggressive circulation and assimilation in the market’s most efficacious associations. I thought this meant that we were going to bribe our way in, but Tim explained that we were just going to get chummy with industry experts. Despite being so stupid that he only used one and two syllable words, Tim had a knack for interpreting Jakob.
Once we’d aggressively assimilated, the second phase of the plan was disruptive innovation. I was certain that this meant we were going to come up with new ideas somewhere that would put people out, like the middle of the kitchen area, but Tim quietly explained that the disrupting part just meant that we were going to do things better than our competitors.
The third phase was pure brilliance. Once we’d aggressively assimilated ourselves in the market’s most vigorous social groups, then disrupted the industry with inconceivable innovation, we were going to achieve full penetration by synergising our departments to establish a single unitary contingent. As Jakob guided us through this part of his presentation, we all looked at each other in awe. Apart from Tim, who was quietly shaking his head. He asked what phase three meant. We sniggered at his idiocy, but listened intently. Jakob explained that it meant we were going to merge all departments into one—a solitary assemblage of collaborators—which would minimise the prevailing friction that had incapacitated the company until this immediate juncture in time.
Jakob was fired a couple of weeks after that meeting, so never achieved his master plan. He had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from a “severe and incurable habit of verbal diarrhoea,” which Tim explained as “he couldn’t stop talking shit.” Despite Tim’s obvious stupidity, he somehow ended up taking his place as boss, and his ability to hold a gaze improved dramatically.
Though nobody admitted it, we were all much happier working for Tim.
In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.
He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.
A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.
“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”
I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.
In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.
Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.
The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.
Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.
The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.
Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
Out in the barren desert exists a swollen spread of light and colour, as though mustered and plonked by some alien species—a kind of base experiment, to be observed with scientific, oversized eyes. It glows like a party of a million writhing fireflies, criss-crossing their way across sandy dancefloors, and buzz buzz buzzing through the all-too-quick night, spindly legs shaking in protest at the emerging glares of the unsought sun as it peeks over the horizon. No matter, another night awaits, and another, and another, until bellies, livers and minds become bloated to excess, desperate to burst with raging torrents of sickly vomit.
Spic and span is the money-making plan—every surface must be gleaming, carved from imitation marble, threaded with lavish bands of silver and platinum. How better to gain riches, than to present richness? How better to stoke vanity than with the illusion of splendour, nourishing the confidence of its imprudent admirers? Here’s a gleaming pyramid, surface spotted with warm, yellow luminance; here’s a soaring water feature, radiating with the sheen of a thousand beams of light, undeniably beautiful, but designed to hypnotise nevertheless. A city filled with gratified cooing, senses endlessly feasted, treated like the kings of old, perched atop their garish thrones peppered with gold and jewels, celebrating their awesome stature with the enthusiasm of a thousand unhinged men. Every seat suitably padded, every bed perfectly soft, every whim wholly satisfied—grunting, belching, slapping and snorting our way to hedonistic ecstasy, ingesting Mitsubishi-stamped pills and mounds of white powder with the stench of chemicals, blood trail leading back to the slums of South America, too dark and distant to be perceived.
Luckless ladies weave throughout the grid, targeting men of every kind, their ill repute disguised beneath a glossy-lipped smile of feigned interest. Wife waiting back at the hotel? No problem—we’re here to please, not to judge— take my hand and let me lead you to the softest of places, that may or may not be smeared with hair-clinging crustaceans, waiting for the opportunity to clamp their yellowy claws onto a victim new. We even take chips as payment. Swappin’ plastic for fellatio, just don’t ask us to swallow—a hangover remains. Not interested? Then fuck you. Flee to the pole-clinging strippers, stuff their lace with paper, and forego the satisfaction of a real happy ending. Try to ignore the empty look in their eyes as they thrash about like reluctant puppets, wondering how it all went so tragically wrong—but wait, I love this song!
Rooms packed with sweat-glistened bodies, jostling and grinding to the sunken soundwaves of the latest musical fad, sipping extravagant, overpriced vodka—same stuff, different label—obvious, pitiful peacocks, drowning in feathers and arse, deficient in novelty. Swanky swimming pools peppered with brown bodies, arms flailed in the direction of a sunglass-wearing douchelord—a commander of the most basic of sheep. Respite is taken in the squishy comfort of a private poolside cabana, waited on by a bony young waitress wearing a plastered smile, serving spirit from a $750 bottle—every penny soothing our insecurity through the illusion of status. In the Nevada desert, eminence is expensive, and oh-so-fleeting.
Just a couple of colours to determine your destiny, with another thrown in, sometimes twice, to cheat you out of it. A table surrounded by expectant faces, one moment joyful, the next despairing, as the chips inevitably make their way back into the owner’s overstuffed pockets, ready to be reinvested into some shiny new thing—a glistening fountain; a glossy chrome staircase, or a younger, red-lipped waitress—whatever it takes to bring in the hapless punters. At table forty-two is a man with his head in his hands, who sold his home to make it big—a hundred thousand chips shrunk down to one, with remorseless masters grinning in the shadows, and beaming as a fresh-faced mug nestles into the seat next to him.
It isn’t really the money we’re after, but dopamine, to be got at all costs, with peril ignored—a teeny brain squirt after every little success, scantly experienced, yet catching us hook, line, and sinker, over and over again, until our mouths are dry, and pockets desolate—an empty space where even the most dishonourable moth wouldn’t be caught dead. Success at the table is not the same as success at life. Moments of jubilant triumph, laden with chips of the richest colour, are equalised by periods of exhausted devastation, when you’d better hope that there’s someone who loves you enough to comfort you. On its most lucrative days, the city carves out our insides until all is hollow—nothing left but an empty shell whose hopes and dreams have been efficiently collected and deposited.
But don’t worry, you can win it all back next time.
The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.
Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?
Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.
The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.
At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion.
The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.
Entertainment has played a significant role in the history of our species. During our primitive Stone Age, it came in the form of campfire storytelling—an edge-of-your-rock thriller, recounting a face-to-face meeting with the infamous, deathly-black Jaguar, and his phantom-like ways. Then arrived theatre, with its fancily-clad actors, weaving Machiavellian tales of rebellious, snakelike deceit, building towards a heart-wrenching tragedy. Today, we’re inundated with entertainment—TV shows that portray the lives of portly Italian gangsters, feature-length movies that depict the difficult lives of young black men living in Los Angeles, and music, games, books, magazines, sports—an astounding variety of endless amusement, offering us a temporary distraction from our responsibilities, until reality returns to reclaim us. Our sanity requires entertainment as nourishment, lest we become gaunt overachievers, unable to accommodate anything but our potent ambition while creeping ever closer to the white-washed walls of the nuthouse. Entertainment takes us away from ourselves, offering a temporary form of relief—a lightening of the gravity of existence, during which our soul can rejuvenate.
Not all entertainment is equal, however. The internet has given rise to an entirely new type of entertainment—hastily produced, easily distributed, and effortlessly consumable. These are the memes, short videos, gifs, and any other form of “quick-consumption” amusement that can be found plastered across social media. Their primary purpose is to tickle us in a way that requires zero brainpower, as quickly as possible, until we can move onto something equally as shallow and thoughtless. Though mindless entertainment does have a small degree of value (a hearty chuckle when our brains are fatigued), its proliferation in our lives has a number of negative consequences.
First, there’s our attention span. As we become more accustomed to spending our free time consuming meme after meme, video after video, and tweet after tweet of mindless amusement, when we’re faced with something valuable that requires concerted effort—a Tolstoy novel, with its 1,225 pages of sophisticated plot and bamboozling array of Russian characters—we may as well be faced with Mount Everest. We’ve become so adapted to mindless entertainment, so used to being gratified quickly and efficiently, that the motivation required to read a difficult book, get through a slow-burning TV drama, or just sit and listen to a 10-minute Beethoven masterpiece, is non-existent³; our willingness to put effort into challenging forms of entertainment all but vanished. When we do muster the courage to attempt a demanding form of entertainment, the experience is tainted with an oppressive desire for our phones, skin positively crawling with a craving for something easier, as our brains become flooded with the dopamine and serotonin associated with mindless entertainment. Many of us cave at this point, and the Tolstoy novel—that masterpiece of moral teaching that can teach you how to be a better person—is slotted back into its dusty position on the shelf, perhaps forever.
Our capacity for sustained concentration is fundamental to our success, whether at work, or play, and the teeming plethora of mindless entertainment that pervades our modern lives is damaging it. With adorable puppy videos just a few clicks away, procrastination can become impossible to resist, particularly if you’ve built a habit of gawping at them in your spare time. As we fill our lives with the quick and easy, we impair our ability for the difficult, tough, and often worthy. There’s no doubt that watching an episode of The Wire, with its incredible storytelling, and beautiful, often subtle social commentary, has greater value that spending an hour watching corgi videos. Exceptional drama can teach us about the world that we live in, even improving our emotional intelligence in the process¹. But as with anything subtle and complex, in order for us to recognise and fully appreciate its value, our sustained concentration is required — an act that is becoming increasingly difficult for the modern internet user², more accustomed to the two-second thrill of a meme than a gradually developing six-season drama.
The more time we spend scrolling through mindless entertainment, the harder it is for us to become immersed in worthy entertainment. In our age of distraction, choosing to play a game of chess, with its requirement for gradual, thoughtful strategy, isn’t much of a choice at all, and so we’re impoverished — destined to become the consumers of imbecilic nonsense, created purely for our attention, rather than for its value. It’s as though we have an addiction to easy entertainment, and when faced with something a little more challenging, can only resist our dopamine for so long before inevitably relenting, like puppets without will.
Our intelligence is another consideration. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional hour spent amusing yourself with Game of Thrones memes, or video clips of hilarious tomfooleries, too much of this kind of entertainment will turn you into a braindead bore. Good entertainment, on the other hand, is often brimming with valuable, educational gems—a captivating Shakespeare tragedy; a ten-part series on the Vietnam War; the closing scenes of gaming masterpiece The Last of Us—these experiences bestow us with wonderfully fresh perspectives, having kicked off the shoes of a brand-new character, recently pitted in a battle against unfamiliar circumstances, we emerge with greater tolerance and empathy. These kinds of rewards can’t usually be found amongst the insipid content of Instagram or Faecesbook, and every hour spent within their grasp is an hour in which we could be learning more about the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that every spare minute should be spent on laborious, hard-hitting drama—sometimes we’re so exhausted that puppy videos are all our brains can handle. But most of the time, we should feel energised enough to opt for more valuable forms of entertainment, to avoid the descent into asinine mediocrity—a place filled with the banal frivolities of social media memes, and the vapid “hey guys” videos of Instagram influencers. The fact that an Instagram influencer even exists is evidence of our adoration of bland, mindless entertainment, at the expense of our intelligence. Immerse yourself in this kind of amusement, and it may become your whole world.
Finally, we have our mental health to consider. Social media, with its memes, videos, and fake news, has shown to increase the risk of serious conditions such as depression and anxiety. As these platforms reel us in with their interminable, flavourless content, and we remain transfixed for hours on end, we’re trading short-term entertainment for long-term happiness. The gross thrills that we’re conditioned to consume end up consuming us instead, until we come to the realisation that we’re wasting our lives on complete and utter garbage, at the expense of some truly magnificent forms of treasured entertainment, with the power to nudge us towards confidence-boosting knowledge, and greater degrees of emotional intelligence.
There’s nothing wrong with the odd cheap thrill. We can’t be forever taut, poised to conquer this and that in an endless attempt at self improvement. Relaxation is just as important as work. But in our modern world of uncountable memes, video clips, and short-form articles, the waywe relax has changed for many of us, with dire consequences. After years of immersing ourselves in mindless entertainment, even instant gratification can seem sluggish. Our once stellar attention becomes broken and fragmented, our intelligence stunted, and our mental health contaminated—until the day we decide that enough is enough.
For a poodle-haired French philosopher born in the elegance of a post-Renaissance Paris, a social network would describe the group of friends that he spends his time with, sipping tea in a lavish French salon while discussing the deepest topics of life. Francois de La Rochefoucauld is a philosopher famed for penning a short book of stinging, pithy maxims, aimed at eliminating the illusions that we have related to our own behaviours, with particular emphasis on our desperate need to impress other people.
The gargantuan, overgrown beasts that we call social networks today might be unthinkable for someone from La Rochefoucauld’s time, but despite being beyond that generation’s reach, the man himself would probably have had a lot to say about them. One his greatest skills was his ability to perceive the underlying motives behind people’s behaviour, much of which is focused on our longing for social approval—a desire that forms the foundation of modern social networks. Without the “like” button, there probably wouldn’t be a Facebook, an Instagram, or a Twitter. There may not even be a Medium. La Rochefoucauld was able to fully appreciate the power of social approval, and the extent to which it drives our behaviour.
The lives that we portray on social media can be vastly different to reality, with only the so-called positive aspects of our experiences shared, in an unconscious attempt to disguise the often banal truth of our day-to-day existences. Like actors on a stage, we slip on a more attractive mask, position ourselves in appealing situations, and carry out impressive performances to trick our audience into believing that our lives are something to be envied. We want to be adored, after all. The problem with such bombastic fakery is that the mask can become to the reality, and who we really are slips from our memory, to be replaced with society’s notion of prestige and success—the existence of an subservient toady.
“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
“In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
A disguise is never suitable for long—eventually we’ll yearn for our heart’s true desire. We must go our own way, lest we live the life of someone else. Social networks are poison to individualism, with each member striving to impress their hundreds of friends, and selling a little bit of their soul in the process. Flattery—and the vanity that seeks it—insidiously cuts away at our uniqueness, until there’s nothing left but a shell, with social media “friends” permitted to fill it up with whatever they want.
“If we did not flatter ourselves, the flattery of others could never harm us.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
“Flattery is a kind of bad money, to which our vanity gives us currency”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Much of our social posting—our political rants, jokes, daily gripes, TV recommendations, social commentary, or anything else that we deem to share with the world—can be traced back to our desire for social approval, eyes darting to the alluring notification icon whenever it appears, yearning for people to like what we have to say. The scope can even be widened to any interaction that we have with people. As highly social animals, a great deal of our mutterings are made with the intention to impress. How often would you make a comment that you know would agitate your audience, darkening your reputation in the process?
“We speak little if not egged on by vanity”
La Rochefoucauld believed that without our own rapacious sense of vanity to spur us on, and our yearning desire for social approval, we’d be a hell of a lot quieter. But as long as there’s admiration to be had, we’ll capture it in whatever way that we can (provided it doesn’t offend anyone important).
These assertions about our good natures may arrive with a painful sting, perhaps a righteous, offended position of denial. Other people may be so insecure as to behave in such sycophantic ways, but me? Pfft. Observe your behaviour more closely, and you may discover that the French philosopher is much more accurate than you’d like to believe.
An overly-contrived person—who we might call a “suck-up” or a “try-hard”—is just someone who fails to impress surreptitiously, like the rest of us. There’s a tendency to dislike these kinds of people, because their pronounced ulterior motive shines a glaring, unflattering light on our own. The traits that we dislike about others are often the traits that we dislike (or flat-out deny) about ourselves. The unfriend button never looked so appealing.
“We have no patience with other people’s vanity because it is offensive to our own”
Even the deeds that we deem the most wholesome may crumble under meticulous scrutiny. Why do you really give to charity? To help the unfortunate, or to experience the glowing sense of goodness that accompanies it, and the properly-deserved swathes of likes that attach themselves to the social share? How much of your behaviour is ultimately selfish? This isn’t an advocation to stop giving to charity—the motives behind such acts are inconsequential, because a good deed is being done regardless—but an invitation to be inquisitive about your behaviour.
“We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if people saw all of the motives that produced them.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Overcoming fakery in order to live a more genuine life seemed of paramount importance to La Rochefoucauld. A world in which the judgmental eyes of your fellow Facebook friends are banished beyond redemption is a world in which virtue could thrive for its own sake, without thought of reward—a desire to be good for no other reason than goodness itself. What could be more beautiful than that?
“Virtue would go far if vanity did not keep it company.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
“Perfect valour consists in doing without witnesses that which we would be capable of doing before everyone.”
Francois de La Rochefoucauld
Social networks are an inexhaustible source of fuel for our vanity—a platform that allows us to focus our efforts on getting as much kudos as possible, regardless of its obvious mediocrity, and lack of durability. It doesn’t take much to share a meme on Instagram, but damn, how good do those likes feel? Social networks are an addictive distraction from worthier endeavours—meaningful activities that actually contain the potential to improve our lives, as opposed to having our precious egos soothed with worthless social approval.
“Care about people’s approval, and you will always be their prisoner.”
Sadly, life is a little more complicated than just doing whatever the hell we want, without consideration of social consequences. Though we may be aching to post a caustic response to our cousin’s imbecilic right-wing social post, self-preservation stays our hand. There’s good logical sense behind our desire to impress—we need other people to survive. Sociality is a delicate balancing act, with soulless flattery on the one side, and courageous individualism on the other. Though it’s possible and infinitely more valuable to sway towards individualism, and live in accordance with our own meaningful values, survival requires us to appear favourably in the eyes of others, or risk wasting away in isolation. The social nature of our species is the reason for our innate vanity, and it isn’t going away anytime soon. Though the razor-sharp vision of La Rochefoucauld may cut through the illusion of our selfish behaviours, it doesn’t deter from that the fact that we need other people to survive, at least in some small degree. These people can be found in the world around us, not just as faces on computer screens, characterised by counterfeit tales of perfectly edited lives.
Social networks are vanity on crack, and the acerbic mind of La Rochefoucauld would probably have condemned them to the dust heap of history, where they undoubtedly belong.