In an era of rapid, global change, we all need guideposts—timeless principles and clear-eyed thinking—to help us navigate challenges like migration, terrorism, artifical intelligence, nationalism, and disinformation. That’s where a big thinker like Yuval Noah Harari comes in. Yuval teaches history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and is the bestselling author of the Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. His books have been translated into 65 languages, and have been praised by movers and shakers like Bill Gates, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, and Barack Obama.
In our series of “Book Bite Classics,” we share five key insights from groundbreaking, beloved books that everyone should read. Below you’ll find one big idea from 21 Lessons for the 21st Century—to read or listen to the remaining four, download the Next Big Idea App today.
Big Idea: Humans have always had a troubled relationship with truth.
A characteristic Yuval Harari quote is this: “When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion.” According to Harari, from the time of the Stone Age, humans have constructed elaborate stories and convinced as many other people as possible to believe in them. Yet this is actually a good thing, he says, because fables, myths, sagas, and religions bring people together. They can inspire uplifting feelings, provide a framework for beautiful works of art, and enable people to cooperate on a large scale. Of course, society’s stories can also spread intolerance, persecution, and genocide.
Harari juxtaposes Stalinist propaganda with contemporary branding, where emotionally loaded images are repeated so often that they pass for reality. Coca-Cola, for instance, spends millions of dollars a year linking its sugary drink with happy and healthy young people frolicking in a park. It doesn’t regale you with pictures of overweight diabetes patients in the hospital on an IV drip. Even something as commonplace as the American dollar depends on shared belief. A certain piece of green and white paper has no value in and of itself; it only has value because other people agree that it does. Furthermore, it’s functional for us to forget that such fictions are human concoctions. We enjoy reading novels most when we get totally absorbed in the author’s made-up world and feel its reality. Likewise, we enjoy watching soccer most when we forget that someone once made up its arbitrary rules, and just let ourselves get caught up in the drama.
Harari argues that if you simply tell the unvarnished truth, no one will pay attention. Consequently, you would have no power, as power comes from the stories you convince other people to believe. There will never be a society that values truth over power. Nevertheless, he insists that facts do exist, separate from myths and propaganda. Scientists and journalists need to do their best to spin stories around facts rather than derive “facts” from stories. And as consumers of news, he advises us to pay for high-quality information rather than consume what comes free. That’s because what’s free too often gets warped by the need to win the public’s attention.
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