When people suffer damage to the right hemisphere of the brain, says Matthew Syed in The Sunday Times, it can leave them unable to understand context or metaphor. So if you say, “I have a heavy heart”, they think you’re talking about an “enlarged ticker” rather than sadness. With that in mind, I’m beginning to think Western civilisation has “right-hemisphere damage”. Cancel culture, the assault on history, political polarisation, the absence of irony and nuance – these are all examples of a “context-blind, literalist age”. Consider the recent Oxfam guide that tells staff not to say they “stand with” people they support, because it “potentially alienates people unable to stand”. Likewise, when I asked a senior media figure why the “Don’t mention the war!” episode of Fawlty Towers had been removed, he told me, po-faced: “Because it’s insulting to Germans.” I tried to tell him it was actually a satire on the English. Waste of time.
Literal-mindedness has always existed to some degree, of course. The Marxists of the 1950s, the neoclassical economists of the 1980s, the new atheists of the 2000s – all had difficulty in “accommodating ideas that transcend rigid templates”. But “literalistic thinking” has grown in recent decades, “like a lesion rippling out across the cortex of our culture”. The root of the problem is communication. Over human history we have moved from “grunts and gestures” to symbolic art, language, Shakespeare, and so on – all of which have “broadened the scope of metaphorical thinking, building empathy and contextual understanding”. But today, our “collective gaze” is directed not upwards but down at our smartphones, at social media platforms “commercially designed to strangle empathy, nuance, metaphor, allegory and complex thought”. No wonder we’re losing our sense of what to take literally.