Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Whole World Is Watching

Today’s culture wars did not begin in the 60s. They date back centuries.

In the 19th and 20th centuries culture wars (and some real wars) broke out between Continental Europeans and the inhabitants of the Anglosphere.

It is not an accident that Freud and many other of the first psychoanalysts had a visceral dislike of England and an outright hatred of America.

Nor is it an accident that these great minds made Victorian culture, and its Puritan predecessor, symbolize everything that was wrong in the West.

As it happened, mental health was often defined in terms that were congenial to Continental European cultures. The values associated with England and America were determined, with grand pseudo-scientific flourishes, to be pathological.

Where the French and Germans and even the Austrians prided themselves on being in close touch with their vital human impulses, their intrinsic soulfulness, their appetite for decadent pleasures, and their aesthetic superiority, the British, in particular, were being mercilessly mocked for their obsession with appearances.

Keeping up appearances became a joke, even in England itself. How could anyone be so superficial, so caught up in images? Serious critics denounced decorum and propriety as soul-deadening enterprises.

Caring about how you looked to others was seen as a rank denial of your inner truth, the real you. Only if you could plumb the depths of your soul would you discover the wellsprings of your true Self, and you could then express the real you to the world.

On the surface, this sounds very good, even plausible. Unless, of course, you do what the great philosopher David Hume, and you go looking through your mind for your true Self. Even before the culture wars broke out in earnest, Hume set the philosophical foundations for British empiricism when he declared that there was no such thing as this true Self.

Hume notwithstanding, these ideas were sufficiently plausible to have found a fertile breeding ground in America. They were propagated by artists and intellectuals, but they were made into a way of life through the agency of psychotherapy. Miraculously, Britain remained largely immune to this siren song.

Psychotherapy took this set of moral values and convinced an unsuspecting populace that they were scientific fact and even medically approved treatment. Therapy and its culture made a set of cultural values into a form of mental hygiene.

Who could dispute the authority of science and medicine? Very few people could or did.

Schools and the media communicated the ideas to the vulnerable among us, to adolescents. They told young people to be themselves, to be strong and independent enough to ignore what other people thought of them.

The told these susceptible young people to do their own thing, to express their creativity, and not to care how others saw them.

From these precepts it was not very difficult to produce a culture that valued overindulging alcohol and drugs, and that encouraged hookups.

Fewer and fewer people cared about what they looked like when they were drunk or stoned, or even when they were marching on the now-proverbial walk of shame.

Losing control became a point of pride, a sign that you were so vital and so soulful, your instincts and impulses so powerful, that you could not control them.

If you are not supposed to repress your appetites for sex and Doritos, why should you repress your appetite for controlled substances.

They made you feel good, and, after all, wasn’t it all about how you felt, not how you looked to other people.

Therapy has taught Americans that it is downright unhealthy to care what other people think, to worry about how other people see us. We need to get in touch with our inner truth, who we really are. Only then can we rise above social convention, repressive customs, and flower into vital human beings. Or better, into living breathing works of art.

Of course, the importance of reputation does not recede into the woodwork because you have chosen not to believe in it. When you ignore reputation, you will simply find yourself dazed and confused when you have done something to compromise yours or when it comes under attack.

Short term pleasures; long term pain.

Cultural revolutionaries insist that the fault lies with a retrograde culture that fails to appreciate your truth. They believe that people should sacrifice reputation and good name to be martyrs to a higher truth.

If you want to be a functioning member of society, if you want to maintain some measure of control over your behavior, if you want to have good and fruitful relationships with other people, these nice-sounding precepts are poison.

As always, theory is nice, but it’s the practice that counts.

Put aside, even if only for an instant, all the talk about vital energies and creative impulses. Let’s talk about appetite. Not the sexual variety, but the alimentary version.

How powerful is your appetite? Should you free it from the repression that it labors under? Isn’t indulging your appetite a sign that you have overcome unjust societal restrictions on your capacity to experience pleasure?

Given the values that the therapy culture has been promulgating should we be surprised that more than a few Americans are involved in constant conflict with their appetites, and that far too many have been on the losing side of this conflict.

We Americans are the most obese people on the fact of the earth. If you think that this is a good thing, thank the therapy culture.

Those Americans who are not obese seem to be obsessed with dieting, thus with appetite control and appetite suppression. A culture that abhors repression has somehow left people without the means to control their appetites. Thus, the recourse to appetite suppressants.

The therapy culture sees life as a struggle between you and your appetites. But, is it right? When you feel tempted to down yet another bag of chips, is it really just about you and your appetite?

I think not. It is more about eating with your fingers, on the couch, in circumstances that allow you to surmount the restrictions imposed by table manners. In the Anglosphere, food consumption is not a matter of calorie counts or specialized diets. It‘s about table manners.

In other words, it’s not about food and it's not about the mind; it’s about the ritual. It’s about an appetite that has been domesticated and socialized. In much the same way that a relationship domesticates and socializes sexual appetite.

If food consumption is a social ritual, it ought to be performed in company, with others present, as a bonding experience.

When you are being watched by others, when you must interact with others, you are likely to behave better and to engage in more healthy eating habits. You are not likely to pig out at the family dinner. And, by the way, the presence of other people will temper your appetite.

Instead of indulging your appetite or struggling to suppress its imperious demands, you will actually be enjoying your meal.

It’s as simple and easy as that.

But what about those who have gotten themselves involved in a losing struggle with their appetite? How can they regain control over their appetite without going into therapy and discovering the hidden truth about their mother’s breasts?

The better approach is to imagine how you look while you are scarfing down all of those Twinkies. Take a picture of yourself stuffing your mouth with junk food. Under normal circumstances you will feel so ashamed of yourself that you will lose the better part of your lust for Twinkies.

The same applies to those who indulge their appetite for junk and who then, in retrospect, feel so guilty that they feel that they must do penance by making themselves regurgitate it all into the nearest facility.

Do you want to gain control over that habit? Try picturing yourself on our knees in front of the facility voiding the contents of your distended stomach.

As with much bad behavior, you can gain control over it and set yourself on the right track by picturing how you would appear to other people.

The therapy culture might denounce this approach as a fascination with the superficial. Nevertheless, it is far more effective than the alternative.

You might think that ignoring the way you look to others will make you more vital and more creative. In truth, it will make you a slave to your appetites.

Recent research from Newcastle, as reported in Scientific American, has offered another version of this approach. The research also gives us a way to measure the benefits of feeling like you are being watched. It offers another way to gain the advantage that accrues to you when you think that other people are watching, even when no one is there. Link here.

The studies suggest that you can gain the same benefit by putting up pictures of faces with eyes looking at you. It’s a strange thought-- but what are blogs for if not strange thoughts-- that we might cover our walls with portraits of our ancestors because when we feel that they are looking at us it motivates us to behave better. And we might replace those portraits with expressionist abstractions, because then we need not feel that we are being watched, and thus, we will feel freer to indulge.

This sidelight tells us that it is not necessary to think that the whole world is watching. It suffices to imagine that people who matter are watching. If you can imagine what they would think of you if  they could see what you are doing, you will made a giant leap toward better character.

The human mind, in its genius, adjusts its behavior for the better whenever it feels that it is being watched. Even when the eyes in question exist only in a picture, their imaginary gaze is sufficient to provoke a mental mechanism that instills good behavior and puts the brakes on bad impulses.

By good behavior we mean behavior that is more sociable, more redolent of good character.

Feeling that you are being watched allows you to control impulses, because it tempers and socializes impulses and instincts

Imagining that they exist independently outside of socialization is one of the great cultural illusions of the past few centuries.


David Foster said...

"we might cover our walls with portraits of our ancestors because when we feel that they are looking at us it motivates us to behave better"

...reminds me of a song by The Judds

Stuart Schneiderman said...

That's a great song. I hadn't heard it before. Thanks for linking it.

JP said...

Character is what you are in the dark?

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Absolutely... there's an old Chinese proverb, to the effect that a sincere man does not take advantage of a darkened room. Others have suggested that character is what you do when no one is watching. It makes sense to me to say that someone who wants to practice good manners does well to practice them when no one is watching... because then the behavior will be consistent regardless.