Wednesday Miscellany (On Self-Control)
A quick consultation of my recent posting history has yielded the discovery that it’s been half a year since my last “Miscellany” post. Because I know that there are few things better on a mid-week morning than reading a bunch of rambling, loosely-connected thoughts from yours truly, I decided to rectify this situation today.
A quote from Richard Beck’s recent short post on self-control set me off on a bit of a tangent:
One of the reasons we have trouble connecting love to holiness is that we associate holiness with self-discipline, self-mastery, self-denial, self-control, and even self-mortification.
Love, by contrast, tends to be other-focused and affectional in nature, a matter of the heart.
And by and large, we’re more attracted to being kind and affectionate people than we are interested in the rigors of self-denial and self-discipline. The grim asceticism we associate with holiness seems far removed from the joy and spontaneity of love.
And yet, can we really love others without a foundation of self-control and self-denial?
If you can’t say no to yourself, how are you ever going to say yes to others?
A good question, that last one…
And I wonder: Have we ever been less interested in or able to control ourselves? Particularly in the digital age? A few recent articles have me shuddering in fear and revulsion at just how remote this ideal seems in our day and age.
Margaret Wente’s “The XXX generation: How porn is hurting our kids” is alarming reading (to put it mildly), particularly for parents of teenagers. Which I happen to be. It’s hard to read something like this as the father of a daughter growing up in a porn-ified world. It’s hard to read it as the father of a son growing up with this kind of misogynistic, degrading stuff a click away. It grieves me to think that young women and men are growing up thinking that the world depicted by porn is normal, that sex is nothing more than animalistic desire, that pleasure and (sometimes) consent are pretty much the only operative categories when it comes to sex and what it is for.
Yes, it’s up to parents and churches to teach healthier views about sex. But how does one compete with something like the Internet? With the herd mentality of social media? With the immediacy of the dopamine fuelled feedback loops that teenagers daily marinate in? It seems daunting, to say the least. The idea that desires ought to be or even could be disciplined seems like a relic from a barely remembered past.
And then there is the grotesque hypocrisy that Wente points out of a culture wringing its hands about sexual abuse and exploitation and predation while at the same time refusing to consider the myriad ways in which our slavish devotion to the freedom of unrestrained selves to do what they want when it comes to sex is quite literally stoking the flames of a fire that is burning out of control:
Why are feminists and other liberals so indifferent to—and in denial about—the malign effects of porn? Why are people so censorious of crude, misogynous male behaviour in real life, but so reluctant to draw a link between that behaviour and the ubiquitous availability of the crudest kind of porn?…
The answer is that feminists and other liberals would rather be caught dead than be caught on the same side as Christians, conservatives, and other social reactionaries. After all, they believe that sexual expressiveness is among the greatest of human freedoms. That leaves them in the uncomfortable position of condoning massively misogynistic messages to the young, at the same time as they condemn young males for treating young women like sex objects.
Well, yes. One is sometimes tempted to wonder what we really expect.
Another interesting/depressing piece published by The Globe and Mail was a conversation between BlackBerry CEO Jim Balsillie and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge on whether or not it’s possible to kick our addictions to smartphones. The conversation is wide ranging, but one comment from Doidge stood out:
The “wisdom of crowds” is overrated; many crowds are far more regressive mentally and emotionally—and stupider—than the individuals who make them up. Kids know this, but lacking a solid sense of self, still long for the mob’s approbation and are terrified of its censure. And so they keep checking for and fishing for “likes” and now are compulsively virtue signalling to avoid being disliked, instead of developing actual virtue. Fear is one reason that virtue signalling is our chief vice. Social media is a 24/7 hall of mirrors, with everyone watching themselves—and everyone else—and making comparisons, all the time. This hugely exacerbates the ordinary painful self-consciousness, insecurity, narcissistic vulnerability and drama of young people’s lives. How can anyone not become thin-skinned living in a round-the-clock panopticon of peers, all competing with each other for attention in an electronic colosseum? Depression has increased since 2005, most rapidly among people 12 to 17. That’s not all caused by screens, but if we’re spending 10 hours a day looking at screens, it’s definitely a factor. Leaked documents show that Facebook told advertisers it can now track teenagers who feel “insecure,” “anxious,” “nervous,” “worthless,” “stupid” and “useless.” Great. Now we have people exploiting a kid’s “confidential” data by selling it to businesses that will further exploit the kid’s depression.
Virtue-signalling instead of cultivating actual virtue. Fear of online censure driving how we engage and present ourselves online. Depression reaching epidemic levels and advertisers finding ways to exploit and monetize this among the young and the vulnerable.
One wonders if our smartphones, and the ways in which young people in particular are being manipulated to (ab)use them, are destroying even the possibility of having discrete selves to bother trying to control. How can a self even take shape when transgressions are so swiftly punished by the herd, when we are trained from our earliest days to conform in countless ways (body image, ideology, etc.) by the “round-the-clock panopticon of peers, all competing with each other for attention in an electronic colosseum?” It brings to mind a truly terrifying episode from Season 3 of Black Mirror called “Nosedive” where numeric social ratings based on people’s online participation and levels of affirmation of others followed them around as visible markers and determined their lives in countless ways. I wonder just how far off such a future is.
And, getting back to the last question in the Richard Beck quote above, what does the inability to even have a coherent self to control say about our capacity to truly love?
Pretty grim stuff today, I know. It’s easy to despair. But fear not, there’s good news, too! Apparently Dick’s Sporting Goods has decided to stop selling assault weapons to anyone under 21. So, that’s pretty good, right?
Wait, so before this, any old teenager could walk into a Dick’s Sporting Goods and… Ah, never mind.
Well, at least we’ll soon have flying cars. That has to be a happy thing.
(If you managed to get through all of the above, please accept my most sincere congratulations. I shall endeavour to make my next post a bit cheerier.)