Mental Obesity

“Freedom is valued not only for its intrinsic worth, but for what it costs. And a people to whom liberty is given will never prize it as highly, defend it bravely, or wear it as proudly as a nation that wrenched it from hands of tyranny.” (Frederick Douglas)

 

One of the neighbors wanted to chat the other day. I hadn’t seen her for a while, so maybe that was why she treated me to her full review of the-world-today. Maybe I should have been more forthcoming with the kind of private tidbits that would have served her better as barter value on the gossip market and I would have avoided her socio-political observations. Obviously, I did not, and even if her monologue did not last for more than a few minutes, she managed to address a substantial part of the issues making up the cultural background noise to the news for the past years. It all started with the weather, of course. Doesn’t it always?

What do people tell you on a hot day, today? They no longer just complain, oh no. They’ve got someone to fault for it, now. So she did not stick to the ice cream she might have, or the shade in her garden, but immediately proceeded to create one of those modern memento mori moments, sighing about how climate change was a huge threat hovering over all of us. And, she added, that was not the first reason why all those thousands of migrants were flooding over here, but it surely wasn’t going to help in the future! I clenched my teeth as I pretty much knew what was coming. As, indeed, it did: while the young migrants in another epoch were said to be of a “productive age”, now she unblinkingly described them as being of “fighting age”. There is of course no need to argue that they travel for thousands of miles to cause trouble once you have defined them as such. She sniffed. ‘You know what?’ she told me. ‘When I look around, these days – and don’t get me wrong, the generation of my husband was different. Maybe even yours – I don’t see any real men anymore. You see them riding by, their yoga mats under their arms. With their vegetable drinks and their piercings. They don’t shave and they still look like women!’

Inevitably, we imagine living in unique times, an epoch of its own. And in a sense, that is true. Now is the sum of all the preceding. And the most obvious distinction we can make is the level of technology. More easily forgotten is the level of security that is the normal state of affairs for as many as billions of people today – nonetheless, it is feelings of insecurity that seem more abundant now than in recent history. We can see how these two aspects conspire, in the simple sense that the nature of current technology gives urgency to anything happening, anywhere – and of course, the rule of all news being bad news does not particularly help in this regard – but our insecurity when facing novelties is also such a universal, or at least fixedly recurrent, phenomenon, that it is worthwhile to look at it from a historical perspective.

My neighbor’s monologue has an element of the eternal complaint directed at today’s youth. Throughout the ages, and at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, people would complain about the mores and conduct of the younger generations. Part of this phenomenon can probably be explained as the eternal battle of the elder to instill in the younger some of the values they hold to be essential and sacrosanct. But at certain historical stages, this conflict between young and old – if we may call it that for the sake of simplicity – took on the contours of a deeply felt cultural – even ideological – battle that would be perceived, from either side of the line of conflict, as decisive for the future of society itself. This can be claimed for the Reformation, for example, that effected a return to pure Scripture and austere behavior, as it can for the 60s’ love generation who defied the materialism they thought was threatening more human relationships, for the Wahabis (striving to effect their own Reformation), or for the Nazi movement with its campaign against entartete Kunst, art that had deviated from the pattern their chosen ideology held to be morally in order. Typically, each of these aimed at a higher status than simply being representative of the next generation, claiming the title of “revolution” in not only the sense of bringing about upheaval, but also – more closely to the original meaning – in the sense of (re-) instating ancient, maybe long-forgotten but nevertheless eternal, values. What I hope to render graspable in the present pages is how this dream of living in an idealized past and in a permanently frozen future – far from being a merely recurring generational dispute – is intensified by, if not simply the result of, progress itself. By calling it mental obesity I am not hoping to dismiss an aspect of our culture that is essentially and eternally human, but rather make us more sensitive to the way in which it can currently be self-destructive.

Perhaps it is the word progress that I so nonchalantly used above that can be understood to encapsulate the phenomenon as a whole. Though originally referring to movement in a forward direction in a more spatial sense, it is now generally used to signify change towards a more desirable situation, often not at an individual level but for society, or even mankind. What exactly comprises such progress is the occasion for many a dispute, but by qualifying the nature of this positive change, we can at least avoid some of the more common misunderstandings between people of varying preference. Material progress is as clear a term as we may hope for. It cannot but refer to people becoming wealthier, to an increased availability of foods and products, to a society, more generally, that is liberating itself from subsistence-level worries. Educational progress could be safely defined as more people learning more. And though it seems a practical choice to skip the more controversial term of political progress to ponder what must be seen as technological progress, we may, even tackling the latter, get stuck in heated arguments.

Nuclear power? GM crops? Space travel? Vaccines? What many if not all inventions and findings show, is that there is no innovation that is not looked upon without reserve or worries as to what perils the unknown may bring. One of the themes of this essay is to show the extent to which such fears may not merely be an aspect of the eternal generational rift – consistently dividing people who prefer to stick to the ways ‘we have always done it’ from those with more adventurous minds – but may be inherent to the human condition as we liberate ourselves from existential worries. And by ‘existential’ I intend man’s physical existence, and not the salvation of his soul per se.

Of course, that distinction was never made so strictly. Throughout the ages, the understanding was that the continuity of the worldly order depended in one way or the other on the hygienic condition of the souls comprising it. Whether we think of Ciceronian man, basing the wellbeing of his republic on the civic virtues of the citizens, or of the medieval classes faithfully fulfilling the roles attributed to their station, or yet of classless communist society beheld to reject bourgeois values – being a good person was requisite to sustaining the right worldly order. Over the past two to three centuries, it was the salvation of the worldly order that started to outweigh that of the immortal soul, which is the process we refer to as secularization, or the division of Church and State; and in the process, the terms used to describe that worldly order transformed as well. Polis, republic, (Holy) Roman Empire, Christendom, nation-states, society. Without the latter concepts, any abstract discourse on non-moral and non-individual salvation, that is, on the comparative benefits of concrete policies, was impossible. The other concept enabling discourse on progress in the 19th century was the idea of time as a linear progression, as opposed to a cyclical replay of endlessly recurring events.

When we look at the values upheld in opposition to certain innovative technologies or to certain aspects of material progress itself, what we see as a common theme is the nostalgic longing for a past world, one which is presumed to have upheld our very own hierarchy of values. Now this may seem a truism , but perhaps it is the present that unfolds the past for us in a way that leads us to confuse the inevitability of present fact with concluding the present having been determined by the past in an inevitable manner, that is, we fall into the trap of historical determinism. And while it’s one thing to conclude that due to – say – such and such an empire not spending enough on maintaining the imperial roads at a certain point, thereby inevitably provoking the situation where the imperial army was no longer able to intervene in the colonies in due time, it is quite another to project our values on the past, thereby assuming that our present desires were inherent in the motivations for the actions taken by our ancestors. I believe – if anything – the contrary is true, and I hope to make this phenomenon more transparent with the present essay.

There is a concrete way in which technical progress leads us to view the world in wholly new ways. Our enhanced perception feeds us with worries that, before, were nonexistent and unthinkable. Germophobia did not exist before Van Leeuwenhoek’s observations, and effectively did not arise until several centuries after; only after the idea had become widespread that our ills were due to invisibly small, proliferating entities, could people develop a fear for something otherwise undetectable. Ironically, what we can observe as a constant in human behavior is rather that the ritualistic actions previously conducted to ward off evil things from happening were replaced by the perhaps not wholly different compulsory actions of the phobic. One could make a similar observation about the awareness we have developed of inflation, or of the hyperactive – or at least socially unaccepted – conduct of children. Or take the worried attention we dedicate to wildfires these days, not only to those occurring in our more immediate vicinity, but anywhere around the world. Another obvious example is the anxiety with which news about the Wuhan virus is received. We have to concede that the reduction of relative distances and the great increase in worldwide mobility have sped up the pace of contagion. At the same time, the idea of a new virus posing a threat to humankind itself is a thought that in the past was reserved to religious congregations. What was previously left unnoted or at least accepted as the unruly aspects of life, such as the weather, became the object of our will to control. But this aspect purely regards the increasing capacity to perceive the world around, and inside of us.

Where I believe the real friction occurs between our accumulating technical means and our ancient souls is how much anxiety our physical liberation provokes, generally expressed as a desire to return to a past that was never there. We undergo progress’s regret, the melancholic feeling that is perhaps not unlike the mixed feelings a child feels as he starts to taste the pressures of adulthood. What is ironic is that the child’s imagination of the adult’s omnipotence in modifying the world around him, as projected on his own expectations about his life once he has joined the fraternity of adults, is reinforced by the range of instruments we as humankind have acquired to quickly and easily manipulate our physical environment–a phenomenon I have referred to elsewhere as “remote-control syndrome,” though others refer to it as the expectation for instant gratification. An event, or rather the new reality, exemplifying our tense relationship with the new instruments we have to live our lives, is our new perspective on the earth from space. It may well be called ironic that the astronauts we send off to start on our heroic and fearless venture into space generally come back with a rather more inwardly felt conclusion; it is the delicateness and warmth of our original spaceship called earth that these travelers communicate to us once they return. The spinning blue ball in an endless dark expanse makes us aware of something we did not see with the same impact previously and apparently the primary impulse is not to fly on into the infinite depths of space, but to cherish where we come from. A similar reaction finds expression in the newly developed ideology of environmentalism and related life choices.

It is hard to imagine people a hundred or five hundred years ago feeling the reverence, or even abstract appreciation, for nature that we find normal nowadays, even outside the circles of environmental crusaders. This is because nature as such, whether inanimate or the ferociously self-propelling world of egotistic animals – never held much endearment for our own species that was still struggling to overcome the banal challenges of scraping the next meal together and staying protected from cold, heat, and other elements. It is once we have acquired security from such worries that we are able to appreciate what was formerly hardly more than a threat to our existence. Modern vegetarianism – or perhaps more specifically veganism – reflects this change of perspective, as we are no longer subject to the choice of needing to kill for our own survival. And so we can allow ourselves to feel more connected with the mammal inside and around us. A related observation can be made about the way in which the farmer tends to be viewed from a modern Western perspective: as he literally struggles with the disobedient elements of his environment, the city-dweller – unaware of the risks and costs involved in creating food now, let alone in the past, and likely to have taken a stroll in the woods only after driving to a trailhead, carrying a backpack full of modern amenities that will render his expedition as unadventurous as possible – imagines nature as something we are meant to cuddle. Now personally I believe that there is no evil in appreciating ‘nature’, nor that there is anything wrong with some of the life choices I have referred to above. They are choices and values I can respect, except where they are based – and this is where the ideological pretense, i.e., the desire to impose, is bound to manifest itself – on the projection of values newly acquired onto a tougher past. It is our material liberation that allows us to entertain sweeter thoughts, and more comprehensive feelings.

We can draw a comparison with other cultural phenomena of recent times. There are many things we could say about the love generation of the 1960s and 70s, for example, but the claim that any but an affluent society, secure on its material needs, would have coined the slogan ‘love is all you need’ is not one of them. Part of the same cultural wave was the crusade for women’s liberation, whose battles spanned the 20th century. Part of the progress this movement achieved was due to material factors – most specifically obtaining suffrage after WW I had rendered industrial production dependent on female workers. But at other stages, the changes have been more closely connected with shifts in values and expectations. The arrival of contraception would be one relevant example, where expanded control over private lives led to options that were previously unthinkable: choices regarding life- and career-planning, a more conscious and deliberate approach to parenthood, and more economically active women – all examples of empowerment of women who were, qua women, simply dealt the shortest straw in having both reproductive capacity and less physical strength than the opposite sex. Remarkably, even men are acquiring greater opportunities for (expressing) their feminine side in a world that seems largely capable of banning the dominance of physical power from society.

While these are examples in which so-called conservative people would have felt – and probably still feel – anxiety about the changes brought about by technological innovation, what I find interesting in the light of the preceding is the fact that we have seen there are plenty of innovations opposed by so-called progressives, who are just as likely, in such cases, to appeal to ancient and timeless standards that must be protected against the disruptive products of the mind. But I’d like to take the argument one step further and contend that it is well-being itself, that creates new sensibilities and needs, even if these are clothed in the dress of presumedly long-lost or “authentic” experiences.

A complaint we sometimes hear about today’s popular culture regards its superficiality, in celebrating icons of sport and television, while ignoring more classical focal points in the arts, in learning, and in public affairs. At the same time, the arts (as a subset of entertainment), tourism, and all sorts of leisurely activities employ more and more people. The simple explanation is that we can afford them. As we grow more affluent, we can permit ourselves more frivolous activities. At the same time, a discrepancy seems apparent when we observe what people perceive as their actual situation. Affluence certainly does not exclude anxiety. Material progress may be everywhere around us, exemplified by increased life-expectancy, by improved therapies, by our own increased productivity through the use of computerized means, and interestingly even by crime rates that are down in many areas. Yet, if we look at the world of politics, we do not get any reassurance whatsoever about this progress. Instead fearmongering and polarization are increasing nationally and internationally, giving us the impression that fundamental choices must be made right now if we want to (hope to) avoid all sorts of impending doom.

One explanation is close to the traditional definition of decadence. Once one forgets the source of one’s wellbeing, one may well dive into all the pleasures of a carefree existence, but chances are unrest will result for lack of ‘purpose’ either internally or externally among others. These are recurrent themes in Western and other cultures. As the ancient Romans despised luxury as the beacon and bringer of corruption to the individual, society, and statehood, so Christian society required people to stick to their station, and the modern totalitarian ideologies exhorted the masses to fulfill the part supposedly attributed to them by history. What is fascinating about the current, post-industrial, stage is that – at least in the West (which has come to include, economically, parts of Asia and South America) – civil rights are universally distributed, the right of religious freedom is secure, and the workers are not only well beyond the level of subsistence, but effectively more affluent than were the kings and nobles of a few centuries back. More and more people in ever greater parts of the world live in a state of security previously unheard of. It seems, however, that this increased level of security is not expressed in the way culture reflects people’s state of mind. Could increasing security lead to a reduced tolerance of insecurity?

What I have tried to describe in the preceding are mechanisms whereby material progress is not matched by the perception of progress. One of these is our perception itself as it is enhanced by technological means that make us aware of so many things of which we were blissfully unaware before. It is ironic how we may develop compulsory behavior based on such knowledge, behavior not unlike the ritualistic way in which mystics of ages past tried to conjure the world around us. As a matter of fact, our increased sense of control of our surroundings is an aspect that probably only heightens our desire to control. My hypothesis is that the more likely explanation is that we have had evolutionary use for fear and anxiety that remain unemployed in a state of material affluence where hunting and hiding are no longer essential modes of survival. Cultural expressions that highlight this removal from a more historical state – though invariably described as a removal from a ‘more natural condition’ – may strike us as decadent because the frivolous always had its place in the context of Saturnalia, Carnival and other feasts of reversal that had as their primary role the confirmation of the traditional order of society. How much this kind of expectation still conditions us, can be perceived in the expression of law and order. Could it be that a state of security and freedom, under law, would actually lead to disorder in the sense that the manifold variations of individual expressions would be allowed to proliferate?

Unfortunately, there is a dimension to our lives that seems to have become the focal point of our desire for control and of our fears and anxieties in a manner that was unimaginable in pre-modern times, but that has clearly set the boundaries for much of our thinking since the previous century. Politics has come to play a part in our daily lives to an extent that, at least until the French revolution, was unthinkable. Ironically, I believe this was partly the result of the secularization of society in general, allowing the state to assert itself in the field of morality, where previously religious institutions had dominated in any matter not concerning public order. In addition, the burgeoning and subsequent realization of the ideal of universal suffrage directly involved entire populations in decision-making about choices affecting their lives. Now one can argue that the Christian Middle Ages were as totalitarian a period in history as there ever was, inasmuch as a single world-view and morality were the sole guidelines directing people’s lives, but there were neither the technical means to control and enforce these rules to any extent close to our current standards, nor an organization of society in classes with distinct roles presupposing that such rules applied to all classes (equally). Furthermore, one can argue that once suppression was effectively organized – most notably through persecution through the institution of the inquisition – the Christian monolith in Europe did not survive much longer. Modern totalitarianism, by contrast, got everybody invested, and so was much more present in daily life.

Maybe it is fairly logical that once we have managed to eliminate our more urgent worries – those regarding survival, remember? – less vital ones take on a graver appearance. And perhaps it is fear, of all emotions, that is an even more appropriate response when there is so much that we could lose. And in an increasingly polarized political field, the biggest scare of all is nothing less and nothing more than to see the other party win and push through their choices, threatening all we value. But there are two external, supposedly existential, threats that have set the agenda for ‘both parties’ – Left and Right – in the Western world over the past several years. The Left fears climate change, and the Right fears immigration. Either party regards the other’s fears as exaggerated to say the least. Now if I contend that both climate change and migration are not deviations from but constants throughout history, one could claim that this is exactly why such phenomena tend to scare us so much. But by responding to the last millennium’s disaster, we may show to be more subject to our present corpus of knowledge than we are its master. We fear what we are able to know, more than we feel reassured by what we are able to do as a result! And while the ideological rift in society seems to grow wider and wider, it is political campaigning and profiling that shows signs of abandoning this, ideological, approach to political orientation. Psychological profiling has already proven to be a powerful tool to obtain electoral victories. My guess is this is not so much the result of the development of mass psychology as a science, as it is the product of advertising techniques employed for non-commercial purposes, the pervasiveness of social media as a source of information-both-ways, and perhaps a hint of psychological warfare as applied by proponents of the illiberal model of society. That fear is a powerful motivator has been known for a while already, you’d say, but maybe our availability for being triggered through it is being explored more energetically than we realize, made possible as the options for manipulating us are expanding exponentially.

The idea for this essay came to me one day as I was wondering whether man in the age of wealth and wellbeing is suffering, besides from physical obesity, from a type of mental obesity as well. I’m not part of the recently popular tribe of evolutionary biologists – my background is in the history of ideas – but I am nevertheless aware that our biological tendency to hoard calories in the form of fat had a specific function in our original state of dearth. The fact that – now, for the very first time in history – we as a species are in a situation of constant abundance, turns that innate mechanism from a lifesaver into a life threat. Similarly, we can acknowledge how our instinct of fear had a specific function for our original ‘design’ but has recently lost its finer occupation. I have tried to describe how this re-diversion of an endocrinological mechanism can be intensified exponentially for the very reason that a state of tranquility and opulence may well render us more sensitive to even slight disturbances, or the threat thereof. And ironically, being afraid often carries us straight back to magical thinking we may associate with distant ages but is now expressed by our desire for control. We desire to control through surveillance and armed forces. We desire to control by concluding treaties that ooze with holy intention, without ever laying claim to any concretely planned improvement. We desire to control the future by entertaining fantasies about the past. And we desire to control society by attributing powers to politics that look very much like the magic wand its practitioners claim to have.

Many of those sharing with us their worries about the resilience of Western – if not liberal, at least open – society tell us that freedom of expression is a core issue that will define the future of our socio-political system. Inasmuch as our societies currently include such a myriad of opinions that voice both support for our pluriform socio-political system and a scream for its destruction in all ways imaginable, there a people still – be it a smaller faction – that remember some faux Voltaire, stating that even though one can profoundly disagree with another man’s opinion, it is vital to defend his right to express as much. What seems a step too far for almost everyone, though, is the astonishing number of alternative lifestyles that crash through our line of sight on a daily basis, especially in an urban, Western, context. There are the believers and the non-believers, the neo-believers and agnostics. There are the vegans and the grillers, skaters, surfers, goths, geeks, gender-transgressives and semper singles. As upsetting as such expressions may be, as profound an attack on our sense of security of conviction our very opposites may cause us, is it not time to not merely celebrate the party amongst our own, but also to rejoice over the party of our opposites? Is not their security of expression really ours? Isn’t this the best time, ever, to live and eat, enjoy, and express yourself as an individual? What are we afraid of?

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