Modern Day Puritanism

I’ve been reading an article today about “clean eating” from the Guardian. I never heard of the term before, but it seems to overlap with all dietary advice you encounter on the internet. If you see someone who is frightened of gluten and/or carbohydrates, indulges in coconut oil, despise anything that contains high fructose corn syrup or rapeseed oil, you could argue you’re dealing with a “clean eater”. In this case we’re dealing with a young woman who was eating so “healthy” her hair started falling out.

Of course you can make the simple argument that this woman developed an obsession that became so strong that something supposed to be healthy turned into something unhealthy through excess. It seems to me there’s something else going on here that’s more important to consider. People are trying to solve problems through diets, that aren’t caused by diets. It’s a bit of an epidemic among young intelligent urban hip people. I have a boss who spends his days alternating between eating nothing until the evening (“intermittent fasting”), or subsisting on avocados and meat.

The thing most people seem to forget is that intelligent people tend to be better at masking mental health issues than most people. As an example, there are quite a few intelligent young women who work very hard, attend a lot of social events, but eventually succumb to a burnout. In many cases, we were dealing with women who have suffered autism throughout their life, but were never recognized, because they were always capable of masking the symptoms. The men tend to be worse at masking and so they’re typically recognized earlier.

You might want to sit in a corner of your room on the floor by yourself, rocking back and forth and uttering animal noises, but you’re capable of forcing yourself to smile, say hi and engage in normal social interaction that’s intuitive and self-evident for most people but requires your conscious attention. Imagine taking a cold shower, you’re capable of forcing yourself to do it but it’s extremely uncomfortable for you and it takes a lot of mental effort. That’s how people with high-functioning autism tend to experience social interaction. If you have to do that continually, you end up burning out.

In a similar manner, the dietary puritanism prevalent today in our society tends to be an attempt at self-medicating mental health problems. There is a logical aspect to it that people tend to miss: If you’re not feeling mentally well, you can conclude that you have a “chemical imbalance in your brain”.┬áIf the imbalance is innate, it’s a slight to your ego. There are dumb people who eat hamburgers, work blue color jobs and get through life on auto-pilot, but you’re dependent on pharmaceutical interventions to be a functional member of society. That’s humiliating. On the other hand, it might be the case that you’re the victim of an agricultural-industrial complex that’s feeding you things that are making you unhappy, chronically tired, shy, anxious or insecure by triggering chemical imbalances in your nervous system.

Intelligent people can contemplate all sorts of complex societal problems they have no real influence over, from global warming to child abuse. The only significant thing they do that they do tend to influence is what they eat. As a consequence, they end up eating a bizarre diet that somehow would supposedly actualize their utopia if everyone stepped over to it. For angry white libertarian males it tends to revolve around eating a lot of meat to turn everyone into real manly alpha males like Alex Jones, for shy girls like Greta Thunberg it’s a form of veganism to stop global warming.

Something else I tend to notice is that mentally healthy people don’t seem to have any of these vast concerns that unhappy people have. Someone who has a lot of friends and overall enjoys his life doesn’t tend to be the kind of person who checks whether there’s aspartame or corn syrup in his beverage. It might be true that the modern Western diet leads to obesity, which is unhealthy, but to avoid succumbing to obesity now seems to require the kind of consistent mental effort that generally signifies other problems.

Another thing worth noticing is that regular mentally healthy people eat food and do stuff because it makes them happy. They go skiing because they enjoy it, they eat a hamburger because they’re hungry and enjoy it. The omega 3/6 ratio, the amount of saturated fat, the carbon footprint or the life the animal lived, none of those questions ever occur to them. They go through the motions of life in innocent bliss. For some people however their own happiness seems to become irrelevant, as they end up trying to actualize some sort of moral principles in their own individual lives. It is what William Blake proposed, that angels are pure reason who create a world of theoretical constructs that exist in stasis, whereas devils are energetic beings whose lusts and passions vivify the creation.

Puritanism is an attitude more than a religion. It’s an attitude that villifies joy. Puritanism has an easier time gaining a foothold now, because we can rationally justify it. You’re eating some mediocre food and you’re enjoying it, but your joy is a symptom of your brain being fooled into thinking the food contains more protein that it actually contains, because the manufacturer added free glutumate to it. This is bad because the glutamate will end up damaging your brain through excitotoxicity, so the fact that you’re enjoying this food becomes evidence that you shouldn’t be eating it.

Similarly, every luxury you purchase that serves no essential personal need is unjustifiable in the face of climate change. People spend their days working to fly off to a tropical island or a foreign city, but those few days devoted to pure joy are the biggest impact your year will have on your carbon footprint. The foods you probably enjoy most, that are most dangerous to your health, are also the ones with the worst impact on our climate. If we want to address climate change, we inevitably end up with a form of neo-puritanism: The things we enjoy are what we must sacrifice.

The problem with the modern day puritanism is that you can’t argue against it on rational grounds, because it inevitably wins when we apply reason. There’s no proper justification with any real credibility to fly to the other side of the world for a week or two if it means you’re ruining the future of a village full of Kenyans whose impact on our world would pale in comparison to yours. If your mind is capable of comprehending the problem, you’re shit out of luck. The fact that all of these things are true has no real impact on the fact that understanding these problems has no hedonic benefit for you. Just because you’re bearing a cross doesn’t mean you’re not hurting your back in doing so.

So what causes the modern day insurgent neopuritanism? Well, here’s a question to you: Imagine there’s a beautiful woman who walks down the street. There’s a man next to you who noticed her too and you realize to your shock that he groped her. Can you conclude he failed a moral challenge that you passed? You can’t, because you can’t quantify his urge. He might have been released from prison a few hours earlier and this is the first woman he has seen in ten years. His brain might have more unoccupied androgen receptors than yours. The fact that you were able to pass a moral challenge might not be because you have better self-control or are intrinsically more virtuous, but merely because the seduction itself has less appeal to you.

Now apply this on a societal level. If the incidence of rape has plunged throughout the Western world in recent decades, can we conclude that mankind has become more virtuous, or could the urge that people had in the past simply have regressed? If all the sins, from smoking, to drinking, to promiscuous sex, to rape, to theft, to environmental pollution and greed are disappearing like snow before the sun, have we become more virtuous, or did the devil’s temptations simply lose their appeal to us? Are we witnessing a case of broad societal anhedonia?

In experiments with mice, it tends to be relatively easy to make the mice addicted. Give them a shitty environment without anything interesting or friendly mice to get along with and they’ll start pushing the pleasure button to receive opioids or sugary food. However, if you mentally fuck up the mice badly enough, you’ll create anhedonic mice: Mice that stop pursuing pleasure. The way to go about this seems to be by exposing them to chronic mild stress. Create annoying conditions in their lives that they can’t influence and eventually they give up on pursuing things they would normally enjoy.

To me that tends to be the impression I get when I notice reasonably intelligent young people who have created absurd diets for themselves, or teenage girls like Greta who decide to sacrifice themselves on behalf of some grand cause. As much as I might admire the girl, you don’t become depressed because you read about an existential threat in the media. There are other conditions you’re coping with that draw you to particular problems in your environment. Greta might be smarter than the average Jehovah’s witness who believes the end up the world must be nigh, she might be exposed to better information, but the mental state they experience is not profoundly different, just as it doesn’t differ significantly from that of those who feared nuclear war in the 60’s. Your concerns might be perfectly valid, but your ability to recognize a serious problem that other people can ignore as they happily go on with their lives inevitably suggests there is something different going on in your mind that’s leaving you with an excessive burden to carry.

Of course nobody disputes this. Greta is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, as well as a series of related ailments. The conclusion people tend to draw however, is a form of denial. People pretend that autism as we know it has always been here, that autism can be a wonderful gift and that we shouldn’t be medicating it but should respect it as it is. They think they’re being helpful, I think this is disingenious. It’s not fun to suffer eating disorders. It’s not fun to self-injure. It’s not fun to be incapable of normal social interaction. The suicide rates among people on the spectrum suggest that autism is not a condition that enriches your existence. It’s a burden to carry and methods that can alleviate the burden should be welcomed rather than condemned.

The thing I notice is that today’s young generations seem to be moving from a carpe diem to a memento mori mentality. Promiscuity is in decline, STD’s are dying out, alcohol and drug abuse are becoming rare, the youth are forgoing meat to sacrifice themselves on behalf of others and marching in the streets to address an existential risk to humanity. The young are not hurrying to get their driver’s license anymore either, something that tends to shock their parents. It’s the elderly who are supposed to advocate sobriety and modesty to children. In our society it’s the reverse: Children chastise their parents for their sinful indulgence.

What I would suggest as the explanation for this is a kind of broadly experienced sense of anhedonia. The devil’s temptations have lost their glow over time. People renounce the world when they cease to believe it can offer them happiness and seek out their fortune elsewhere. In the case of dietary and ecological puritanism, there seems to be a sort of joy that people seek in doing things right. It’s not the motions themselves that make them happy, it’s the consideration that somehow this is going to contribute to a greater abstract goal they have set for themselves, that is ultimately utterly divorced from any intuitive experiences.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that this appeals to a girl with Asperger’s. If you look at people with Asperger’s, you’ll tend to notice that the conscious mind tends to end up fulfilling roles that would generally be under the domain of the subconscious. People with Asperger’s often have to spend years teaching themselves how to interact with others in a manner that doesn’t alienate them. If you have Asperger’s and meet someone you get along with, you want to discuss whatever intellectually abstract niche appeals to you. They’ll accuse you of engaging in a monologue, so you have to learn to talk like other people. You have to ask them how their day was, you have to discuss shared experiences. For most people this is perfectly self-evident, they do it without thinking about it, but for people with Asperger’s it’s typically something they have to teach themselves.

Another thing that happens to people with forms of high-functioning autism is that they tend to end up wearing their weirdness as a badge of honor. If you’re poor at something, you can try to become better at it, but you’ll find that you won’t be as good at it as people who have to take no effort for it. Rather than trying to become better at it, you might decide that it’s irrelevant or even bad to be good at it. Rather than trying to fit in with other people, many people with high-functioning autism emphasize their differences to a degree that it negatively impacts their own wellbeing.

It makes perfect sense in such a context, where the conscious mind takes up roles normally fulfilled by the subconscious, that phenomena like dietary puritanism and ecological activism become appealing. If Greta is succesful in getting governments to implement serious reforms, the only way she’d ever notice is a mild difference in how catastrophic our world looks fifty years or so from now. If this is how your mind functions, you become able to choose to fit all of your own actions within a grand narrative in which you address a slow-motion existential risk to humanity.

The thing I want to suggest here however is that this doesn’t deliver true happiness. It’s a misconstrued solution. If you devote yourself to an abstract goal like this, you’ll find that the pleasure it delivers is inadequate, to which you will then respond with greater puritanism until you eventually find yourself wondering why your healthy diet is making you lose your teeth.

People have a habit of encountering problems in their lives that they can’t address. They then respond to those problems by addressing other problems and constructing theories for themselves in which those problems are somehow interconnected to the problems they can’t address. Of course this is also tied to the fact that some problems are more socially acceptable than others. If you’re ugly and struggling to get laid, you’ll receive more sympathy if you were to insist you’re depressed because of hunger in the third world.

How do you solve this then? The thing I would recommend is to first take a good look at yourself. If you’re eating a gluten-free low-carb raw vegan paleo diet, you have to ask yourself if this is really what you body needs, or if you’re trying to distract yourself from other issues that you don’t know how to cope with. Those issues might not be socially acceptable to state out loud, but that doesn’t make them any less legitimate. You can’t solve a problem when you’re not willing to acknowledge the problem to yourself.

If you think you found the problem, but everyone else suffers the same problem and yet it doesn’t seem to interfere with their day to day lives, then you haven’t found the problem. The Earth is getting warmer and species are dying out? Happens to my neighbor too, but he happily goes through his day. You’re eventually going to die? Your life is meaningless? We all suffer those problems.

Instead the better question to ask tends to be: What am I struggling with that seems to be a relatively minor challenge for most people? Realistically speaking, such things tend to be things you can change to a degree that helps you to become much happier. You might have to take more effort to get less results than most people, but that shouldn’t discourage you.

2 Comments

  1. As a corollary, the health craze might be caused by our modern societal arrangements. Stripping everything of value, life becomes bare, elevating the maintenance of the body aka the vital functions to the highest good. See Byung-Chul Han for a more thorough explanation of the mechanic at play.

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