Nothing is more important in life than self-control. Matter of fact, one could philosophically argue that the ability to not do things is human life itself. This essay will explore self-control in a more practical way by looking at the role restraint plays in dealing with many of today’s challenges, ranging from water scarcity to climate change. I will show that our current culture insufficiently encourages this type of self-control, and will end with a reflection on the relative importance of personal austerity in Mexican politics.
At the moment of writing it is hot in North Mexico. In such conditions the local state government typically places large message boards across the city encouraging people to use less water to prevent the exhaustion of water resources. While the ads I saw were visually badly designed, I sympathize with the efforts of our governor to implore people to spill less water. It is the right thing to do. At the same time, it seems implausible that such actions will be successful, since it asks something of us that is deeply at odds with our current culture: not doing things out of collective concern.
The basic problem solving logic in Western culture is that problems are met by doing something. In political terms one would typically speak of the ‘need to act’ on a certain situation. Sickness must be cured, invaders must be countered, and infrastructure must be built. Yet dealing with the specific threats of 21st century often requires inaction on our part rather than action. Dealing with climate change is not just about recycling, building infrastructure, and other acts; but must ultimately include a reduction in production and consumption. Eating less meat, for example. Keeping medicines like antibiotics (a cornerstone of our increased life expectancy) effective and safe requires us not to over- prescribe and use those. Softening the replacement of people by robots in the labor market (a topic I will write on at length in the future) or protecting local business from online giants requires us not to use certain cervices or pursue certain lanes of innovation.
This is not what we are used to. Furthermore, not doing things out of collective concern goes against the core promise of consumer freedom in our liberal culture. My students nearly tear up when I explain them how eating meat or traveling by airplane contributes to climate change. In my experience, citizens are far more likely to accept being told what to do, than being told what not to do. In Mexico, this seems to echo in the general hardworking, yes-saying, but corrupt and informal way we work and organize.
What do you say, I am generalizing? Sure, but that’s actually a good thing! Discussions like these run the risk of getting stuck on the morality or character of individuals (where everyone thinks they are talking about the other), while self-restraint also has important collective dimensions. What we actually need in order to comprehend how to deal with these inaction challenges is a sociology of self-control. While I don’t have one, I will take the freedom to outline some ideas to kickstart the discussion.
When are we socially encouraged to exhibit self-control? I can think of three main scenarios. The first one is self-control in not quitting the hard tasks we are given or forced to do. Doing long hours in the office, keep doing construction work in the sun, keep smiling to your harassing boss or teacher, these sort of things. As Octavio Paz correctly remarked in the Labyrinth of solitude, Mexicans take pride in persisting under pressure or hard conditions. Yet the ‘under pressure’ part is crucial, since the source of our restraint is largely external.
The second situation is one of self-improvement. Getting up early to go to the gym (and posting about it), dieting to fit that dress, training for a competition, etc. The liberal ethos, materialized in libraries full of self-motivational books, encourages the individual to show discipline to achieve individual growth. They take great pride in and are socially celebrated for the sacrifices they make, but they ultimately do it for themselves.
The third situation is restraint in the form of face-to-face politeness. Not embarrassing others, not eating the last snack on the plate, not saying that you feel sad when asked how you are, etc. Our daily interaction is glued together by thousands of small reciprocal acts of self-restraint. Yet these acts of morality cannot be mistaken for genuine ethical behavior. They are social acts that are only exhibited in specific social situations. They can instantly be dropped when out of sight, or even just when interacting with people of a different class, rank or origin.
In short, our society encourages self-control through material and social pressure or personal rewards. What is still missing is the encouragement of self-control out of wider ethical considerations. In contrast, one is often made to feel like a fool for not dodging taxes, not travelling for pleasure, not abusing power, not taking the cheapest route, and in general not maximizing one’s advantage. In the worst case public display of self-control is met with (verbal, passive or other) aggression, disbelief or questioning, as many vegetarians can confirm. Perhaps people are hesitant to recognize such positions are possible, for they implicitly feel it questions their own acts.
Enough complaining. The above can partly be compensated by devising policies that collectively apply the pressure and rewards discussed above, by forcing what we can’t trust. Yet there are limits to this, and we must also explore building a culture that encourages self-control of a specific type: a) with reference to collective concerns, b) without immediate reward or punishment. This new not-doing-things can be based on a combination of pride, solidarity and rational foresight of the collective consequences, combined with the knowledge/belief that our inactions matter. Since this is a much bigger discussion with many sub facets, in the final part of this essay I will only focus on the aspect of leadership by example.
One way of encouraging self-control in society is by leading through example, and one example leaders can give is being humble in terms of lifestyle in a vastly unequal world. One almost universally appreciated example is Pope Francis. Yet popes – literally – aspire to become saints and are expected to preach morality. A closer international example would have been the austerity of the socialist ex-president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica. His humble lifestyle inspired many and gave him some moral authority to speak on issues of ethics even today. Besides broadly sharing similar politics as Mujica, Mexico’s current president is also known – and often ridiculed – for his personal austerity. Look at him, this crazy old man who still eats on the street, drives in his own car, flies commercial, gets up early, etc. At worst, critics play on our earlier mentioned disbelief of discipline by spreading fake news stories about how he is secretly the opposite. At best, they paint it as populism and electoral tactics. What, otherwise, would possibly be the point of not maximizing your liberty? In all honesty, it probably is part of his populist appeal, but a very consistent one going back decades. And it has two other positive functions. First, it actually does save resources, as hacienda reported AMLO initially spend 95% less money on himself than the previous president. But second, this display of (for Mexico) almost alien discipline sets a rare example of self-restraint out of principle. If that example will inspire more restraint in the government, an explicit goal of AMLO, only time will tell. But as someone who, on a bad day, perceives society as a catastrophic cluster of moral failure, it is a welcome example. If only a younger person could make humbleness cool again.