Useful Shame: Countering Junk Food and Smartphone Addiction
In a wave of evangelical fervor, the 18th amendment outlawed alcohol in the United States, thus initiating a disastrous 14-year experiment known as prohibition. Organized crime grew rampant, laws were blurred by inconsistent enforcement, and, despite an initial drop, alcohol use and abuse increased sharply, particularly amongst women and children.
The intent was good. Following industrialization and the settling of the west, American society saw a stark rise in alcohol abuse. As drinking became more entrenched into popular culture, the ills of alcohol-related recklessness, violence, addiction, and general belligerence were put on full display.
As the spiritual awakening grew steam, more people became convinced that the best course of action was simply to eliminate alcohol. The simplistic logic held that making alcohol illegal would, then, remove the issues associated with these beverages. Yet, as is often the case, trying to legislate away every societal ill exacerbated the problem while creating a disastrous web of unintended consequences.
Prohibition was inarguably a massive failure. Over-demonizing a product under the guise that its negative effects outweigh its positives never works. I’ve consistently pushed a message that clearly indicates humanity would be far happier and better off without smartphones and sweets. I truly believe this, however, there is no going back.
We have to learn how to operate best in this world. Faced with that reality, I enjoy the hell out of pecan pie a la mode and can not imagine my life without the joys of podcasts and audible books. Furthermore, I love a good bourbon on a nice evening, or a margarita to celebrate the end of the work week. The problem is not the pleasure that comes from these luxuries, but that most cannot control themselves and quickly slip into overuse.
There will always be abuse and self-destructive behavior. We shouldn’t ignore the potential for harm, but, likewise, we can’t expect positive outcomes from legislating people’s every choice. As former Breaking Muscle editor, Pete Hitzeman is fond of saying, “Humanity is not perfectable.” Thus, we should treat collective humanity as it is, not as we dream it should be. Improvement will only follow education, personal responsibility, and culture.
Alcohol still has laws, many nonsensical and counterproductive, but for the most part, those whose lives are enhanced, or at least not hurt by alcohol use, have followed a culturally ingrained model of acceptable use.
These people have social circles that don’t condone drinking and driving, problem drinking, daily drunkenness, or any pattern of drunken belligerence. Inappropriate conduct linked to drinking is certain to bring ridicule and ostracize the offender. If repeated, or drastic enough, it warrants confrontation.
Furthermore, there are norms that, while occasionally broken, guide typical behavior:
“Don’t drink alone.”; “Don’t drink before 5.”; “Buzzed driving is drunk driving.”; “He’s had enough. Cut him off.”
We got rid of prohibition, but that didn’t prompt anarchy. In fact, just the opposite. Society policed the environment in a more adaptable, natural way. Culture. Social Norms. Manners.
Today we are witnessing an explosion of obesity, depression, anxiety, and suicide. Psychology and physiology are completely interdependent and our environment discards the needs of both in favor of satisfying every impulse. There are many culprits, but none so obvious as our diets and our smartphones. Like with alcohol, the solution is not law, but culture.
Given their massively destructive effects, we should begin to look at sweets and smartphones as controlled substances. This is not to compare them to hard narcotics or invite government regulation, but, rather, just a useful orientation for helping culture accept and work against their pervasive negatives. Education must drive a better understanding of the drastic harms wrought by unhinged eating and smartphone use and clearly define the most conducive norms and manners.
The way most Americans eat, starting with their children is beyond crazy. It is a constant conveyor of chemically engineered, sugar-infused, unpronounceable-ingredient-added junk, and it is killing our bodies while setting our emotions haywire. Kids wake to Pop Tarts, Cookie Crisp, or donuts.
“Health conscious” parents opt for Frosted-Mini Wheats or whole grain pancakes covered in syrup. Fast food institutions are far more central to most families lives than the dinner table as fruit roll-ups, chips, and Kraft mac and cheese characterize the bulk of foods available at home.
People can scarcely conceive of eating meals that consist only of whole foods that could naturally occur in nature. These are, of course, the only actual foods. We should enjoy the perks of modern technology while maintaining a lucid understanding that these new foods are sub-optimal and warrant limiting.
There is plenty of nutritional manipulation and misinformation, but for the most part, we all know this stuff. We get that we should eat more fruits and vegetables, drink more water, quit soda, and generally opt for less processed, whole foods. The major issue isn’t knowledge, it is culture.
Shame: Society’s Great Behavior Modifier
Pull out a cigarette and every judgmental fiber of society bores into you. This may be uncomfortable for the smoker, but it is a good thing for society as a whole who are now less likely to smoke than 50 years ago.
This highlights an extremely natural, often socially constructive means that culture has always had for regulating behavior: shame.
Shame gets a really bad rap because it is often associated with closed-mindedness and puritanical rigidity. Yet, as is common in this complex world, the bad comes with significant good. Shame stirs soldiers to heroism and societies to communal cleanliness.
There is no law against picking your nose, but I rarely see anyone publicly digging for gold. As Tamler Sommers explains in his book, Why Honor Matters, honor-shame cultures are concerned with pulling people up towards an ideal, whereas our modern dignity culture breeds complacency, obsessing on how special everyone is by merit of breathing. Rather than classify all shame as bad we should adopt a nuanced approach that can weigh when it is useful. We need contained honor/shame culture.
As individuals, we should try hard not to judge people, but, implicit to living a good life is the requirement that we judge actions. We have to discern between behaviors that are better or worse and all those grey areas in between. The process of culture dialoguing about what behaviors are more and less favorable is essential to any society who’d like to improve or even be capable of feeling united.
This dialogue and its ever-evolving conclusions establish norms and elicit socially constructive shame, whether it is intended or not. That shame pulls the group behavior upwards towards norms that are better for both the individual and group. It is a nuanced approach and I can feel the social justice warriors blood boiling as they are forgoing the rest of this article to craft woke social media retorts.
For an example of constructive shame, consider Japan, where there is almost no litter, despite having hardly any public waste cans. The cultural expectation is for people to take their own garbage home to dispose of it.
Other norms contribute, as well. In Japan, it is considered rude to eat on the run, thus reducing walker and driver waste, and communities routinely join together to clean up what little litter there is—typically small items hidden near the back of bushes and shrubs.
On this very populated island, culture and manners are able to police the environment far more effectively than the anti-litter laws common in the U.S. Anyone who’d litter in Japan is certain to meet considerable disgust and ridicule. How appropriate.
Culture can promote destructive behavior just as fluidly as it prevents it. Broken windows theory contends that visible signs of crime, disorder, and bad behavior encourage more misconduct. We are a social creature. When we see graffiti, litter, or evidence that crime is common, we’re more likely to engage in these destructive behaviors.
Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, explains how this understanding helped New York City radically reduce crime. The city made it a practice to paint over graffiti every night and police the subways far more diligently. They publicly shamed anyone they caught jumping subway turnstiles by arresting them and leaving them handcuffed and on display until officers returned to the police station for booking at the end of their shift.
In both examples, the community good is put over the desire to be excessively fair to each individual. Rather than account for each individual’s feelings, all their prior experience, whether they knew better, and what other factors might have made them act the way they acted, behavior is simply deemed destructive when it is.
Both litterers in Japan and turnstile jumpers in New York had their rights respected, but were not deemed to have a right to avoid shame or embarrassment. Consequently, societies saw less litter and less crime, while individuals faced constructive feedback far more likely to kick-start arduous, while necessary reform.
Speaking Frankly and Creating Healthy Norms
In the modern world, few influences have been as broadly destructive as unchecked smartphone culture and our out of control eating habits. I’ve made these arguments ad nauseam:
Individual interventions are far less likely to stick against the tide of culture. We are all pulled to cultural norms and our shameless culture pulls the masses down rather than up towards a marker worth striving for. For society to improve so that millions more individuals can thrive, we must be willing to speak frankly and identify better modes of behavior.
I am not saying that we should look to embarrass people or call them names. Hard truths are only worth saying if they are constructive and geared towards necessary change. However, as I contended in my article, It Isn’t Fat Shaming: How Protecting Feelings Hurts Health, we must be able to speak honestly about what is positive and negative.
Our eating norms create a likelihood of living overweight and battling chronic lifestyle-related impediments. Our smartphones are stoking an explosion of anxiety, depression, and purposelessness. We need to dialogue towards a set of manners and social norms that pull people towards fulfilling, socially constructive behavior and away from the opposite.
In my next piece, I’ll look at what manners and socially constructive norms we should adopt in relation to eating and smartphone use. Like alcohol, these forces are not going away, yet, likewise, we can’t just go with the flow in an environment drunk and addicted. Culture must mitigate these destructive trends. By creating clarity in manners and identifying destructive behaviors, these pleasures can become wonderful, controlled additions to each of our lives.