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If It Doesn’t Hurt, It’s Probably Not Working

We have a final visit this week to Mark Manson’s book with the asterisks on the cover, which is of course far more optimistic than the title suggests, albeit only after navigating some existential angst along the way, as you will see from what follows here.  I thought he was particularly astute when he was looking at the human condition, for example concepts such as freedom and happiness, and I would certainly recommend the book as a thought-provoking read.

Picking up from last week’s considerations about what makes us happy, Manson makes the point that having more stuff does not make us any freer, but instead it imprisons us with anxiety over whether we chose or did the best thing.  More stuff causes us to become more prone to treating ourselves and others as means rather than ends, and it makes us more dependent on the endless cycles of hope.

He argues that if the pursuit of happiness pulls us all back into childishness, then fake freedom conspires to keep us there, because freedom is not having more brands of cereal to choose from, or more beach holidays to take selfies on, or more satellite channels to fall asleep to.  That is variety.  And in a vacuum, variety is meaningless.  If you are trapped by insecurity, stymied by doubt and hamstrung by intolerance, you can have all the variety in the world.  But you are not free.

The only true form of freedom, he says, the only ethical form of freedom, is through self-limitation.  It is not the privilege of choosing everything you want in your life, but rather choosing what you will give up in your life.  This is not only real freedom: this is the only freedom.  Diversions come and go.  Pleasure never lasts.  Variety loses its meaning.  But you will always be able to choose what you are willing to sacrifice, what you are willing to give up.  It is tough love from Manson, but it is hard to disagree with him.

This sort of self-denial, he believes, is paradoxically the only thing that expands real freedom in life.  The pain of regular physical exercise ultimately enhances our physical freedom – our strength, mobility, endurance and stamina.  The sacrifice of a strong work ethic gives us the freedom to pursue more job opportunities, to steer our own career trajectory, to earn more money and the benefits that come with it.  The willingness to engage in disagreement with others frees us to talk to anyone, to see if they share our values and beliefs, to discover what they can add to our life and what we can add to theirs.

This feels to me like the most useful type of self-help we can get.  It is painful, but if it does not hurt then it is probably not working.  Manson tells us that we can become free right now simply by choosing the limitations we want to impose on ourselves.  We can choose to wake up earlier each morning, to block our e-mail until mid-afternoon each day, to delete social media apps from our phone.  These limitations will free us because they will liberate our time, attention and power of choice.  They treat our consciousness as an end in itself.  Ultimately, he says, the most meaningful freedom in our life comes from our commitments, the things for which we have chosen to sacrifice.  Greater commitment allows for greater depth, while a lack of commitment requires superficiality.

Manson quotes Plato, who said that democracies inevitably lead to moral decay because as they indulge more in fake freedom, people’s values deteriorate and become more childish and self-centred, resulting in the citizenry turning on the democratic system itself.  Once childish values take over, people no longer want to negotiate for power, they don’t want to bargain with other groups and other religions, they don’t want to endure pain for the sake of greater freedom or prosperity.  What they want instead is a strong leader to come and make everything right at a moment’s notice.  They want a tyrant. 

Democracy can only exist, the author argues, when we are willing to tolerate views that oppose our own, when we are willing to give up some things we might want for the sake of a safe and healthy community, when we are willing to compromise and accept that sometimes things do not go our way.  Put another way: democracy requires a citizenry of strong maturity and character.

Over the last couple of decades, he goes on, people seem to have confused their basic human rights with not experiencing any discomfort.  People want freedom to express themselves, but they do not want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way.  They want freedom of enterprise, but they do not want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes that final freedom possible.  They want equality, but they do not want to accept that equality requires that everybody experiences the same pain, not that everybody experiences the same pleasure.

Though this may not just have happened more recently.  Winston Churchill said many years ago that some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like but, if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage.  I wonder what Churchill would have made of the cess pit that so much of the internet has become as the culture wars rage on?

Manson meanwhile warms to his theme by highlighting that freedom itself demands discomfort and dissatisfaction.  Because the freer a society becomes, the more each person will be forced to reckon and compromise with views and lifestyles and ideas that conflict with their own.  The lower our tolerance for pain, the more we indulge in fake freedoms, the less we will be able to uphold the virtues necessary to allow a free, democratic society to function.  And that is scary.  Because without democracy, we are really in trouble.

Just as primitive humans prayed to their gods for rain and flame – the same way they made sacrifices, offered gifts, devised rituals, and altered their behaviour and appearance to curry favour with the naturalistic gods – so will we, he reckons.  But instead of the primitive gods, we will offer ourselves up to the AI gods.  We will develop superstitions about the algorithms and they will become our new gods.  And in a twist of evolutionary irony, the same science that killed the gods of old will have built the gods of new. 

It is hard to disagree with Manson’s final thoughts on this topic, which once again challenge us to think more carefully about the world around us, not least with all the elections taking place across a host of countries this year.  He says that throughout the rich and developed world, we are not living through a crisis of wealth or material, but a crisis of character, a crisis of virtue, a crisis of means and ends. 

The fundamental political schism in the twenty-first century, he argues, is no longer right versus left, but the impulsive childish values of the right and the left versus the compromising adolescent/adult values of both the right and the left.  It is no longer a debate of communism versus capitalism or freedom versus equality but, rather, of maturity versus immaturity, of means versus ends. 

Unless I am missing something obvious when I look at the news each day, if Manson is right – and I am pretty sure he is – we may well all be doomed already because I can only see childishness all around me, and I am talking not about the pupils in our school but the people who are charged to lead us and run the world on our behalf.      

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