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A lazy Sunday lunch with friends is not what it used to be. “I’ll have a decaf with almond milk,” orders your friend, quickly swivelling to the barista. “You do have almond milk, don’t you? And it’s real almond milk, isn’t it, not just that syrup?”
“And your bagels,” she pleads, “They are gluten-free aren’t they?” You watch your friend’s face contort in agony, before turning on you. “If you order that sandwich,” she points to the menu, “just eat the fillings. It’s OK as long as you don’t touch the bread!”
It’s a new style of social discipline. In place of moral norms we are today governed by medical and psychological norms instructing us what to eat, drink, and how to think. Historian Christopher Lasch refers to it as the “therapeutic state” run by an army of well-intentioned professionals including social workers, psychologists, dieticians, marriage counsellors, sex therapists, child development experts – the list goes on. These experts do not govern by law but by technique and normalisation, offering step-by-step instructions in just about everything we do – how to relate to our partner; how to quell disputes in the home; what not to eat during pregnancy; how to raise children; how to be a good mother; how to be tidier, neater, calmer, smarter. And the bookshelves, too, overflow with well-meaning advice on grains, wheat, gluten, fat, starch, salt – all put under scientific analysis alongside children who won’t sit still, bank accounts that won’t grow, partners who won’t listen and entrepreneurial careers that won’t flourish.
The rationalisation of daily life, carried out by the new sciences and pseudosciences, subjects everything to a rigorous list of dos and don’ts. “I know those pastries look good, but just think about your insulin levels!” But it has the unsavoury effect, according to Lasch, of draining the joy out of work and play. It’s fuelled by fear, particularly when it comes to food, of diseases and death. Or, in the wider social realm, fear of being unsuccessful, unloved, or somehow not living up to some societal standard.
Lasch argues that the rationalisation of life has caused a “drastic shrinkage of our imaginative and emotional horizon”. We no longer turn to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, for instance, as a guide to human nature, or visit art galleries for some much needed respite; the literary and artistic is brushed aside for the Beginner’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and a remedial massage. It is no wonder that modern life seems “too highly organised, too self-conscious, too predictable,” he adds.
Lasch says that the intrusion of experts into family life undermines our own authority, will, and self-respect. No longer responsible for our own lives, no longer keyed into our natural instincts, or our own ways of doing things, we become dependent on professional services, mere consumers of ‘expert’ information and advice. What’s more, so stressed about bagels, almond milk, and pastries, how can we ever transcend self-interest? How can we serve others, nature, or the planet, when everything we eat, drink or think has to be put to some gruelling standardised scientific test?