The Discipline We Demand, The Price We Pay

The Discipline we demand and the price we pay

The idea that people in Western society are extraordinarily disciplined may be surprising. The stereotype of Western culture is that it is free, soft and undisciplined. We do not think of pleasure seekers as disciplined. Spartans and Stoics were disciplined. Insurance salesmen and stock clerks? Not so much.

Yet few societies have ever asked for as much discipline as ours. We train our children in it from the time they are old enough to go to pre-school. We train them how to queue. We train them in patience and delayed gratification. We train them in the fine social arts: subordination, getting along, waiting your turn, sharing your stuff, not losing your temper. We send them off to school just as soon as they can control their bladders and they spend 16 to 20 years learning to live within carefully ordered, highly structured schedules. It’s 10am, time for reading. 11am time for nap. From the age of 4 on, we live a life regulated by time and structure.

In JG Ballard’s story, Chronopolis, society, driven beyond endurance, rebels and outlaws destroy all time-keeping devices (the story actually takes place much later as the protagonist discovers the delicious properties of clocks and seeks to use them). As one character puts it, “if they know how long it took you to do something, they can make you do it faster.”

The habits of civilization are the habits of discipline. Our society demands an immense amount of discipline simply to get along and even more to flourish. We work a LOT. And regardless of whether a job is menial or demands the highest levels of skill, we expect nearly perfect attendance at the same time every day. We train ourselves to wake up to an alarm. To dress to the specifications of our workplace. To walk a certain way. To drive a certain way. To use the bathroom a certain way. To smell a certain way. To act and behave in within a vast social web of utterly confining behaviors.

With our early training, most of us take to this just fine. We become dependent on the structure, order and discipline to function normally or think well – take the structure away and we can hardly function.

But not every kind of life can be lived in our highly organized society and not every kind of person can adapt. Walk the streets of any city (especially my home, San Francisco) and you will see people sleeping in doorways or haunting alleys. Many are drug-wrecked. Some are just addled. Others are sick. For many of these people, help could be available. But they are unable and often unwilling to take advantage of it. Because help comes with all the disciplining requirements of our society.

There are no frontiersmen in our society. There are no trappers. No nomads. There are hardly any farmers (farming may have been the original paradigm for disciplined work but now seems to be almost wild compared to the rigidly structured existence of the office). People who do not want or cannot handle the discipline modern society demands are out of luck. There is help if – and only if – you are willing and able to be part of the system.

So inured are we to the implicit requirements of our civilization that it never occurs to us that they might be an unsustainable burden to some people. That not everyone can wake at 6:30 every morning and do the same thing over and over again, can tailor their behavior in the necessary ways. Some people are not well suited to our society and we have done nothing to give them an opportunity to find a different and more fulfilling kind of life. For these people, the freedom of liberal society is a literal hell, and the help of the welfare state just another ball-and-chain. Freedom is not the same thing as opportunity and the freedom to choose your life does not always come with the opportunity to have a life you can endure.

We make impossible many lives that may have less opportunity but require less discipline. Such lives are not simply unrewarded or even discouraged in our society – they cannot be lived. We exist in a web of rules and structures that we expect everyone to obey and from which there is no place to hide. No frontier to explore. No wilderness in which to disappear.

This discipline is just one the many subtle taxes we pay for our complex culture. How much is lost in our children, in those who cannot adapt? How much is lost in ourselves? No one can say.

Every society forecloses some lives. It is not a criticism of a culture to point this out, for it must necessarily be true. Not every life and not every genetic blueprint can be accommodated by any social structure. It is easy enough for us to see the valuable lives that cannot be lived in a Medieval village or a dreary communist police state. Yet it is all too easy for us to mistake the enormous freedom we provide for a blank check on any kind of life. That check doesn’t exist, and the price of admission to get your choice of lives is higher than most of us generally admit.

To understand this is to understand why so many public policies fail. They are directed at the wrong problem and deliver the wrong kind of solution. You cannot solve homelessness by providing homes. But this isn’t just or even primarily an understanding that drives public policy. Understanding the restrictions, the boundaries, and the core reinforcements of the culture you live in is fundamental to thinking well about your own life and making good decisions about transformative experience.

We give up a lot to succeed in our society. Sometimes too much. Social movements like “lying flat” may not, in themselves, be the ideal response to our hypercompetitive and disciplined society. But they highlight something it’s easy to forget. We do have choices, and the best choice is often not the one society expects of us.

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