‘We don’t believe enough in the future not to stuff ourselves with what’s in front of us now’
The Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing showed that almost 80 per cent of Irish people over 50 are either obese or overweight – nature or nurture? Photograph: Press Association.
We Irish are not alcoholics – we are everything-aholics. Of course we drink too much, but we also take too many drugs, eat too much rubbish, gamble too wildly and splurge too much money. And we can’t get to grips with these individual impulses because we don’t join them all up and ask what lies behind them. In particular we don’t ask whether there might be some connection between our guzzling and overindulgence on the one hand and our political culture on the other.
Every few weeks we get a new report into some aspect of Ireland’s terrible trouble with consumption. Last week, it was the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing which showed that almost 80 per cent of Irish people over 50 are either obese or overweight. Before that, it was figures showing that 32 per cent of Irish seven-year-olds are overweight or obese.
Last month it was the Health Research Board report that showed 75 per cent of all alcohol consumed in Ireland is part of a binge-drinking session and that 1.3 million of us are classified as problem drinkers. Before that, it was the revelation that between 2004 and 2011, 4,606 people died directly, or indirectly, from illegal drug use in Ireland. Or, to look at reckless consumption from another perspective, 55 per cent of Irish credit card holders do not know what interest rate they are paying and 31 per cent depend on those credit cards to meet monthly household bills. No one of these things may be unique to Ireland but the combination of them all adds up to a strikingly dysfunctional absence of self-control.
When these reports come out, we look at them as individual problems. There’s a good reason for this. The researchers who produce them are not in the business of speculating about what common factors might lie behind them. This kind of speculation is, moreover, dangerous. It plays into stereotyped and essentialist ideas of Irishness, the colonialist notion of a wild people unable to restrain itself that goes back to the Norman invasion.
If we are to speculate, then, we have to be clear that we’re not talking about Irish “nature” but about Irish nurture – the ways in which a culture has been formed in response to real historical circumstances. These dangers have to be braved nonetheless. We’ll get nowhere if we don’t talk about the underlying culture common to so many of our individual problems. Two things in that culture are surely relevant: an inability to think about the future and a sense of comfortable powerlessness.
One of the best-known experiments in psychology is Walter Mischel’s marshmallow test of “delayed gratification”. A child is placed in a room with a marshmallow and told she can eat it now but, if she waits until the tester returns, she will get two.
Ireland collectively would fail the marshmallow test. We know that it would be better for us not to open that second bottle of wine or eat that third cake or put down a deposit on that apartment in Bulgaria or put that impulse purchase on the credit card. But we don’t believe enough in the future not to stuff ourselves with what’s in front of us right now.
And this, surely, is not unrelated to our political culture. Irish politics doesn’t do the delayed gratification of long-term planning. It doesn’t do the future. Why? Because we haven’t matured enough as a society to have any confidence in long-term progress. Deep down, we still believe that if we don’t grab it while it’s going – whatever “it” happens to be – it will disappear.
It’s relevant, too, that “self-control” is, in political terms, another name for democracy. The problem we have with personal self-control mirrors the struggle, never really successful, to control our collective destiny. For all sorts of reasons, we’ve been very bad at constructing the institutions and practices (the Republic) that give us a sustained sense that we are truly responsible for ourselves.
We’ve outsourced our sense of control to a domineering church, to national elites and then to global “forces” – the market gods that we propitiate with sacrifices. And over time, we’ve come to feel comfortable with this lack of responsibility: just look at the pitiful way we welcomed the troika to make decisions for us, and at the political chaos that has followed its partial departure. The corollary of getting used to being told what to do is that you gorge yourself when no one’s there to stop you.
Which comes first? Is the lack of self-control the product or the creator of a malfunctioning public culture? Most probably the two are so intertwined the distinction between cause and effect is lost. But if they are so deeply connected, we need to find a way of making that connection in public discourse. The State is never going to get anywhere preaching to its citizens about responsibility, self-control and the need to think about the future when these are, to the State itself, alien concepts.