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Rod Liddle

The philosophy of modern Britain: I must have it and I must have it right now

11 February 2012

2:00 PM

11 February 2012

2:00 PM

It’s not all doom and gloom, then. A new study suggests that we are turning into aborigines — or Indigenous Australians, to use the more acceptable term. Various anthropological investigations have depicted aborigines as being remarkably cheerful, laid-back and contented, all of which are admirable qualities. They also have a tendency to defecate wherever they are standing, according to one of the first investigations (1929) into their behaviour, from the Hungarian psychoanalyst and anthropologist, Geza Roheim. When nature calls, Roheim asserted, the aborigine simply squats and has done with it; he has not the slightest notion of deferred gratification. He is, in all possible meanings of the phrase, easygoing.

So too with our children. A new study sponsored by the Association of Teachers and Lecturers insists that there has been an enormous rise in the number of children attending infant school still wearing nappies. The younger classrooms are, these days, a noisome quagmire of urine and faeces, according to the ATL. Some teachers are required to attend to the incontinence of their charges nine times a day, thus detracting from the hours which they can spend teaching the others how to glue toilet rolls together and properly appreciate the totally legitimate aspirations of transgendered persons. Some schools have even started classes for parents showing them how to — and, crucially, why they should — train their kids not to take a crap the very second the notion occurs, but to wait a while.

Of course, teachers spend a lot of time whining about children and parents to the press, sometimes to mask their own manifest inadequacies. But this one has the ring of truth about it, I think. And the unpleasant duties thus imposed upon the teachers are not the worst of it; they are simply the turtle’s head of the problem, if you will.

The Arrernte people studied by Roheim (and referred to by him as the Aranda) lacked any notion of time, but also, by extension, any concept of the benefits of deferred gratification. As a consequence, agriculture and cultivation was wholly beyond them; they could not understand the point of doing some hard work now and reaping the rewards six months hence. Or even six hours hence. They lived, Roheim implied, for the moment and only for the moment.

So it would seem to be with our latest generation of Britons — and indeed the last generation of Britons. Over the last 30 years the notion of deferred gratification, the idea that it is something worth practising, has disappeared almost entirely. Children cheerfully crapping themselves in the classroom is but one symptom; there are countless others. The epidemic of obesity, for example. The extraordinary amount of private — and, in a more psychologically complex sense, public — debt. Our world-beating rates of teenage pregnancy and, to a slightly lesser extent, the enormous rise in the rates of divorce. Even down to such arcane matters as the dominance of pop music, with an easily acquired hook presenting itself to the listener within 30 seconds, or the ubiquity of drug and alcohol abuse, or the popularity of the National Lottery (indeed its very existence).

The dissolution of deferred gratification is not by itself solely responsible for these various cultural phenomena, but it is at the very least a contributing factor; it is in there somewhere. Having to have something now, right this minute, immediately, and not worrying about the consequences — even when you know precisely what the consequences will be — is a very modern phenomenon. It was not always thus. And while it is probably a bit glib to say that the five-year-old kid squelching around in his own ordure will, 15 years hence, be a fat and addicted halfwit who is ‘maxed out’ (to use the fashionable term) on his credit cards, there is nonetheless a link. Or several links.

Deferred gratification is a marker of emotional and rational intelligence and it is something which is acquired rather than entirely innate. It is something children need to learn, and it is not their fault that they do not have it. It is something which is imposed upon them by their parents and by society — or at least it should be. But neither agency is showing an awful lot of interest in the thing these days. Various studies (the most famous being the Stanford marshmallow experiment, in which kids were given a sweetie and told that if they didn’t eat it for 20 minutes they could have another one), have suggested that the ability to put off pleasure, to wait for greater reward, leads to far greater scholastic achievement later in life, and also to an individual who is better psychologically adjusted and dependable. And when it comes to the very first expression of deferred gratification, it is one of the few areas where Freud still has certain dominance. The ‘anal expulsive’, as he put it — the child who is not potty-trained — is characterised by slovenly behaviour and ‘environmental disorder’.

Why has this useful thing, deferred gratification, given up on us all? It is partly the retreat of religion, and in particular the Protestant faith, one supposes. Certainly, Max Weber saw in Protestantism, and particularly puritanism, the mass philosophy which underpinned the capitalist revolution; sacrifice, hard work, the delay of consumption, planning ahead, saving money and so on. That is why the capitalist revolution kicked off in Hamburg and Manchester rather than Naples or, for that matter, the immediate vicinity of Uluru. Partly perhaps it is down to increased general affluence, to the point that being poor today means not being able to afford a flat-screen tv, rather than not being able to feed oneself and family.

Or perhaps, with regard to my original inquiry, it is simply that nappy technology has improved: they are so much more absorbent these days. A pack of 24 will last for ages, so why worry?

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