Several years ago, the social/technology critic Evgeny Morozov said that in order to maximize his productivity, he bought a safe with a timed combination lock which he used to lock up his phone and router so that he would have no means of procrastinating when he had work that needed to get done. Nicholas Carr, a frequent target of Morozov’s snarky jabs and brash criticisms, couldn’t help snickering at what he took to be further proof of his famous assertion that digital media is negatively affecting our brains and corroding our ability to concentrate. Morozov’s argument, though, was that locking away his Internet access was simply the most efficient way to allocate his mental resources. If temptation is immediately at hand, it will require a constant effort to refuse it. If temptation isn’t even allowed anywhere in the vicinity, though, it can be put completely out of mind. Sure, if you need to prove a point to yourself, you can make a show of resisting temptation even as it dances tantalizingly in your face, but it’s a lot easier to simply plan in advance to avoid it in the first place.
Progressives are all aflutter over the news that Mike Pence refuses to dine alone with a woman other than his wife, and he refuses to attend events where alcohol is served without his wife accompanying him. The reflexive assumptions seem to be, a) Evangelicals sure are weirdos, hurr hurr, and b) What kind of freak goes to such extreme lengths to avoid temptation, and what does that tell us about him, since we’re apparently still taking Freudian theories of repression seriously?
Again, some people seem to think that temptation should be constantly faced and overcome through a pure, singular act of will in order to prove one’s character, and that anything else is some sort of cowardice or weakness. Often, though, the most effective way to neutralize one vice is through another vice, rather than through pure virtue. If gluttony is your problem, perhaps vanity might be the cure — I know of one fellow who claims to have an insatiable junk food addiction, which magically goes away when someone he knows is around to see him. Apparently his strong desire to be thought well of by others can pacify his urge to gobble candy bars by the dozen. Or perhaps laziness might do the trick — if you refuse to keep junk food in your house while attempting to lose weight, the thought of making a special trip into town when cravings arise just to buy ice cream and chocolate might not seem worth the effort. If you can win the short battle against temptation while actually at the grocery store, you save yourself from fighting a long war of attrition against the enemy in the kitchen. Fight smarter, not harder, in other words.
Pence’s desire to avoid even the appearance of impropriety could just as easily spring from honor, prudence, or rational wisdom as from the baser motives that many seem eager to impute to him. I don’t know or care either way. Human beings are a battleground of competing drives, forever divided against themselves, and only appear coherent through the mythology of hindsight. I am not a Christian, but having outgrown the juvenile urge to sneer at religion as a fairy tale for the feeble minded, I can appreciate that an evangelical Christian with a belief in humankind’s inherent sinfulness (a belief I share in the spirit if not in the letter) would see no shame in relying on such rules to guide his social conduct, rather than pridefully insisting on pure willpower to carry him through. Fighting smarter, perhaps.
(After first posting this, I was surprised to hear my thoughts echoed from an unexpected source.)