Horrific deeds of recent weeks, such as the murder of Chris Lane and the Chicago teen who killed kittens for sport, might prompt a reflection upon the capacity for darkness in the human heart. Strangely, however, the motive in both incidents appears to have been much more mundane: the perpetrator’s self-ascribed boredom. How can this be?
We should not be quick to dismiss the reality of boredom in our culture, nor its deleterious effect on culture and order. The problem of boredom was a recurring theme in the writings of Russell Kirk.
In a newspaper column from July 1966 Kirk wrote, “Boredom, I think, is the greatest affliction of affluent and secure societies. It is a principal cause of suicide, violence, unnatural vices, drunkenness, addiction to narcotics, and even revolution.” He warned against “men and women coddled all their lives by the democratic despotism of a thoroughgoing welfare state,” living in “a commonwealth in which no one works hard, no one runs any risk, and no one has true responsibilities.”
Nearly sixty years later we are reaping the whirlwind of this institutionalized boredom-creating environment. The welfare state contributed to a host of problems related to family: marriage rates are down, abortions and divorces are easy to obtain, and many fathers do not fulfill their familial responsibilities. A generation of American males has been poorly socialized (possibly due in part to the increasing influence of video games within that demographic), preparing them for endemic joblessness. This has created a cascading problem of rootlessness and the decline of societal order.
French observer Alexis de Tocqueville foresaw the despotism that awaited America. Even from his nineteenth century vantage point, what he merely envisioned we now know all too well:
The will of man is not shattered, but softened, bent, and guided; men are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting. Such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
With citizens thus enervated, the reach of government, indeed, tends toward soft despotism via its social-welfare tentacles. Tocqueville predicted this: “For their happiness such a government willingly labors, but it chooses to be the sole agent and the only arbiter of that happiness; it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their necessities, facilitates their pleasures, manages their principal concerns, directs their industry, regulates the descent of property, and subdivides their inheritances: what remains, but to spare them all the care of thinking and all the trouble of living?”
With this in mind, we can see how boredom both results from and benefits such a state. And due to our ever-growing understanding of how technology aids the state in its pursuits, we see this even more clearly than de Tocqueville ever could. (Technology can also be used to resist this creeping tyranny, of course.)
What is Kirk’s answer to such boredom, then? He wrote: “The great cures for boredom are satisfying work with purpose, and dedication to service—the service of God or of other people, including people not yet born. Leisure that is mere idleness must become worse, in the long run, than even the most exhausting labor—if that labor has a good purpose.”
Purpose, then, is what we must seek in order to combat boredom. If there is not a transcendent purpose in our lives, then we will follow the liberty constraining purposes of an authoritarian state. That state will rely on intimidation, incarceration, and surveillance to keep order among the bored citizenry it worked so hard to create and maintain.