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    Concerning “Choice”

    September 14, 2006 by Brandy Vencel

    It was January, and my husband and I were sitting with a friend in a deli in Washington D.C. The place was overflowing with businessmen and college students. A young female’s voice projected above the lunchtime din. “Choice!” she exclaimed fervently. “This country was founded on choice!”

    Not usually one to address strangers, I blurted out, “No. It wasn’t.” I was firm, and just loud enough for her companions to hear me. The words escaped before I had given them much thought. Though her fresh-faced ignorance was precisely the kind that troubles me, I was glad her only response was a brief glimpse in my direction.

     

    Origins of Choice

    I found myself pondering the idea of choice again this past week as I read this:

     

    The notion of choice is, of course, one of the hallmarks of our time. In traditional societies, there are few decisions to make; in modern societies we become overwhelmed by the number of choices or options that we have. As Peter Berger, Boston University sociologist, notes, the role that fate or tradition once played has been replaced by that of choice. In traditional societies, great swaths of life were not open to choice at all; these included one’s social standing, the kind of work one did, the person to whom one was married, the clothes one wore. And it was fate or fortune that assigned what life held in store for one, including its calamities. Today, however, all of this has changed. Social standing, for example, can often be acquired, for it is largely a matter of perception. It is, therefore, something that can be created or purchased. Vocation is chosen from among many alternatives. Parents have little or no role in their children’s marriage choices. When and if we decide to have children is now a matter of choice, and we think that by prudent anticipation some calamities can be avoided–a belief that sustains the entire industry of predicting the future. . .

    An immediate and disquieting consequence follows from this. If the circumstances of life are indeed determined by choice rather than by fate, then there is always the possibility that one chose unwisely. This is what lies behind some of our unease; we sometimes imagine what would have resulted if we had chosen a different career path, or a different spouse, or a different place to live. Things could have been different from what they are. The very reality of choice robs us of contentment over the paths we have taken. {Losing Our Virtue, pp 86-87}

     

    There seems to be a certain consensus among the books I have read thus far that the Industrial Revolution made choice {as it is now understood and experienced} possible. For instance, leaving the IR brought about families leaving behind the family farm, which distanced family members from each other. Young men once either learned the family business or were apprenticed in a trade by a neighbor, but now young men {and women} choose a college, choose a major, choose a career.

    One book I read a couple years ago {I don’t remember which one} claimed that the invention of the car gave rise to the modern concept of dating, effectively relegating parents to the position of spectators of their children’s lives.

     

    Good or Bad?

    My aim is not to explore whether choice is good or bad. I would rather simply acknowledge that it is. But before moving on from this admittance of Choice as Fact of Life, I think it is also important to understand that once upon a time, life was very different. Choice as one experiences it now is only 100-120 years old.

    Here is another important concept: before Choice, this country had both freedom and liberty. As this culture seems to narrow the definiton of freedom to mean only a freedom to choose and then choose again, I think it imperative that one understand that freedom and liberty predate the modern obsession with Choice. In fact, I believe it can rightly be said that the sheer number of choices one is able to make does not directly reflect the level of freedom or liberty one has. The content and nature of the choices will be more likely to define this “level of freedom” of which I speak. For instance, if I can spend all day choosing this widget from that one, but have not the freedom to choose to produce widgets myself, own my own widget company and sell my widgets directly to the public, then I am actually quite restricted, in my opinion.

     

    Choice and the Human Body

    The copy of Brave New World that I recently read contained a foreword composed by Huxley himself. In it, he explained quite clearly that sometimes one sort of freedom is substituted for other freedoms within a dictatorship:

     

    As political and economic freedom diminishes, sexual freedom tends compensatingly to increase. And the dictator {unless he needs cannon fodder and families with which to colonize empty or conquered territories} will do well to encourage that freedom. In conjunction with the freedom to daydream under the influence of dope and movies and the radio, it will help to reconcile his subjects to the servitude which is their fate.

     

    As our culture emphasizes freedom over the body as being of primary importance {sexual freedom, reproductive freedom, etc.}, I find it interesting to take note that Huxley would consider this a sort of salve that softens the pain of losing more fundamental freedoms.

     

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    2 Comments

  • Reply Brandy September 15, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    I totally agree with you , Kristie. I find it interesting that you linked choice with the desire to be in control. I hadn’t made that direct connection in my brain yet, but it makes sense to me now. And really, the control is typically exerted over elements in our environment rather than over our selves (self-control), which means there is zero character development going on when the choices are being made.

  • Reply Kristie September 15, 2006 at 12:33 pm

    Good thoughts. It seems interesting to note that often “choice” is a misnomer. Sometimes we feel like we are making a choice, when in fact we have less control than we think. This is relevant because it demonstrates that this idea we are obsessed with–choice– may often be a sham. Our desire to call it a choice in spite of this goes back to a selfish desire to be in control… which stems from pride. This doesn’t seem good. Certainly there are choices that need to be made (following Christ being one of them), but the many actions we label as “choices” may not actually be. (perhaps I just restated what you already said…)

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