The paradox of freedom through choice.

Words: Courtney Boag
Images: Anthroprospective

September 21, 2018

“Learning to choose is hard. Learning to choose well is harder. And learning to choose well in a world of unlimited possibilities is harder still, perhaps too hard.”

Barry Schwartz

In an increasingly globalised world, it can be hard to feel authentic. Indeed, the paradox of connectivity, as promised by modernity, also brings with it a sort of solidification of mimicry – a collective mirroring of humanity’s characteristics, rituals and traditions. With Barbie and Rambo making their way to the street stalls of the remotest locations on the globe, one has to ask; what future is there for diversity and choice? Indeed, many of us in the so-called ‘developed world’ enjoy a smorgasbord of choice, however, has this wealth of choice created a wealth of diversity in our global community, or has the notion of choice become an oxymoron? In his 2005 TED Talk, Psychologist Barry Schwartz diagnosed our society’s abundance of choice as the “official dogma of all Western industrial societies”. He explained that;

“The official dogma runs like this: If we are interested in maximising the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximise individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf.”

However, Schwartz, among many other researchers are now questioning how the idea of choice – which has become so embedded into our perceptions of freedom – may actually be working to undermine our fundamental freedoms. The paradox of being exposed to so much choice is that in many instances it produces a certain paralysis, as opposed to the liberation it claims to offer. While many of the choices we make on a day to day basis are highly unlikely to have dire consequences if chosen ‘incorrectly’, researchers are now coming to realise that even the most mundane of decisions are often accompanied with a certain underlying anxiety. As Schwartz explains, “The more options there are, the easier it is to regret anything at all that is disappointing about the option that you chose”. Economists call this ‘opportunity costs’ and describe it as the decisions we make when we need to consider how we value, and subsequently, compare the options we have on offer. Schwarts points out that “the reason that everything was better back when everything was worse is that when everything was worse, it was actually possible for people to have experiences that were a pleasant surprise. Nowadays, the world we live in — we affluent, industrialized citizens, with perfection the expectation — the best you can ever hope for is that stuff is as good as you expect it to be”. He humorously explains that at least when choices were limited, we could blame the world for not offering a better alternative, but now we are responsible for our bad choices.

Even our own sense of identity has become a matter of choice, with each day presenting another opportunity to identify ourselves differently. Such freedom, while appearing utopian, runs deeper than merely deciding on what to wear – it is a fundamental form of self-expression which can either create or break our shackles to the status quo. However, with so many variables available to us, how do we choose who and what we want to be? And is such a decision, once made, able to fluctuate or does it become solidified? Paradoxically, despite there being a plethora of options on offer to us, there appear to be two common ways of engaging with multiplicity; to embrace a flexible identity, or to embody an ideal, in which case one becomes vulnerable to a sort of identity nationalism. Indeed, the burgeoning titles for self-identification have enabled us to think more discerningly about our inner ‘Self’, however, have such titles made it harder for us to traverse a wider array of positionalities?  Would arguing for more understanding around masculine positionalities and struggles undermine our feminist values? Does a strong stance on the importance of localisation and alternative economic structures mean that we cannot select those attributes of capitalism that work? Does a decision to transition to a gender we feel more aligned with immediately make those characteristics of the contra gender off bounds?  Does identifying with overlapping and opposing characteristics render us inauthentic, or does this mean we just find new terminologies to ascribe to? If so is there a threshold on how many ideologies we can adopt? And if we ascribe to one, are we going to regretfully look back on our alternative options and think, “the grass really could have been greener?”

But when did it become so important to evaluate ourselves based on the terminologies we have created? Indeed, while our endeavours into the social, political and economic sciences have been fruitful in allowing us to become more reflexive on our position in society, have we gone too far? Does the plethora of self-titles we have on offer actually serve us anymore, or have they become a means of creating psychological, social and cultural boundaries between us? Indeed, it is an oxymoron when women become demonised by the same ideology which claims to support them? A concerning conundrum when the ‘left’ and ‘right’ become so fixated on their political positions that they cannot see how both sides are a part of the same blade. An enigma when people draw blood from their brothers, yet each claim that their God is righteous, and they’re faith-based on love. When does our supposed freedom, as promised through increased choice, actually set us free from our current binaries? When will our passion for freedom of speech, choice, and self-identification cease to result in our impassionate hatred and disgrace of how others exercise this same freedom? Doesn’t freedom extinguish such control?

Renata Salecl explains that “in today’s times of post-industrial capitalism, choice, together with individual freedom and the idea of self-making, has been elevated to an ideal” but that the dark side of this ideology has resulted in increased feelings of “anxiety, feelings of guilt, feelings of being inadequate, and feeling that we are failing in our choices”. Interestingly, Salecl states that this belief in individual choice has in many instances prevented us from thinking about social change and has actually “pacified us as political and social thinkers”. Rather than investing our opportunities for critique in current issues, we are becoming more engaged in self-critique and, in some cases, self-destruction. French philosopher Louis Althusser was one of the first thinkers who pointed out that ideology often functions to create veils of obviousness. For Althusser, ideology is associated with the acts and practice of its subjects. If this is the case, then, for the most part, our lives are being carried out in such a way as to conform to our ideologies, hence Althusser’s belief that our identities become so deeply embedded that they assume a “primary obviousness”. So, while intuitively, we may perceive our individuality as existing outside ideology, subjectivity is actually constantly being imposed on us without appearing to do so.  The role of discourse is fundamental in perpetuating subjectivities as language enables and mobilises emergent identities. Conversely, while we may engage in silent soliloquy to escape the trappings of ideological illusions, we also must acknowledge how our words, significations, laws of grammar and logic, and criteria for verification and justification have been received from the society we inhabit.

Indeed, our preoccupation with the individual, rational, and, accordingly, obvious choices serves to reinforce our own values and perceptions of the world around us. It becomes easy to see then, why we become defensive if we feel our freedom of choice is compromised and more ignorant towards the unfamiliar identities, decisions, and practices of others. Ideology, in this way, can be then be understood as both a security blanket and a wall. It serves to reinforce our own identities and hence freedoms of choice while alienating the identities and choices we, at best, fail to understand and at worst, aim to eliminate.

Anthroprospective is Australia’s first independent anthropology journal. Based in Naarm (Melbourne).

We acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the unceded lands of the Wurundjeri and Bunurong people.