Supermarkets and just about everyone on the internet may insist that “choice” is a liberation, but there are some pretty serious social science types who have come to see it as a yoke, writes Helen Razer.
By
Helen Razer

20 Apr 2016 - 3:30 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2016 - 3:30 PM

When Malcolm Turnbull assumed leadership of the Liberal Party last year, two things became immediately apparent. First, the guy preferred a well-cut suit to a pair of red scanties. Second, he had a marvellous knack for rephrasing just about everything his predecessor said to make it sound sexy and fresh.

Mal was very fond of words like “innovation”, “agility” and “disruption” — all Silicon Valley terms that can be translated back to Australian English to basically mean “bend over”. Another word of which his government was immediately fond was “choice”.

Choice. Choose your choice. Choose your choosy choice. The more choice, apparently, the better.

Of course, we can’t blame Mal alone for the overuse of this term and the belief that it represents. “Choice” has been a synonym for freedom for some time and it’s the kind of thing us everyday people are wont to scream about in arguments. You can be having a disagreement about politics, ethics or fashion, and one of you may eventually resort to “But it’s my choice!” as a way to prove an unassailable point.

One of the better interrogations of “choice” in recent years comes to us from Aziz Ansari. In both his book on modern courtship and a fine TV series, Master of None, the Indian American comic took great inspiration from a well-regarded psychological study on the phenomenon of “choice”.

One of you may eventually resort to “But it’s my choice!” as a way to prove an unassailable point.

Although, Ansari tells us, we now believe that choice is just the same thing as freedom, choice can tend to stick us in a prison of doubt. In a scene in his Netflix series, Ansari depicts himself as a guy so fixated on choosing just the right burrito from all of the locally available burritos, he fails to buy a burrito at all.

He brings a version of this choice-fuelled hesitation to his intimate relationship. With so many other women available on Tinder, he wonders, has he made the right “choice” with his partner?

Choice, as is documented in the book The Paradox of Choice from which Ansari took his cue, can paralyse you. Choice can confuse you into inaction or, worse, bad action. Choice can leave you loveless and hungry.

Although, Ansari tells us, we now believe that choice is just the same thing as freedom, choice can tend to stick us in a prison of doubt.

Turnbull, supermarkets and just about everyone on the internet may insist that “choice” is a liberation, but there are some pretty serious social science types who have come to see it as a yoke. Although, we probably don’t need an academic shrink to remind us that choosing that mobile plan or that brand of butter or that crap job took an awfully long time and gave us no meaningful reward.

Beyond these documented troubles with “choice” that start in the marketplace and even extend to our most intimate partnerships — is this the right match for me? Could I do better? — there’s the very basic trouble that arises when we begin to cram a lot of meaning into a single concept.

Choice is not, at all, the same thing as freedom. Of course, it can coincide with freeing acts and it is for this reason that abortion rights activists called themselves “pro-choice”. Personally, I would have preferred it if they’d called their activism “pro-freedom”, particularly given that the decision to terminate a pregnancy rarely feels like a choice. It is, at best, a very unpleasant necessity which one must be at liberty to undertake. 

But, whatever Aziz and some other good people have had to say on the matter, “choice” retains its value for many, including the PM, equivalent to freedom.

Choice is not, at all, the same thing as freedom. Of course, it can coincide with freeing acts.

Setting aside my ardent desire not to choose between that particular brand of coffee and another, because even I have slightly more important things to do, I “choose” to believe that the choices that I am making are not always mine alone. 

When I “choose” my clothes from an online store, I do so within margins that have already been “chosen” for me. Is this the right garment for my age, my budget, my gender and my social class? No matter the “choices” of fabric and design available to me, I’m propelled toward that “choice” by a range of influences.

And I just spent 45 minutes pretending that I was “free”.

We are not free. But we do, on the other hand, retain the “choice” to consider just how free we’re not.

 

Love the story? Follow the author here: Twitter @HelenRazer.

 

Image by Kasiq Kmjw (Flickr).

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