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Do your choices lead to social change?

Have you ever wondered if today’s overwhelming array of choices — whether it’s food products, sex partners, careers or reading material — disempower, rather than serve you? If so, then you’ll enjoy a 10.5-minute animated presentation narrated by sociologist and legal theorist Renata Salecl.

Her premise is that under capitalism, too many choices create anxiety for us. (Raised under Communism in the former Yugoslavia, Salecl challenges that form of ideology too.) As social beings, we’re inclined to choose what others choose, she says, and we worry about how others will regard our choice. Not clear on “What do I really want?”, we become frozen, pacified, and indecisive. (I agree, although many independent thinkers do disregard popular opinion and make choices that seem to serve themselves far better.) We try to make an ideal choice, but there never is one. Therefore, we experience loss (reaction to the choice(s) we didn’t make), which can provoke more anxiety. Sounds cheery, right?

Salecl mentions a lawyer friend of hers who gets anxious when he has to order a bottle of wine. If he gets one that’s too inexpensive, he worries that he’ll look cheap. If he buys something pricey, he figures his fellow diners will think he’s showing off. So, he buys a moderately priced bottle and then feels guilty and anxious for having others’ supposed opinion of him determine his choice.

That makes me think of a food line-up I was in years ago at Capers in Vancouver, BC. A man in a suit in front of me, whom I later learned was a judge, seemed to have untold difficulty deciding which juice to choose from the refrigerated shelves. I watched him, amazed, as he seemed to wrestle for about five minutes with the choice. Later, I thought: How on earth, while on the bench, does he choose people’s fate? Are those choices easier for him because they’re pre-determined, more or less, by the law?

I recognize how quickly I feel overwhelmed when shopping somewhere with too many choices; that’s one reason why I rarely go to Costco or ever shopped at Granville Island Market. Salecl says that too much choice precludes social change because people end up feeling so anxious and powerless, they don’t want to risk more vulnerability. Afraid to lose what they already have, they won’t join others to organize and confront authorities to seek change.

In Salecl’s view, the myriad of choices under capitalism reinforces the myth that “Everyone can make it.” If individuals don’t reach their dreams, they feel guilty for their perceived failures, or shame for being “poor”, however that’s defined. Unfortunately, instead of criticizing society for this, people too often turn their criticism inwards, railing at themselves for not measuring up and never feeling good enough. A variety of malaises can result, from anorexia and bulemia to workaholism and other addictions.

Overall, Salecl’s premise is that the ideology of choice prevents social change. Workers (what she calls “proletarian slaves”) end up believing that they are in charge and have control (as consumers) when someone else (a boss or company) determines their livelihood.

It sounds dismal but too true. Unfortunately, Salecl’s presentation doesn’t present solutions. I think that self-awareness and nurturance of an inner sense of self, beyond the socially created “ego”, is a huge first step. If you are aware of your true desires (not those imposed on you), you can mindfully make more choices that serve your real needs, not those that advertisers and the consumer world say are yours. If we could all internalize the belief “I’m okay exactly the way I am” rather than “I’ll never be good enough,” that would spawn a massive social revolution. External change, inspired by inner growth, makes for the greatest and most meaningful change, in my view.

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July 9, 2011 at 1:09 pm
1 comment »
  • July 10, 2011 at 8:04 amFrank L. McElroy

    What a wonderful piece, and Salecl’s film is compelling, forcing every thinking person to ask endless questions. Your suggestion that we all find a way beyond a social ego is interesting, but I think impossible, except individually. We are social animals and define ourselves in the context of others – some don’t like the Klan or Nazis and don’t act like them; others like them and act like them. Some appreciate the preservation of old-growth forests while others want to extract the riches inherent in them. Each person’s “social ego” has a context defined by people of interest to that person. And each person acts out of perceived self interest, meaning that a universal social ego is not likely, except perhaps in the face of invasion by aliens or universal fear of same.

    No question that so-called social mores create untold pressure on everyone. Being a workaholic is seen as a positive trait by many, when it is really a serious indicator of underlying denial, neurosis or other mental illness. Our western society, and that of China and the east and down-under all promote the notion of “getting ahead.” We are taught by our institutions to revile the poor. Not so long ago those institutions characterized people with non-white skin as not worthy of anything but the blessing of duty to white skinned people. Now we have laws that say such treatment is unlawful. And there is an example of social change. A journey from point A to point B, though in that area of consideration society should be at point Z. But it’s not because it is in the interest of some to deny, to oppose, to denigrate, to demean for false reasons, but reasons which our societies promote.

    Social change is happening every moment everywhere, and nothing can stop it. Not riots, not politics, nothing. Though all of those are constantly in play, moving society in all sorts of directions. The choices we make every day do influence the world. But acting as individuals we don’t have much influence on events, except on home turf. The idea that we can act together for right purpose is intoxicating, like the idea that if we work hard we can prosper beyond imagination. And there is some evidence that these notions are based on some truth: The Woodstock Festival in Bethel which raised the specter of a generation willing to challenge or reject the status quo ante, the demonstration in NYC for a moratorium against the Viet Nam war which surely projected the end of that conflict, the demonstration in Tiannanman Square which unquestionably pushed China into a bizarre but functional version of western capitalism, and certainly the success stories of countless entrepreneurs from Henry Ford to the chief of Lehman Brothers.

    These events and people are evidence of the concept that the choices we make inevitably lead to social change. In my short lifetime there have been many places where, seemingly, people have had no choices available. But even in the darkest streets of Moscow and East Berlin people made small choices which inevitably led to social and political change. As westerners weren’t we all taught that the Soviets had no freedom and that we had nothing but? Leg irons in both. But there are lots of places where people don’t have any real choices. They exist in every big city and every rural county, in every country, absolutely everywhere. In our zeal to succeed we may have forgotten that not every person has the opportunity or ability to be a banker, a hedge fund manager, or someone who sweeps out the stadium after the big football game. There is lots of evidence that since about 1950 the middle class in the US has been pushed back in favor of favored elites, individuals and corporations. Recently the divide has grown dramatically because of the tax cuts granted the wealthiest by the administration of George W. Bush. Now that those cuts are set to expire, the Republican party is crowing about how those cuts must stay in place in order to create jobs. This is self interest in action, creating social change. A simple examination of history shows that those tax cuts created no jobs and that the financial environment created by them and by the lack of regulation of our dear banking firms led to the colossal reverse in the world economy, destroying jobs and lives, creating expansive and maybe nearly universal depression, and of course unlimited debt, much incurred to rescue the challenged institutions. More social change wrought by choices, many of which were made in China – decisions to lend endless amounts of money to flawed economic systems. If he were alive, Milton Friedman would surely have some thoughts about his supposedly Darwinian model of economics and how it is driving all this change. He would be wrong as he has been about absolutely everything, except the force of self interest, though I believe he hid that in loftier descriptives.

    Can we make choices which will effect positive social change? Of course. But the real question is what exactly is “positive social change?” We know that it varies depending upon the person answering the question. So the brilliant words of Thomas P. O’Neil come to mind: “All politics is local.” The same is true for social change. If you want it, do it on home turf. Only if there is a serious monster actively threatening will anything global occur, though the local action, if replicated in sufficient locations, over a long period of time, will accomplish global change. It does every day. I see this issue as stemming from the growing distance between our controlling institutions and people. That distance is expanding as international corporations sit on top of people, are granted saint-like status by governments desperate to look successful.

    Fareed Zakaria observed a week ago that allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire would bring 30 Trillion Dollars into the US economy, solving the so-called debt catastrophe. He didn’t mention that if corporations like GE paid even a small part of their tax obligation there wouldn’t be any financial crisis. Of course GE, having its best year ever in 2010, paid no income taxes to the US. It found ways of moving its operations into jurisdictions, countries, places where they could reduce and avoid tax. And GE is a prime example of a truly patriotic entity deserving of endless government subsidies and contracts.

    One wonders why the loyal opposition, including the US President, has not called out these imposters for loyal americans, these cheaters and gamers. But this is social change resulting from choices made by all of us. Harper is Prime Minister because of the choices of individuals. The HST is law because of choices made by some people in power who were put there because of choices made by individuals.

    Social change driven by self interest will likely always weigh in favor of concentration of wealth and power. So I adopt your proposal, simply because it is not in my nature to seek wealth for its own sake or to intentionally disadvantage any person for my own gain. I will, as I have throughout my life, try to give something to those who have fewer choices than I because my self interest values others. When the rest of the world catches up, it will be a better place. But I’m not waiting, anticipating or even hoping. But I’ll do my little bit.

    Thanks to you and Renata Salecl for stimulating my thoughts.

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