Heather Conn Blogs

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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 Comment (1)