Friday, February 22, 2013

You do have a choice

The last couple of weeks have passed as though in a blur, between fighting a virus, an increased noisiness of life, chores, and some sort of deeper crisis to work through. I have several lines of thought and writing started here and dropped, mainly because I stopped all blogging altogether in an attempt to re-balance my life. I will pick up those lines, one by one, but not today. 

Today, I want to try and write down something else, something I understood today, even though it seems almost obvious in retrospect. It's about freedom of choice: somewhat more general than painting, but certainly applicable to painting as well.

For a while now, my mind has been bothered by a recurrent pattern of discourse, which I seem to encounter all over this wide wild field known as "internet" in general and "social media" in particular. The pattern isn't new, by no means; only my personal focus on it is. In most general terms, it is about people construing situations where one pathway is even just a bit more difficult to pursue (in any sense) than the other as the lack of choice. 

And one variation on this theme in particular: when the choice appears to be "blocked" by social consequences, like someone's disapproval or lack of due respect. A person, it would seem, has a choice only insofar as all possible variants would be met with unanimous approval by "society" (or some part of it, or any part of it, or even simply by anyone); a choice exists only if all available options are "kosher"; if you can have a choice and still conform.

Let me give you an example, most innocent and most striking. The last economic crisis has brought to our Silicon Valley a number of software developers who used to work in financial sector, and they soon discovered that there is no dress code here: everyone dresses just as they like. Unsurprisingly, most people dress for work casually, or even very casually, even though nobody forces anyone else to do so. And so, some of the newcomers feel like they have no choice but to dress in such a way as to conform, not as they like to dress, but as "everybody else" likes to dress. Some are uncomfortable without their suits and ties, but they feel as though they are being pressured by the environment into jeans and shorts. As ever, most people around really couldn't care less about how this guy is dressed; but in the unlikely case that somebody secretly does, how can this possibly strip him of his freedom of choice how to dress (pun intended)? There is no dress code -- everyone is officially allowed to dress as they like.

The example might seem to be absurd -- but this overall pattern recurs in many domains, sometimes in most essential and fundamental aspects of life. A person claims that they want to have the freedom of personal choice in all aspects of their life, and yet apparently feels as though they don't have it unless they are sure that each alternative would be equally "supported" and "respected" by everyone. If I exaggerate, then only just a little bit. 

I've been somewhat bewildered by this line of thought, if only because this actually never happens at all. A society in which all choices have equal value to everyone is downright impossible: after all, people have reasons for their choices, and these are, by definition, reasons against the alternatives. One person would pride themselves in cooking everything from scratch, for the sake of their family's health; another person's pride would lie in not spending even a minute of their time in such mundane endeavors. And even simply stating the reasons for their choice might come across as a "disrespect" for the other choice. And it might even be the case: but this doesn't destroy either's freedom of choice at all. You do have a choice.    

And here is the thought that came to me today. However strange it might seem, this feeling that there is no choice is actually a kind of nostalgie. For ages, most aspects of human life had been much more constrained than now, pre-defined by the circumstances of birth, by society's laws and conventions. These constraints were defied, is ever, only by born non-conformists, often with quite real consequences, like being burnt at the stake. Everyone else would just follow the predetermined path, from their birth to their grave, in the prescribed manner. But at some point, the non-conformists won a major battle, so we now enjoy a higher level of personal freedom of choice than ever. There is no dress code, no prescribed path to the grave; and as a (maybe unintended) consequence, also no path which would be unanimously approved by "society". And just as our newcomer from NYC to Silicon Valley, many people seek and find a non-existent dress code to conform to.

And the thing is, one of the new "rules" of society is to want the freedom of choice. It is just not "kosher" anymore to enjoy constraints and conventions. You do have a choice, whether you want it or not.      



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