Choice

Nothing evokes my decision-making anxiety quite like the paper towel aisle of Target. Not over the importance of the decision, obviously, but just the sheer quantity–of options, factors, and unsolicited contradictory advice on every label.

1-Ply? 2-Ply? Quilted? Do I want maximum absorption or fastest absorption? Or the best wet-strength? Who’s doing this “scientific testing” anyway? I could get the extra-soft ones, but they’re not made from recycled material. Should I just pick the cheapest ones–by square-footage? By volume? By absorption capacity?

The more options, the more inevitable disappointment. It’s referred to as the paradox of choice: the fact that an overabundance of choice has actually increased anxiety and unhappiness in postindustrial society.  No matter what you pick, the list of what you didn’t get will always stack higher than what you did.

Sometimes it makes me want to buy nothing at all.

So what do you do to avoid standing there forever, paralyzed by the consumer’s dilemma? The recommended strategy is satisficing–just picking something good enough so you can get on with life. And it works. As long as no one questions your paper towel choices. And as long as you don’t find yourself in a mess that really has you wishing for 3-Ply.

Just satisfice and get on with it. After all, it’s just a stupid stupid paper towel roll.

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Unless it’s not.

In a choice-saturated culture, it’s no wonder that the language of choice is at the center of our politics.

“My body, my choice!”

Take Liberal feminism, with it’s spotlight on autonomy as the key women’s right. Putting aside the daunting task of assessing the social causes and implications of each choice–along with the insufferable personal scrutiny involved in doing so–choice feminism instead celebrates the act of choosing itself as inherently empowering.

Bikinis, hijabs, lipstick, nose jobs, leg hair, sex, abortion, careers, babies, marriage, divorce. They can all be celebrated as feminist choices–but especially if  you can profess with unwavering confidence how you made the absolute best decision with your completely independent will.

The main point is spot on: personal choices surrounding one’s body and life path should be made available and respected. But assumption often implicit in the tone–that such choices automatically carry superwoman-type sense of “empowerment”–is another issue.

What if choice doesn’t always feel so powerful, free, and…super? Maybe it’s because no matter which way you turn, you’re still surrounded by flashy signs and crowds cheering for the paths you didn’t choose and against the one you did. Or maybe because you have no “right” decision that you can make proudly and loudly, only a closet full of varying shades of wrong-ish.

Can there be space in the language of empowered choice to talk about uncertainty, doubt, regret? And loss: choice always means loss, big or small, of what might have been.

Almost makes you want to opt out of the whole choice thing all together.

“It’s not a choice!”

It’s also no wonder that not choosing  has become a political mantra and legal defense for the modern gay rights movement.

Denying choice is the quickest and safest way out when when you’re accused of making all the wrong choices. “I couldn’t” needs less explanation than “I didn’t,” and “I had to” carries less moral baggage than “I decided to.” With choice out of the equation, you don’t have to directly handle and detangle those claims of wrongness and rightness thrown at you.

And of course it’s not incorrect. As long as you’re talking about attraction, and not identity or behavior, its basically involuntary by definition. There’s a reason we call it “falling in love” and not “jumping in love” (or lust or whatever).

But we jump into other things–relationships, sex, visibility, politics, communities, futures.  Making “not a choice” the central message of a movement is a decision to treat inevitability of falling as more defining than the courage of jumping.

But what if we need to deal with both? Can we deal with the fact that we all can jump, but not without falling back to earth? Jumping not into the infinite sky like superwoman, but back onto our human legs. Jumping as high as we can, but with the risk of broken bones in the landing.

Jumping without knowing if we’ll be caught. Jumping over the obstacles in front of us, but only when our power exceeds the size. Jumping over dirty puddles, or landing right in them, making messes too messy for even 3-ply to fix. Leaping forward down the best path we can see to get where we can get from where we are.

Choosing to jump, because the only thing scarier is standing still.

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