Thursday, July 09, 2009

Addicted to Choice

"Whatever gets you through the night 'salright, 'salright
It's your money or life 'salright, 'salright”

-- John Lennon

Note: This piece was originally published in STYLE Weekly 10 years ago. I dusted it off, touched it up and ran it at SLANTblog a couple of years ago. Now, after reading Chris Bopst's column on greed in Brick (which I read in a Facebook note), I'm offering it up again.


Obsessions, compulsions and addictions have always been in play. Now we see a somewhat new twist in driven behavior: In a time of plenty, some seem to have become addicted to the act of choosing between this and that. This group has developed what amounts to a jones for choosing from a smorgasbord of options. They get high on making choices.

Yet, as with any buzz, when it subsides the anxious feelings it allayed return with a vengeance.

Thus, choice addicts find themselves living in a continuous loop of shopping and making choices in order to cope with their habit. This is beyond consuming, it's just about choosing.

Of course Madison Avenue, great facilitator in this shop-’til-you-drop scenario, has long depicted “choice” as utter bliss: Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah! These space age disposable widgets come in five designer colors.

Choice has also been a hot political buzzword for some time. To a person wanting to express a belief that a woman is absolutely entitled to opt for an abortion, choice is a useful word for a slogan. It implies that ending the pregnancy is a matter of a person having dominion over her own body, rather than submitting to an authority claiming to represent society’s collective will.

Of course, those calling for “choice” in this case see the individual’s right to choose an abortion as trumping whatever damage, if any, might be done to society by the abortion.

The notion that it should be fine for any citizen to pull his tax money out of the funding of public education, in order to finance sending his own child to private school, has been called “choice” by its advocates.

While this argument appears to be resting on a convenient logic, it ignores the long-held American tenet that everyone in the community has a stake in public education, regardless of how many children they have.

In both cases, the sloganeers show a telling awareness of the lure the word “choice” has today. Perhaps this is due to some new collective sense of powerlessness in the air. Or maybe the scam aspect of selling folks their own freedom is as old as dirt.

In “One-Dimensional Man,” German-born philosopher Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979) warned us in the 1960s about illusions of freedom: “Free choice among a wide variety of goods and services does not signify freedom if these goods and services sustain social controls over a life of toil and fear.” Marcuse’s keen eye saw the counterfeit aspect of the processed brand of freedom wielders of easy credit felt, even then, as they exercised their prerogative to select one set of time-payment obligations over another.

Marcuse’s hard-nosed take on what he saw as controls over modern society is out of style today. But his view of how language is predictably used by a few of us to manipulate the rest of us is still as valuable as ever.

French diplomat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord’s (1754-1838) words on the topic of language remain crisp today. Talleyrand offered, “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

British philosopher/mathematician Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) went further: “Speech was given to man to prevent thought.”

OK, so tricky lingo has long been used to shape perception. However, as a true believer in the unfettered streaming marketplace of ideas, I expect tortured language and agenda-driven slogans to come and go. My point is that the act of choosing should not be so highly valued that it comes at the expense of appreciating what happens after the choice is made.

Some folks put a lot of store in choosing the perfect mate. They shop, and they shop, to be sure. But from what I’ve seen, what couples actually do, after their choice/commitment, has a lot more to do with the success of the relationship than anything else. Of course, some just keep shopping, vows or not. They can’t stop shopping and choosing.

Can constantly switching TV channels for hours be a more satisfying experience than watching one interesting program? Well, the answer probably depends on whether you value what comes after the choice. But no matter what the nervous viewers do they will inevitably be exposed to plenty of commercials prompting them to make more choices.

Bottom line: Choice addicts are schlemiels, because every time they accept that their options are limited to what’s on a menu put together by someone else, they are surrendering control to the list-maker. Meanwhile, the mountain of disposable widgets and schmidgets grows, evermore, as choice addicts cast off yesterday’s tarnished urge, to grab after today's sparkling urge ... to get through the night.

-- Words by F.T.Rea; Lennon illustration by Mike Lormand


Shaun Kenney said...

Gonna have to pick up One Dimensional Man now. Great post.

F.T. Rea said...


You might enjoy knowing that my copy of "One Dimensional Man" was given to me 40 years ago by the then-editor of Commonweal Magazine, Daniel Callahan.

I'm guessing you probably know who he is, as you have some things in common with him. See: