The Western Tyrant

“In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People.”

(Canton, OH, Anti-War Speech, June 16, 1918)”
― Eugene V. Debs, Voices of a People’s History of the United States

free·dom

ˈfrēdəm/

noun
1. the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint.

2. the state of not being imprisoned or enslaved.

I doubt that I would face much opposition by saying freedom is a good thing. In a world of so much political correctness, I feel fairly confident in that statement. Freedom is essential to humanity; it allows us to breath, to stretch our legs, to become our own person.

However, there exists a paradox. Often times, we extrapolate the definition of freedom to include choice. And when we begin to equate freedom in every way with choice, then the paradox reveals itself. Yes, when one has choice, then one has freedom because freedom is exercised to make the choice. But when one has more choice, it happens that one has less freedom.

Allow me to illustrate.

A study in California was performed to illuminate upon the consequences of choice. On the first day, an aesthetic arrangement of 24 jams were set on a table to taste. The shoppers who participated in the tasting were given a coupon to buy any jam of the same brand in the store. On a different day, the sampling was repeated; except with 6 kinds of jam as opposed to the 24 previous. The same coupon was awarded the sampler. Researchers did note that more shoppers stopped at the table when 24 jams were presented. However, when it came to exercising the freedom to choose a discounted jam with the awarded coupon, only 3% of the group faced with the selection of 24 jams went on to purchase a pot. This is contrasted with the full 30% jam purchase rate of those who were faced with only 6 flavors.

Choice often produces paralysis instead of liberation.

An escalation of expectation occurs with the increase in options. The more choices we have the more we expect there to be the “perfect option”, and anything less than perfect is dissatisfying and leads to regret. If I am faced with the need to purchase jam, and there is only one available kind of jam, then I have relatively low expectation of that jam because “I had no choice”. Therefore, if the jam is delicious, I am pleasantly surprised. If the jam is not so tasty, I don’t blame myself; I only had one choice.

If there are 24 types of jams, however, my chances of regret and dissatisfaction are much higher. If I select the Pimpin’ Pumpkin’  jam and it turns out that pumpkin should never ever be turned into jam, I am experiencing regret because I chose incorrectly and have no one to blame but myself. And whoever decided pumpkin should be a flavor of jam.

With choice, “pleasantly surprised” is virtually eliminated: if one is satisfied with the choice they made, it’s not a surprise at all but a pat on the back for choosing correctly.

There exists the idea of “selecting” vs. “settling”. Faced with the option of purchasing only Creamy or Chunky peanut butter, I decide to select Chunky. I am not overwhelmed by the amount of choices, I am able to envision both spreads and what either spread would serve for my function, and have selected Chunky to be applied to my morning english muffins for the remainder of the week.

If I am tasked with purchasing peanut butter and am met with an enormous array of variety including but not limited to: Reduced Fat, Natural, Smooth, Honey, Recess, Skippy, Planters, Off-Brand, On-Brand, Men’s Health, Omega-3, Woman’s Health, Super Chunky, Chunkreamy, etc…there is no chance that I will be able to envision how each spread will influence my hypothetical english muffin. Therefore, instead of selecting my desired flavor, I settle with one that sounds like it will do, and hope that I’m not disappointed by my choice.

The article, Tyranny of Choice, published in The Economist explains it in this way:”As options multiply, there may be a point at which the effort required to obtain enough information to be able to distinguish sensibly between alternatives outweighs the benefit to the consumer of the extra choice.”

If the excess of choice is actually enslaving us, why does our society operate in this way? Well, psychologist Barry Schwartz, in his book The Paradox of Choice, points to the dogma of affluent Western industrial societies as looking something like this:

“If we are interested in maximizing the welfare of our citizens, the way to do that is to maximize individual freedom. The reason for this is both that freedom is in and of itself good, valuable, worthwhile, essential to being human. And because if people have freedom, then each of us can act on our own to do the things that will maximize our welfare, and no one has to decide on our behalf. The way to maximize freedom is to maximize choice. The more choice people have, the more freedom they have, and the more freedom they have, the more welfare they have”.

It is engrained in the nature of capitalism and our contemporary society. Yes, this idea is beautiful, the idea of unlimited choice so that we as Enlightened individuals can be without boundary or limitation. But this idea fails to consider the characteristics of humanity; we are not multitaskers. We become overwhelmed with choice, overwhelmed with the task of appreciating everything that is presented to us. And we cannot do it, we cannot appreciate so many things at the same time. Unlimited Choice could possibly succeed if we as a species were able to multitask.

The excess of choice is overawe-ing the masses, and as Eugene V. Debs in his anti-war speech claims, this is the intent of a tyrant.

 

“Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of the body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
― Thomas Jefferson

Peace and Blessings,
Josie

Schwartz, B. (2004). The paradox of choice: Why more is less. New York: Ecco
Tyranny of Choice. (2010). Retreived January 31, 2016, from http://www.economist.com
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