The Tyranny of Choice

Polina Aronson over at Aeon — one of my favorite websites for “big think” essays — says something very provocative about the nature of modernity and choice:

The most important requirement for choice is not the availability of multiple options. It is the existence of a savvy, sovereign chooser who is well aware of his needs and who acts on the basis of self-interest. Unlike all previous lovers who ran amok and acted like lost children, the new romantic hero approaches his emotions in a methodical, rational way. He sees an analyst, reads self-help literature and participates in couples counselling. Moreover, he might learn ‘love languages’, read into neuro-linguistic programming, or quantify his feelings by marking them on a scale from 1 to 10. The American philosopher Philip Rieff called this type ‘the psychological man’. In Freud: The Mind of a Moralist (1959), Rieff describes him as ‘anti-heroic, shrewd, carefully counting his satisfactions and dissatisfactions, studying unprofitable commitments as the sins most to be avoided’. The psychological man is a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.

And she goes on:

Compared with other historical conventions about romance, the Regime of Choice might seem like a Gore-Tex jacket next to a hair shirt. Its greatest promise is that love needn’t cause pain. According to the polemics that Kipnis develops in Against Love (2003), the only suffering the Regime of Choice recognises is the supposedly productive strain of ‘working on a relationship’: tears shed in the couples therapist‘s room, wretched attempts at conjugal sex, daily inspection of mutual needs, the disappointment of a break-up with someone who is ‘not good for you’. You are allowed to have sore muscles but you cannot have accidents. By making heartbroken lovers into the authors of their own trouble, popular advice produces a new form of social hierarchy: an emotional stratification based on the misidentification of maturity with self-sufficiency.

In the Regime of Choice, committing oneself too strongly, too early, too eagerly is a sign of an infantile psyche. It shows a worrying readiness to abandon the self-interest so central to our culture.

Second, and even more importantly, the Regime of Choice is blind to structural limitations that make some people less willing – or less able – to choose than others. This occurs not only because we have unequal endowments of what the British sociologist Catherine Hakim calls ‘erotic capital’ (that is, some of us are prettier than others). In fact, the biggest problem about choice is that whole groups of individuals might, actually, be disadvantaged by it.

Aronson compares this to her native Russia, where the “Regime of Fate” rules, and where passion — unconsidered and unreflective passion — guides and where “the concept of maturity that lies at the heart of the Regime of Choice regards romantic pain as an aberration and a sign of poor decision-making, the Russians consider maturity to be the capacity to bear that very pain, sometimes to an absurd degree.”

A middle-class American who falls in love with a married woman is advised to break up with the lady and to schedule 50 hours of therapy. A Russian in a similar situation, however, storms the woman’s house and pulls her out by the hand, straight from the hob with stewing borsch, past crying children and a husband frozen with game controller in hand. Sometimes, it goes well: I know a couple who have been together happily for 15 years since the day he had kidnapped her from a conjugal New Year’s feast. But in most cases, the Regime of Fate produces mess.

In terms of bulk numbers, Russians have a greater number of marriages, divorces and abortions per capita than any other developed country. These statistics document an impetus to do whatever it takes to act upon emotions, and often at the cost of one’s own comfort. Russian romance is closely accompanied by substance abuse, domestic violence and abandoned children: the by-products of lives that were never really thought‑through very clearly. Apparently, believing in fate each time you fall in love is not such a great alternative to excessive choice.

Aarson sees the destruction the “regime of fate” inflicts upon the land, but she also see the “regime of choice” as attempting to impose too much control and took much predictability on events and acts that are, by our very nature as human beings, messy and unpredictable. Choice could use a little more passion and a little more fate.

I think Aronson here is speaking some deep and penetrating truths about the nature of the modern world (and not just about comparative coupling and romance in the United States and Russia). Modernity promises an end to pain and suffering, and in doing so, tells us that pain and suffering have no meaning except as things to be overcome. Passion and emotion have no value except as things to be mastered and eventually suppressed. Life will be plotted out carefully, deliberately, and properly, so that all of the right choices will be made and minimal suffering experienced or inflicted. Because, as Aronson notes, the modern autonomous individual (she uses the term “psychological man”) is “a romantic technocrat who believes that the application of the right tools at the right time can straighten out the tangled nature of our emotions.”

I suspect this explains some of why I had such trouble with the Lutherans. More than once, people have described me as having a Russian soul — a swirling and chaotic darkness and deep, abiding and barely controlled passion. For folks who want a well-ordered world, and whose notion of non-anxious presence is a rational, calm, and non-emotive person (you’ve all met that pastor, I’m fairly certain), well, I can see how I would be deeply unsettling. The ideal emotional technocrat Aronson describes here doesn’t just control how he or she reacts to emotions, but has learned how to feel the right kinds of things. It is the ultimate triumph of ideology and technology over humanity.

And I hate it. It isn’t human. At least it doesn’t seem human to me.

The well-planned and well-ordered life does’t know what to do with the vagaries of fate. We love and make commitments not knowing how things will end. (Well, we do know death looms out there somewhere, until technology makes it possible for us to do away even with that.) We marry in the heat of passion, and learn as we live and love what it means to have actually committed to be with this one person. Because it won’t always go well. It won’t always be easy.

Jennifer and I chose not to kids of our own — a decision I will regret until the day I die. And I am beginning to consider the possibility that our ethos of choice in this matter also lets us think that we can choose our children, that we can craft them into things of our liking. In the last few years, but especially this summer, I have found myself in parental relationships with a handful of young people whom I would never have chosen as my children had it been up to me. But they chose me, or fate knocked us together, and it has been glorious, falling in love with these amazing young people, getting to know them, finding out who it is that God has made my “children” because of circumstance.

And learning what it means to commit to people whose lives are not particularly well ordered.

Aronson’s Russian way is messy. It is chaotic. And we see the pain it causes in broken lives. But I don’t think the regime of choice is any less damaging and any less destructive. (It just isn’t so obvious because the violence is institutional, legal, and usually in slow motion.) In fact, I’m coming to the conclusion that our very modern idea that everything will be well planned, well considered, all angles examined and considered before any commitments are made, that we will choose well and choose wisely (and be judged harshly for failing to do so) is antihuman. (At least for non-Northern Europeans.) It denies us the experience of uncertainty, of bearing pain (and discerning meaning in that pain), and of finding real joy in that which cannot be planned.

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3 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Choice

  1. Even the Northern Europeans of old would never have put up with that techno-emo crap. It comes from the Enlightenment (and stoic and other classical and medieval precursors): was purely rational in the 18th century, sentimentalized in the 19th century, and became therapeutic over the course of the 20th century. This is death.

    When I got married, I just felt that this was “a far far better thing” than had ever come into view in my life experience. So I dove in, and accepted it all. Forty years later I don’t regret it a bit. I made huge mistakes (a euphemism), and all concerned suffered significant pain along the way, and also real love. This is life.

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  2. As I read this I cannot help thinking of my evangelical tradition and all the exhortations to “guard your heart” and save it for the person you intend to marry. Well, the road to marriage is messy and it takes some sharing of the heart to form the layers of relationship that are needed to get there.

    I had an attractive young woman on the horizon of my world for the past couple of months. Turns out, she has a boyfriend. Had I been properly guarding my heart, I would not have experienced the hurt and disappointment which I am currently feeling. Neither would I have experienced the exhilaration of the past couple of months–the thought that any day could be the day she says “YES!!!!! I’m yours, take me away!!!!!”–an exhilaration I had not known in years. Hurts like hell now, but at the end of the day I feel like a human being, at least.

    Evangelicalism (and perhaps this is not just an evangelical thing) seems to demand that we sacrifice our humanity as the price to be paid for sanctification. The whole “Guard your heart” thing requires that we sacrifice much that is human about falling in love and being in love, in order to maintain a form of purity.

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