Options Overload

Our society's belief in 'choice' as a hallowed ideal is a dangerous thing.

Phone books and toothbrushes seem absurdly similar these days, at least in their capacity to add to the list of modern daily annoyances.

Buying a toothbrush was once a fairly simple task: Your choices were limited, but if you brushed regularly and avoided sweets, your masticators were likely in better shape than the bloke who consumed Coke and caramels for breakfast. Nowadays, the toothbrush section of your local pharmacy is as colorful and dizzying as a display of Hawaiian shirts.

When it came to phone books, choice wasn't even a consideration. But now that the production of phone books is a competitive market, Tucsonans get to fill their idle hours choosing which of the several versions is most useful or least confusing. Then comes the happy task of tossing the rejects into the recycle bin, thereby making it easier for still another phone book to appear on your doorstep.

On the bottom shelf of a bookcase sits a preposterous thousand-page book billing itself as the Internet Yellow Pages. (I wouldn't own such a silly item, but that's another story.) Yellow pages, of course, drive the market behind the proliferation of phone books. Each time a salesperson from the latest "information source" walks into a Tucson business, the message is the same: You must purchase an ad because if you don't, your chances of making the sale are as likely as Saddam Hussein running for U.S. president in the 2004 election.

So in a bizarre perversion of our hallowed belief in "choice," the beleaguered business owner is being told, "You've got no choice: advertise or die." The good news, at least for small businesses struggling to keep their bills paid, is that despite gazillions of dollars spent on advertising in this country, word-of-mouth continues to be the most effective way of getting your product or service to the purchaser.

The bad news, for the rest of us, is we continue to buy into the myth that the more choices we have, the better. We are mistakenly convinced we thrive on choice, or what we perceive as choice. We believe, as citizens of a nation which prides itself on being the paragon of liberty (yeah, right--and the Patriot Act is ensuring those liberties), that choice underlies the Bill of Rights and the words "freedom" and "choice" are somehow synonymous. So it's no surprise "choice" permeates so many aspects of daily existence: Ads boast their products "new choices." Your therapist talks to you about "choices." Your kids' teachers tell them life is all about "choices." New Age twits solemnly declare children born in poverty made a "choice" of parents based on some former life.

All this choice business is both convenient and pernicious. It is convenient because it is a perfect fit with a political and economic ideology that holds individuals solely responsible for the conditions of their lives. If you are a homeless wretch spending most of your time scrounging money for meals or booze and the rest of it reliving the nightmare of Vietnam, it is a result of "bad choices." If you are an entrepreneur on the way to amassing a financial fortune, it is because you made "good choices."

Elevating choice to a glorified ideal is dangerous because it ignores human interdependence and does so in a nefarious way that appears benign. It also denies the continuum of life: You are a "success" because of your own choices, not because you were born a Bush. (This assumes you view being a shill for corporate America while temporarily occupying the White House a success.) You are a "failure" because of your own choices, not because you were born in a crumbling tenement in an urban ghetto and ate lead paint as a toddler while your mother turned tricks on the sofa to support her crack habit.

Choice is the perfect vehicle for elevating our nation's mythology of individualism to its most extreme point. As an individual, you are solely responsible for your choices and hence the conditions of your life. There is no one to hold responsible or accountable but yourself. There is no room for luck, coincidence or the influence of others. Circumstances do not matter. Your life is solely in your hands and you can fashion it in any way you "choose."

The fact that some people do not have the benefit of having learned how to choose the better of two or more options is breezily discounted. "Well they can learn." The fact that some people have a harder time learning is dismissed with the covers-all-contingencies: "That's life." And the fact that some people do not even have options, or only forced ones, is considered ridiculous. When "choice" rules, nothing else matters.

It is possible to make what appears to be the "right" choice and still land in a situation you did not intend. This is explained, with a certain amount of glibness, by pointing out that you really wanted to end up there and everything you did led you there. The choice champions will always have an explanation for misfortune that holds you, and you alone, responsible.

What they forget are the words of the poet who pointed out the "best laid plans of mice and men" may go astray. To that we can add: The best thought-out choices may not always be what they appear; serendipity may play a part in your future as much as anything.

But there's no need to ponder the daunting thought that choice may be as illusory as Osama bin Laden's (remember him?) whereabouts. After all, there's a new toothbrush to choose and a new phone book at the front door.

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