When “Individual” Choice isn’t an “Individual’s” Choice
The struggle to overcome oppression and win individual freedoms is as old as civilization and it’s still not over.
It’s always those with less power who suffer — women (do you know of a written history of a time when women were not oppressed?), people who are sexual minorities (LGBTIQ), people who are ethnic / religious minorities, and the low caste, and the poor.
Perhaps it’s an in-built power dynamic of human societies — given a large enough group; out of those with privilege, there will be a critical mass who will use their privilege to oppress; and of the less privileged oppressed there will be a critical mass who will resist. And there will be those who are oppressed on one dimension and oppress on another.
If we go back in time, we will see many examples of legislative changes that increased freedoms and reduced oppression — homosexual marriage, women’s suffrage, abolishment of slavery, common-man’s suffrage, habeus corpus, etc.
So we’ve really come a long way. We can make choices that our forefathers (and mothers) couldn’t.
But oppression, the restrictions that prevent us from making the choices we believe we ought to be able to, doesn’t only happen through legislation. Even in the absence of restrictions, a choice is a real choice only if you would not be considered inferior if you had chosen something else.
The expectation that women must marry and bear children stigmatizes those who would choose otherwise. In traditional Muslim societies, the expectation on women to wear a head covering (the extent of the covering expected varies for several reasons, but generally the greater the concealment the greater the chasteness signaled) is so strong that to “choose” otherwise would result in them being ostracized.
Of course, not every woman will have someone reminding her everyday that she must cover her head, so she might even think she’s choosing to do so of her own will. But what if her very concept of morality has been defined in Islamic terms? Where everything from finding a “good husband” (the one who will be allowed to see her hair) to getting in to paradise will depend on her “choice”? She can’t ignore the expectation without thinking of herself as a bad person.
Our opinions evolve. That’s why, for example, we have an increase in the vegetarian and vegan communities. More and more people are choosing to eat cruelty-free. This is normal. Actually, not changing opinions in any way would mean we have ceased learning. However, even when it comes to changing opinions, we might think we have freely decided to change our mind — but we are influenced; by peer pressure (and these days also influencer pressure), marketing, accessibility / availability, etc.
Now, opinions — especially when aggregated — create expectations. For example, take Beauty:
My mother is dark and I remember she told me once, when I was a child, how hard it was to find cosmetics for dark skin, and that it was really nice of her brother domiciled abroad to get her a “black is beautiful” set.
I used to wonder (and still do), why do we expect women to wear make up to be beautiful? Why can’t they just be themselves? Are we discriminating against women who are not beautiful? (Hint: Yes)
Our common opinion of what a beautiful woman looks like has created an expectation to meet those standards of beauty. With heavy investments by the “beauty” industry, further compounded by the need to be instagrammable, many women choose skin-lightening products, make-up, diets and sometimes even surgery to meet those standards — for each woman, this might be their “individual choice”; but the aggregate effect is to further discriminate against those who choose not to make that choice, which pushes them to give in.
Scary as this may be, even more frightening than the manipulation by capitalist marketing is the mostly-covert political orchestration to manipulate our choices. The sudden increase in burqa usage in Sri Lanka is hard to explain without this kind of orchestration — to support the spread of a certain school of Islam.
It’s even harder to explain the recent increase in the number of people who don’t want to pay for the cost of a certification (Halal) that they don’t want. Not even 1 cent. It’s an orchestration — to support the psychological “war” against the Muslims.
What’s really ironic here is that the ones who have no choice but to comply will proudly claim “it’s my choice! it’s my right!”. There can, of course, be situations where a person embracing an oppressed position is doing so for reasons other than oppression. For example, it would be unjust for feminists to label every women who chooses to be a stay-at-home mum oppressed when she actually finds fulfillment as a mother. (I love parenting and I’d be quite happy to be a stay-at-home dad while my wife earns enough to support us!)
But when you hear many people all asserting the same choice as being “my choice”, and especially if that choice has changed recently and is held adamantly based on a few widely shared “reasons”, you should suspect that it isn’t a personal choice. And if it isn’t really their choice, is there any good reason (I do not consider scoring brownie points by saying “he’s so stupid — that’s why he’s manipulated by XYZ. No point talking to him” as a good reason) for you to feel averse to them? What if you tried to empathize with them instead? (See Part 2 — To Hate a Hater if you missed it)
And let’s be open to consider that we might be victims of orchestrations ourselves. Because it’s easier to see how others are being orchestrated than it is to see it happening on ourselves (fundamental attribution error), it is important that we try to keep an open mind (even though the natural response would be to discredit them and/or their logic) when others warn us that our choices are being influenced.