Is the American obsession with individual freedom really such a great idea? What other cultures know about how to make good choices.
Sit down at a restaurant in France, and there’s a menu. Salmon with rice. French beans. Wine. If you ask for potatoes instead of rice, the restaurant will say no. Because it is their menu. Not yours. To an American, this is nearly unfathomable.
One American model: Give me personal autonomy or give me death.
“In terms of fetishizing the idea of choice, the U.S. is the absolute pinnacle,” says Barry Schwartz, professor of social theory and social change at Swarthmore College and author of The Paradox of Choice. “We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.”
We want to be able to choose everything that matters, as well as the things that don’t.
Rice and potatoes aside, the American desire for choice has manifested in numerous ways: politically, in a demand for a voice in governance; commercially, in the demand for a variety of consumer goods and services; and spiritually, in the demand to choose and create exactly the kind of individual life, and self, you believe in. In the U.S., the overriding perception is that anything you do out of allegiance to tradition and social expectation is inauthentic and not you. Because the real you is the choices you make.
After Protestant colonists brought the concept of personal autonomy to the U.S., the idea was further cemented into the national psychology with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. Personal and religious freedom became irrevocably tied to economic freedom from the monarchy and early capitalism. “Americans were truly the only people that brought those ideas together,” says Sheena Iyengar, professor at Columbia Business School and author of The Art of Choosing (TED Talk: The art of choosing.) “It made the idea of personal autonomy such a dogma that it almost became a religion itself.”
The AMerican cultural responsibility to revere choice has been Present since before America was America. In other words, IT WAS NEVER A choice.
My fellow Americans and I believe that choice allows us to individuate ourselves, to prove that we are free. Our preferences, therefore, become who we are. We feel acutely the need to construct a personal narrative out of our choices and, thus, construct our own identity.
There’s a certain degree to which this is sheer lunacy, and also fallacy. Because our cultural responsibility to revere choice has been instilled in us since before America was America. In other words, we never chose choice.
The Amish model: Belonging, not choice, is crucial.
Even within the U.S., not all cultures regard the idea of personal autonomy as sacrosanct. In the Anabaptist religious tradition, for example, there is one major choice to be made: whether or not to be baptized into the church. The Amish are baptized between the ages of 18 and 24 years old, after a “rumspringa,” or period in their teenage years in which they experience modern life, including dating, driving and using technology.
The Amish wonder why we’re so anxious about our work that we’ll tear apart our families and move across the country for a job, to end up living among strangers.
Once they’ve made the choice to be part of the church — which the majority of young adults do — and are baptized, all other choices are made within the Amish canopy, says Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at the Young Center for Anabaptist & Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College, and author of numerous books on the Amish. For example, because formal education terminates at the end of eighth grade, there are limits to the choice of profession. You can’t be a lawyer or surgeon. But within limits, you have every freedom to choose whether to become a small business owner, or carpenter, or baker, or horse trainer, or any number of other occupations. The Amish sense of identity isn’t shaped by choices they make but is conferred to them by the community. Instead of choice, they have belonging.
“I have a very intelligent Amish friend who thinks the rest of us are crazy in how we view the professional choices we make,” says Kraybill. “We’re so anxious about our occupations that we’ll tear apart our families and move across the country for a job and end up living among strangers with no family or social support if we get ill or have an emergency. And put that way – how insane does that sound?”
Why should it be any less authentic to be a product of the family that raised you and the culture you grew up in and the religious institutions you participate in? Rather than knowing who you are by knowing your preferences, you know who you are by knowing what you belong to.
One Asian model: Focus on interdependence and harmony, not independence and self-expression.
In some Asian cultures, to fulfill your independent self is not the primary goal of an individual: The goal is to be interdependent and maintain relationships and make them harmonious. In Japan, for example, being a “going your own way” person is to be immature and not culturally sophisticated. Though people obviously have preferences, they often don’t choose what they like, because that’s not the ideal manner. “Your cultural task is harmony, not self-expression,” says Hazel Markus, social psychologist and professor of behavioral sciences at Stanford University.
The idea is that the person is not a whole, but a part, and only becomes whole in connection with others.
Why? Partly because being part of the social organization is a core tenet of traditional Eastern religions. “All of them foster an idea that a person is not a whole, but a part, and only becomes whole in connection with others,” says Markus. “The fundamental, ontological understanding of what a person is is as a node in a network.”
In Confucianism, especially, the belief is that without knowing your place in the hierarchy, and behaving accordingly, chaos will ensue. Certainly, you can choose not to adhere to the norm; Confucius says not to do certain acts if you don’t believe them, says Peter Carroll, associate professor of Chinese history at Northwestern University and author of Between Heaven and Modernity: Reconstructing Suzhou.
You have the choice to opt in or opt out; the difference is that there’s a clear expectation of what the correct choice is. By not doing the correct thing, you are demonstrating that you are less than a full person.
Meanwhile, in America, a similar rhetoric rules. By not exercising your full range of choices, you are demonstrating yourself to be less than a full person — even though most people don’t exercise the choices they believe so strongly in, such as the right to vote. This is the fiction of choice in the West, says Carroll. “Individual choice is a powerful received idea, but frankly, it’s a bit of a white lie that our culture tells itself,” he says.
“We’re not the most non-conformist, and we’re not the most individualized,” says Iyengar. “But what Americans do have is a very strong dogma. We believe ourselves to be the most autonomous; we value autonomy more than any other culture; we value the concept of non-conformity more than any other culture; and we value the concept of individual freedom and individual choice more than any other culture, at least rhetorically. But we’re certainly not the most radical in offering freedoms, such as with gay rights or getting women the right to vote. We are not the first ones to actually empower people with autonomy.”
As Western consumer culture proliferates around the world, will cultural views on choice change?
Our fixation on individual choice is actually dangerous to our society, because it pacifies our activism, argues Renata Salecl, philosopher and sociologist (TED Talk: Our unhealthy obsession with choice). Making choices based on social and political good actually engineers the most change. In the Scandinavian countries, she notes, it was a political choice to open government to women and make rules regarding energy use and environmental sustainability. If left to the individual, that likely wouldn’t have happened.
As Western consumer culture, with its seemingly endless choices, proliferates around the world, will the cultural view on choice change?
In India, studies found that even while young college students become megaconsumers, that picking clothes or music without consideration for what their parents might think is not considered particularly moral, says Markus. In Japan, advertisements explicitly encourage individuals to “follow the trend” and “fit in.” Similarly, in Korea, ads for food products advertise that “You might be able to make a dish almost as good as your mother-in-law’s” — because the ability to uphold tradition is most valued in driving personal choices, not innovation or individuality.
Still, as countries become more urban, more people will be exposed to diversity and, generally, open themselves up to reflection. Likewise, as more people around the world are educated — and educated in a Western style — the more they will come into contact with different ways of living and the more they will see and deliberate on choices in their own life. The digital revolution vastly accelerates the process.
The American obsession with choice insists that choice be installed globally, whether through geopolitics or consumer goods.
“You have a lot of people around the world consuming an American-style education, and what that does is teach a common language regarding how you discuss and frame your ideas,” says Iyengar. “A result of that is that the intellectual class around the world is starting to debate more. That’s leading to more conflict for sure, but they are also using this way of arguing when it comes to choices they need to make, even when it comes to defending an absence of choice, like in a political system.”
The American obsession with choice insists that choice be installed globally, whether through geopolitics or consumer goods. It’s anathema to let people limit their own choices. “It’s tied to being free,” says Markus. “And how do you know you’re free? Because you get to freely choose and do what you want to do and follow your heart and your dream. The way things are now are not the way they have to be tomorrow. It’s bedrock for us, for our American selves. Freedom equals choice, and in every human heart is the desire to be free, so that must mean choice for all.”
Yet complete radical freedom and individualism creates a life that can’t be lived. Tyranny is unacceptable too, of course. But somewhere between tyranny and radical freedom resides a mixture of constraints, social norms, legal constraints and individual freedom of choice that enables people to lead satisfying, meaningful and authentic lives.
Featured image by Lyza/Flickr.