“Black Americano, please.” A simple enough request to a barista. But, oh, it’s not. I’m already grumpy. It’s too early for chat. But the questions keep coming. “Small, medium or large?” she replies. “Medium please” I grunt, hoping that will be the end of the matter. “Drink in or take away?” I reply. “Would you like milk with that?” I resist the temptation to refer my chirpy interrogator back to the original request for a black coffee. “No, thank you.”
Surely that’s enough information. But, no. “Would you like to try our new Guatemalan blend?” I decline, signalling growing irritation. “Would you like a pastry with that…” A list of various croissants and muffins follows. My mood darkens further. All I want is a bloody coffee.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Choice is the bane of modern life. “Existence precedes essence”, preached the existentialists. What they meant was that who we are is not given at birth, but is constructed by the series of choices we make about who we want to be. “Become who you are”, said Nietzsche some decades before.
From this perspective, life is a never ending succession of choices, a constant work-in-progress of self-definition. We are the authors of our own identity. Mini gods of self-creation. Sartre liked to sit in coffee houses, musing on the meaning of life. But surely even he could not have reckoned with the ubiquity of choice in a consumerist society. I fancy that he, too, would have been broken by the ever-present demand to decide for oneself. As I sip my coffee, a semblance of calm begins to return. Existentialism is too heavy a burden. No more questions, please. I can’t take it any more. I don’t want to be endlessly responsible for me. I want someone else to shoulder the burden on my behalf.
I was wrestling with this as I read the Children’s Commissioner’s comments about the mental health of our children. There has been a sharp rise recently in the number of children self-harming. There has also been a significant rise over the past few years in the number of children seeking help from psychiatrists. Why are our kids so unhappy? Various answers have been touted. The use of social media is an obvious one. So, too, is the collapse of community life. Both of these are important.
But I also suspect that the way we have come to treat children as mini-consumers, little choice-centres, also has something to do with it as well. For nowhere is this choice-inducing anxiety more toxic than in childhood. It used to be that childhood operated under instruction. For the child, life was a series of givens. And this functioned as a sort of emotional security. But now that we are inducting our children into this culture of choice at an ever-earlier age, we deprive them of the necessary scaffolding of care, love and support.
It’s a big claim, I know. But it is worth reminding ourselves of an important aspect of our culture of choice: that it absolves people of a responsibility of care towards others. To put it another way, our culture of choice contains this message: I am not responsible for you because you are responsible for you. Are you fat? That’s your choice. Smoke? Your choice. In debt? Your decisions have got you into trouble. It’s all on you.
It is one thing to take this attitude towards adults. But our culture is so saturated with this culture of choice that it has come to apply even to children. I am ashamed to admit that my two year old could operate a remote control almost before he could walk. And instead of presenting him with his tea, I now ask him what he wants. It’s almost as if the poor boy has a menu in hand before he can even read it. Choose, we demand. “What do you want?”
The truth is, he doesn’t really know. And choice is bewildering. Frightening even. Especially if you are asked to bear responsibility for the consequences of the choices that you have made. “You said you wanted sausages, so now you must eat them.” To make children constantly choose is to abdicate one’s responsibility for being a parent. To put it bluntly and provocatively: respecting the decision-making autonomy of a child is tantamount to a refusal of love.
The reductio ad absurdum of this overblown culture of choice is the case of a man who is currently taking his parents to court because he didn’t choose to be born. Yes, it’s true. A businessman from Mumbai, Raphael Samuel, 27, is suing his parents because he didn’t ask to be born. Apparently, by conceiving him without his consent, they were infringing his ‘right’ to choose.
I know his is hardly a serious case, but it does highlight this nonsense of thinking that we can generate ourselves through a succession of our own choices. No, we begin life as if we are already “thrown” (to use a word favoured by Heidegger) into a place and time, with parents and grandparents, within a particular language and culture. Our circumstances precede who we are. They are a necessary given.
The word they use in theological college about the process of “becoming who you are” is formation. In this context, formation is achieved by acclimatising oneself to a tradition that stands over and against one’s individual choices. Indeed, it is only by recognising that one is situated within a given set of values that precede who we are that we are enabled to make the very choices that have come to define adult responsibility. The unchosen is a precondition of the very possibility of choice. No one makes choices in a vacuum. That makes as much sense as putting your hands on your own waist and trying to lift yourself up.
For the last 30 or so years – at least since Thatcherism – choice has become a sort of cuckoo value, pushing out all other values in the nest. And choice places all the burden of responsibility on the individual chooser. In parallel to this development, paternalist politics is now deemed a terrible imposition upon our freedom. Unfortunately, we have begun to think the same way about paternalistic parenting. That’s crazy. For paternalistic is exactly what parenting should be.