Choices Do Not Occur In a Vacuum

Discussions about personal choice and autonomy when it comes to individual choices people make within larger social structures can become touchy and sensitive; conversations about things like weight loss surgery, cosmetics, and femme dress, for example. They’re often reduced to binaristic arguments that pit two sides against each other. One side condemns these activities, and the other side ferociously defends them. There is a tendency on both sides to make the assumption that talking about these activities means attacking individuals who choose to engage in them, when that’s really not the purpose of the discussion at all, and it’s deeply frustrating to see people with excellent critical thinking skills getting so reductionist.

We talk about these things not because we think the people who do them are bad, awful, horrible people who should feel bad—or because people should do whatever and declare that it’s okay because ‘I choose my choice!’ This is not about the actions of individuals, but about the institutions that underlie them, and this ground is where people are trying to make these conversations happen. It makes it difficult to have a great discussion on the issue, however, when people insist on getting so simplistic about it, retreating to their corners with fists held up and refusing to actually exchange ideas with each other.

The thing is that people can absolutely be entitled, empowered, and able to make their own decisions for themselves when they have access to information. I have absolutely no interest in judging, condemning, or commenting on individual choices. But that doesn’t mean I am not going to talk about those choices in a broader sense, because they say important things about the society we live in. ‘I choose my choice’ doesn’t work, because these choices do not take place in a vacuum.

A choice like weight loss surgery, for example, which is, on an individual level, a matter between a patient and a doctor. But it’s also a matter influenced by social pressures, which include a heavy demand to be thin, and harsh attitudes directed at people who are fat. These pressures also include a culture of concealing information about complications, risks, and failure rates, which means patients may be making choices that are not fully informed because they lack access to key information that might make a difference in their ultimate decision. This is not a situation where someone is making an empowered individual choice.

Admitting that choices do not take place in a vacuum seems to be something many people struggle with. They ferociously defend their choices in these discussions, not realising that the conversation is not about them and their personal choices, but about the factors that influence the choices made by all of us. Every decision we make is informed by cultural, social, and personal factors; admitting that doesn’t make you less of a person, and it also doesn’t take away your agency or make you a helpless victim. Deciding to wear a nice suit and heels to a job interview is a choice. It’s also a choice heavily informed by what you know about who gets jobs, why, and how.

People mistake criticisms of ‘I choose my choice’ situations as a denial of free will and agency, when they’re really not. Free will doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and sometimes people are forced to choose between several bad options, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have agency. In other cases, they have lots of great options, and they ultimately get to decide which one works best for them. They are still ultimately making their own decision about how they want to proceed, and that’s still their choice. And it’s still not happening in a vacuum.

Shutting down conversations about the factors that contribute to choices doesn’t accomplish anything. It just makes it harder to tackle those factors, to create a world where people experience less pressure, less shaming, less policing of their personal choices because they would be able to exercise more free will and agency. Discussing the ways in which people may be pressured into making a particular decision doesn’t necessarily mean they are forced, and doesn’t mean they aren’t acting independently. It just means that these things play a role.

When a woman puts on a pair of heels, it’s associated with a loaded and complex history. That doesn’t mean she’s a bad person for wearing heels, it doesn’t mean she’s been brainwashed into liking heels, it doesn’t mean she exercised no free will at all in her decision to put on heels. It just means that heels, as a symbol, are tied into complex social attitudes about femininity and acceptable clothes for women, and that the woman wearing the heels is engaging with those attitudes when she wears them. Not necessarily reinforcing them, not necessarily being forced to abide by them, but she is engaging with them. That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with wearing heels, but it does mean there’s a conversation to be had about heels-as-symbol and what it means.

The defensiveness from the ‘I choose my choice’ camp is, quite frankly, tiring. Discussions about social pressures influencing individual choices shouldn’t be intended to single out individuals, and people don’t need to contribute to those discussions with justifications for their personal choices, or an insistence that people talking about pressures are wrong. These kinds of comments don’t functionally add to or advance the conversation, they just bring it to a screeching halt, because suddenly everyone is caught up in an ‘I choose my choice’ debate instead of a conversation about the original topic. It’s frustrating to see it happening over and over again.

It’s equally frustrating to see narrow-minded attacks on ‘I choose my choice’ that don’t acknowledge the complex societal factors involved in defending choices so vigorously. Being reminded that your choices don’t occur in a vacuum when you haven’t widely considered this issue makes you defensive, especially if you consider yourself empowered and engaged in active decisionmaking. Criticisms that appear to be directly attacking you are of course going to provoke strong emotional responses, because it’s hard to see past the rhetoric to the point at its heart.

Neither side on this particular issue is without blame.