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"In the city of my birth, I had a dream..."
A must-read article about conflicting definitions of "freedom" 
26th-Feb-2006 08:37 am
So is this why fundamentalism is so popular in low rent districts? Because if offers "freedom from" choice? >_< If that's the case, how do we draw the line between freedom and dictatorship?

Is Freedom Just Another Word for Many Things to Buy?

New York Times Magazine
February 26, 2006

In today's America, everyone from President Bush to advertising executives to liberal activists appears to agree that freedom is about having choices and that having more choices means having more freedom. Choice, even in mundane matters, embodies the larger ideal of the individual as arbiter not just of what tastes or feels good but also of what is good. This is why we now regard 32 kinds of jam in the supermarket, 50 styles of jeans in the department store and 120 retirement plans in the workplace as signs of both economic progress and moral and political progress. Choice is what enables all of us to live exactly the kind of lives we want to and think we should.

But this "wisdom" is suspect for two reasons. First, most Americans do not think that freedom is about exercising more and more choice. And second, even for those who do equate freedom with choice, having more choice does not seem to make them feel freer. Instead, Americans are increasingly bewildered — not liberated — by the sheer volume of choices they must make in a day.

As behavioral scientists, we have found that the people who frame freedom in terms of choice are usually the ones who get to make a lot of choices — that is, middle- and upper-class white Americans (most of our study participants are white; we can't make any claims about other racial and ethnic groups). The education, income and upbringing of these Americans grant them choices about how to live their lives and also encourage them to express their preferences and personalities through the choices they make. Most Americans, however, are not from the college-educated middle and upper classes. Working-class Americans often have fewer resources and experience greater uncertainty and insecurity. For them, being free is less about making choices that reflect their uniqueness and mastery and more about being left alone, with their personality, integrity and well-being intact.

Social class is difficult to measure — it's a complicated amalgam of education, income and occupational prestige — but in the U.S.'s quasi meritocracy, education has arguably become its most important facet. And so in our research we often identify social class with education.

In a recent study with Nicole Stephens at Stanford University, we asked college students to pick "three adjectives that best capture what the word 'choice' means to you." A higher percentage of those who had parents with a college education said "freedom," "action" and "control," while more of those whose parents had only a high-school education responded with "fear," "doubt" and "difficulty."

We also analyzed how freedom and choice are presented in one of our most pervasive and influential cultural products: popular songs. In every region, Americans with higher education and higher incomes typically prefer rock music over country. We found that rock lyrics had a lot more talk of choice, control and self-expression, as in the Rolling Stones' refrain, "'Cause I'm free to do what I want any old time." But when we analyzed country music, preferred over rock by less-educated Americans in every region, we heard more mentions of self-protection and defense, as in Darryl Worley's observation, "We didn't get to keep [our freedom] by backin' down." When choice was mentioned, it was often as a prelude or coda to tragedy, as in George Jones's lament "Now I'm living and dying with the choices I've made."

Several experimental studies also show how these divergent conceptions of freedom and choice shape working- and middle-class Americans' daily lives. One set of studies used an approach common to many social-psychology experiments: an everyday setting and a deliberately mundane task were exploited to reveal significant psychological processes. Our researchers approached shoppers at malls and airports and asked them to take part in a marketing study. The researcher displayed five different black pens and invited the participant to choose one to keep. Half the time, the participant then used the chosen pen to answer a list of questions, including several about how much he or she liked the pen. This was the "choice" condition. The other half of the time, after the participant chose a pen, the researcher took it away, explaining: "I'm sorry, you can't have that pen. It's the last one of its kind that we have. Here, take this one." The participant was then given another pen to answer the list of questions. This was the "no choice" condition. True to our observation that middle-class Americans have primarily positive associations with choice, we found that among participants with at least a college degree, those who got to choose their pen liked it more than those who were given a pen they hadn't chosen. By contrast, participants who had less than a bachelor's degree liked pens chosen by someone else just as much as they liked the pens they chose for themselves.

In another alleged marketing study, we asked construction workers, firefighters and maintenance workers, who had no more than a high-school diploma, and students and employees with at least a bachelor's degree, to rank 10 recently released CD's from least liked to most liked and to choose one of their middle-ranked CD's as a gift for themselves.They then reranked the CD's after making their choice. We found that the mere act of choosing a CD caused the college-educated participants to like their gift CD more after choosing it than they had before. On the other hand, those without a college degree did not like their gift CD's more just because they had chosen them.

Another study that compared people in different occupations showed that those employed in middle-class jobs got upset when a friend or neighbor bought the same car as theirs because they felt that the uniqueness of their choice had been undercut. But those in working-class jobs liked it when others chose the same car because it affirmed that they had made a good choice.

In part because of the higher social status of middle-class Americans, the equation of freedom with choice is the one most loudly broadcast. Every corner of life is now rife with choices, as well as with talk of the control and self-expression that choosing imparts. But is this middle-class conception of freedom the "right" one? Empirical evidence suggests that we should be careful what we wish for. Americans are increasingly overwhelmed by all these choices. We feel less free now than when we had fewer choices, and we show it in our behavior.

For example, Sheena Iyengar and Wei Jiang at Columbia University found that giving people more 401(k) investment options makes them less likely to choose one at all, even though by not choosing they pass up employers' valuable matching funds. We see this result echoed in the panicked reactions of senior citizens to the drug-plan choices they now face. And when people manage to overcome paralysis and make choices — even sound ones — they are likely to be plagued with doubt, worried that their choice was not the best one. So the assumption that more choice means more freedom is false, at least as a general rule. American society has given the educated elites what they have asked for, and an increase in stress, anxiety and dissatisfaction has been a widespread result.

What conception of freedom should Americans pursue? While the upper and middle classes define freedom as choice, working-class Americans emphasize freedom from instability. These perspectives echo the distinction between freedom to and freedom from made by Franklin Roosevelt and by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin half a century ago. For all our red-versus-blue rancor, most Americans agree that ours is a free country. But what freedom is, and where it should be nurtured and where constrained, are hotly contested issues.

Similarly, many of the freedoms endorsed and advocated by U.S. foreign policy may not always resemble those desired by the people whom we hope to help. To govern well, both at home and abroad, Americans would be wise to listen to how freedom rings in different cultural contexts. Knowing that "we love our freedom," as President Bush said in his recent State of the Union address, should be the beginning of a national conversation, not the end of it.

You know, maybe lower class people dread choice because executing a decision once made requires more sacrifice. Take abortion for example. "Pro-choice" is all fine and good if you have the money and the means to get an abortion if you need one. But what about the poor woman who can't get herself to a clinic without help and can't pay even if she does manage to get there? Abortion isn't a choice if it isn't truly accessible to EVERYONE. Ditto with school vouchers. The only people who benefit from sending the child to the school of their choice are those with the means to GET that child there in the first place. Without a nationally-integrated public transportation system, vouchers would leave the underprivileged even further behind.
26th-Feb-2006 02:34 pm (UTC)
So is this why fundamentalism is so popular in low rent districts? Because if offers "freedom from" choice?

Yes.. I've always thought that to be the case, and especially when I've spoken to such people.. It's not just fundamentalism either, the Vatican is constantly moaning about losing its influence in Western Europe, while they're gaining in Africa and South America.. Europe has become more educated and prosperous, they don't want the church dictating every aspect of life.. Geez, in Ireland they used to be the shadow government, and Ireland was essentially a third world country at the time.

The question is, why is fundamentalist ideology gaining in the US, and being pushed by relatively educated and affluent people? Like Bush, for example.. But then, in Mid East countries that use religious ideology as a means of social control, those at the top are always educated and affluent..
26th-Feb-2006 04:28 pm (UTC)
See, now, that's why, when given people choices, we must also give them the MEANS to execute those choices. Public transportation, fair wages (which give people more discretionary income), healthcare (so it's not a choice between not coughing or not eating), etc. etc.

(These opinions are why being a lawyer could be hazardous to my health... --;; )
26th-Feb-2006 05:56 pm (UTC)
Did you hear about Jeb Bush's school plan getting shot down here but the state supreme court? As it was supposed to work, all the schools get A to F ratings, if a school is failing parents would have the option of putting their kids into a private school and be subsidized by the state.. The problem is obvious; private schools don't have to take kids, they can pick and choose.. The higher achieving kids end up in private school, the ones who really need the help get stuck in a failing public school that's getting its funding cut... The court said it violated the right to a high quality public education in the constitution...
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26th-Feb-2006 06:02 pm (UTC)
You know, it's getting more and more difficult here for people to get university educations.. There's probably more choice of schools than ever, but the prices are out of control and are increasing faster than the rate of inflation.. Also, government loans and grants for students are getting cut back because so much money is being diverted to war and tax cuts for the very wealthy..
26th-Feb-2006 06:37 pm (UTC)
Although, isn't conservativism in general gaining ascendancy even in Europe? I hear a lot of people calling for rollbacks of entitlements, and the conservative party in Germany did well in the last election. Japan's getting more conservative, too, and they're pissing off Asia like the US is pissing off the West.

As far as education goes, well, I don't know if anyone's ever told you this, but public education in the so-called red states is much worse in quality than in the so-called blue states. It starts far earlier than college.
26th-Feb-2006 03:56 pm (UTC)
You know, maybe lower class people dread choice because executing a decision once made requires more sacrifice.

Truly insightful.
26th-Feb-2006 04:27 pm (UTC)
Not insightful. Just obvious. Or, rather, it SHOULD be obvious, and why it isn't to everyone, I can't understand. *shakes her flaming liberal fist at the sky*
26th-Feb-2006 05:09 pm (UTC)
Doesn't surprise me...I don't know if you're familiar with all the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons, but there's one where Calvin's dad flips out after being presented with many potato chip options.

I also get frustrated when there are too many choices presented, although my reasons for never having an abortion are more moral than cost. What I dislike the most is having to evaluate products that are nearly the same. That's why I like it when my parents or my boyfriend look at the stuff and then tell me what to get. It's not that I lack the capability, but it's just that instead of 5 options, there are 10 options, and then it just gets to be a headache.
26th-Feb-2006 06:40 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the authors of the above article have also studied the phenomena (paralysis) that you're talking about. But maybe what you're talking about gets back to socio-economic status, too. Rich people are more likely to be educated, and to make good decisions without anxiety, you need to be informed.
26th-Feb-2006 05:19 pm (UTC)
That was an interesting article. It resonates heavily with my current insecurities over college and jobs and insurance. It's so uncomfortable when there's no clear path to achieving stability. Any time there's a slew of choices ahead the potential outlook for stability goes away like *fwpt!*. (We hatesss it preciousss.) Even with my parents being upper middle class, I'm not at that point where getting one thing makes me like it better. (Maybe because my personal financial stability is nonexistant.) It seems like "Crap! What did I lose?" no matter what I do. X(
26th-Feb-2006 06:34 pm (UTC)
I know exactly how you feel. My own (not to mention my family's) downward mobility has been haunting me for near a decade now...

I can't remember the last time I made an important decision that wasn't somehow painful and that meant sacrifice of something else important. *sighs*
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28th-Feb-2006 07:25 am (UTC)
There are many different kinds of freedom. For me, freedom from fear is a big one. Freedom from fear that if you get sick you won't be able to afford medical care if you live in a country that doesn't provide health care for its citizens, for example. Freedom from fear of invasion, if you live in one of the countries on the US's enemies list. Freedom from fear of police harassment if your skin happens to be a diferent colour. Freedom for women to have control over their own bodies. These are freedoms that are rarely mentioned by the people who produce most of the rhetoric about freedom.

And, living in Australia, I'm very conscious of the fact that we don't have any freedom at all. We do what the US tells us to do. Our governments implement the policies that the US government tells them to implement. And every time the US starts a war we join in, because we're too scared not to.

Whenever I hear the word freedom I assume I'm being lied to. Again. Freedom has become a sick joke, a dirty word.
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