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When personal responsibility rhetoric turns into victim blaming: “The Myth of Choice”

March 17, 2012

This post is part of a series of book reviews I’ll be doing.  I’ll try to make the posts also relevant in their own right, so you don’t have to be planning to read the book to benefit from the review.  If the book sounds interesting to you and you feel like tossing (literally) a few cents to a struggling blogger, please buy the book through my Amazon link.  Or better yet, donate a few bucks through the PayPal button on the right-hand side of the page and take the book out from your local library.

The Myth of Choice: Personal Responsibility in a World of Limits, by Kent Greenfield.  Great book.  Godawful lousy title.

When I first glanced at this book, I thought it was going to be one of those screeds arguing that there’s no such thing as free will.  The kind that uses the latest shiny new brain scan results to “prove” that we’re all puppets of our biology and That’s Just The Way It Is.  Or worse, the kind that uses some highly speculative statements about our Stone Age ancestors to “prove” that men are hardwired to cheat on their wives and young women are hardwired to fall in love with old rich guys.  Riiiiiiiight.  But in fact, the author’s argument is far more sophisticated than that.  For starters, he doesn’t deny the existence of free will.  In fact, he celebrates it, saying his book was written to help “build our individual capacity for choice.”  And the constraints on free choice he details in this book are not only biological, but also cultural and, most importantly, constraints due to imbalances of power.  One of the blurbs on the back cover describes this last as “how our fixation on personal responsibility often allows people in power to deny responsibility.”  That’s a pretty good description of the problem.

When I was a kid, I attended a school where there was no such thing as punishment.  Instead, we got “consequences”.  If I was acting up in class and the teacher responded by grabbing my wrist and dragging me to the time-out room, to sit there by myself until the teacher said I could leave, supposedly this was not “punishment” (a word that implies a decision on the part of the teacher) but  “consequences” (as if the time-out was as inevitable as getting your hand burned if you put it into a flame).  Of course I knew this was bullshit, and as a result of this and similar hypocrisies I didn’t have much respect for adults as a kid–still don’t, as a matter of fact.  Kent Greenfield relates a similar incident from his childhood.  He disobeyed the teacher’s rule of no talking in line on the way to the lunchroom, was penalized by having to write “I will not talk in line” over and over, Bart Simpson style, and after a while decided one day he wasn’t going to write it anymore.  There was a big stink over it, and in the end the teacher decided to paddle him instead.  This supposedly taught him that “choices have consequences”.  But really, whose choice was it: his for refusing to write the sentences, or choice of the teacher who swung the paddle?

In a similar vein: if an armed police officer boards a bus, stands over passengers so as to block them from exiting the bus, and tells them to open their bags, is this a “consensual search”, which under U.S. law does not require a warrant?  Or does the intimidating power of gun, badge and blue wall of silence make the search anything but “consensual”?  I’m ashamed to say that the U.S. Supreme Court, in United States v. Drayton, ruled the former.  Justice David Souter wrote one of the dissenting opinions; Kent Greenfield encourages us all to be more like him.

Another example: in a society where discrimination by employers means that working mothers pay a “motherhood penalty” in wages and career advancement, while working fathers get a “fatherhood bonus“, what does it mean for a woman to “choose” to be a stay at home mom?

Or: if homeless people who choose to stay outside the shelter system in winter freeze to death, is it their fault?  Or is it the city’s fault for letting the shelters become dangerous places to stay, and not providing permanent housing for all who need it?

When does “personal responsibility” in fact translate to “blame the victim”?

Interestingly, I found myself disagreeing with the author on some points, because I agreed with him on others.  For example: the Obama healthcare plan’s mandate forcing people to buy health insurance.  The author is for it, on the basis that people should take “personal responsibility” for buying healthcare so that others aren’t forced to pay for them or watch them suffer.  The second reason already feels suspicious to me–your not having to see something that makes you uncomfortable trumps my rights over my wallet?  Really?–but the main reason I’m against the individual mandate is an argument made elsewhere in his book: that people shouldn’t be forced to make untenable choices.  Such as choosing between paying a fine and paying an insurance bill they can’t afford.  Yes, there are some subsidies for low-income people in the bill, but I can still see the mandated monthly payments being a real hardship for people who are low-income but not super low income, or for people with income that varies month to month.  I’m in favor of free healthcare for all, paid for by a progressive tax system and by ending the damn wars already.

While many of the author’s policy recommendations lean too much towards “nanny state” paternalism for me to swallow, I appreciate him for writing a book that makes the reader think.  The section on the coercive power of the “free” market is especially apt.  Overall, I’d say The Myth of Choice is definitely worth a read.

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