When is choice a choice?

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When is choice a choice?

Image courtesy of canstockphotos.com

Image courtesy of canstockphotos.com

Image courtesy of canstockphotos.com

Image courtesy of canstockphotos.com

Rebecca Barkdoll, Opinion Editor

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I’ve heard a lot of debates and discussions about many hot-button topics recently, and all of them at some point or another bring up the word “choice.” It’s one of those heavy-hitting words, full of meaning, but still very open to interpretation. After all, choices, we assume, are endless possibilities.

This word comes up in many contexts. It’s heard in abortion debates, in the naming of one side as pro-life and the other as pro-choice. It’s heard in arguments about states’ rights versus federal laws. It’s heard in career options, in lifestyles practices, in religious beliefs and in economic theories, to name a few.

But how well do we understand this word that we’re throwing around as a weapon to win our point? We hear the word “choice” and think of a list of thousands of options for clothes, or hundreds of colleges available. We assume that every choice is equal. We assume every choice is made in a vacuum.

But that is simply not true. Take the college example. Yes, there may be hundreds or thousands of colleges in the United States, but are they all equal? No. Some have better programs in some areas and worse in others. Not all of them have dorms or offer good out-of-state tuition. Some don’t offer certain majors and others have high tuition rates. All of them are choices that can be made, but not all of them are options.

Why? Because of circumstance. Technically, someone could choose any of these colleges, though whether they are accepted is a completely different story. Anyway, all the colleges are choices to be made, but circumstances dictate that only some are possible options. Maybe your SAT scores were too low, or you didn’t write a good enough application essay. Maybe you can’t afford to move to the other side of the country. That limits your choices.

Now, that example was mostly limited to physical circumstances. But there are other choices that are not quite so physical. Maybe there’s someone from a minority group who wants to be a doctor. But what happens if they and their family were discriminated against, had trouble finding work, and couldn’t afford medical school? That severely changes the choices available. Their options are A) go to school and accumulate large debts, even larger ones than their fellow students or B) pick a different career choice. Whatever they choose, it was directed by their circumstances.

These circumstances were physical as well, but they stemmed from social circumstances. And this is where we tend to lose sight of them. Physical circumstances are pretty easy to see most of the time, but how society impacts our choices? Not so much.

But we can’t forget circumstance if we want to responsibly use choice as an argument. We can’t forget that some careers are more popular only because people want stability, not because they want to do that job. We can’t forget that some people love free market theories because they want to control exactly where their money goes—which is also a form of seeking stability. We can’t forget that some people splurge to pamper themselves because they need to release from their stress, even if we ourselves would spend the money “more wisely.” If you’re going to advocate for choice, ask where the choice is coming from.