Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Does the slave choose?

Some of the older ladies at work were discussing "Meatless Mondays," which a San Diego school district had recently voted to institute for public school lunches. It was a surprise to hear my coworkers discussing such a relatively low-profile local political news item because... well, because, they being working class immigrants, I did not expect them to be so well-informed. That was my first lesson.

The second lesson was that you don't need to be a Ron Paul-esque rich white male to espouse libertarian views. To a woman, they were all opposed to the city enforcing Meatless Mondays in public schools. I was skeptical of their grasp of the dietary implications (and I myself would not claim any expertise on nutrition), but even those who conceded that going vegetarian at least one day out of the week might be beneficial to kids' health were opposed, on principle, to the government stepping in and making the decision for them.

"The choice should be ours," one lady defiantly asserted.

Yes, the problem was choice. (And, yes, perhaps quoting The Matrix Reloaded is not going to strengthen whatever point I'm about to make, especially as the quote probably isn't even relevant. I just like it as my go-to line on choice.)

The conversation shortly thereafter derailed into whispered discussion over whether specific coworkers not present qualified as obese. Before it sank to that point, I asked, just to make sure, whether any of them would ever choose to go Meatless Mondays, and if not, why not. I was genuinely curious to know what they thought. So many among those who pushed for Meatless Mondays for San Diego public schools were actually younger white folks with no kids. Meanwhile, here seemed to me a chance for an informative look into the views and opinions of those most directly affected by the recent vote: working class parents of minority public school students, who depend on free and reduced-price meals for much of their daily nourishment.

As it turned out, once again to a woman, they all stated that they would not go Meatless Mondays. I must say, however, that, this time around, their responses sounded more like sheepish rationalizing than the haymakers they were going for with such confidence before. Some were still insisting that meat was necessary for protein. For the rest, the prevailing argument was that people should eat what they like. Of course, by this point, we had lost sight of the fact that we were talking about their growing kids, not themselves. I suppose it would only have been consistent with their previously expressed opinions if they didn't believe in parents making their kids' decisions for them either, but, to be honest, I myself had lost sight of the kid angle, and so I didn't press on that issue.

In any case, the "do what you like" argument was something that had come up before. Specifically, I had challenged them before on their fondness for casinos, only to be met with "It's just fun. You should enjoy life. As long as you're not hurting anybody, it's okay."

This was a temp job at a manufacturing company, situated in the Filipino part of the city. The labor force for this and almost every other similar company, of which there are dozens in the area, is predominantly Filipino. And, to return to stereotypes and preconceptions, they loved gambling. They played the lottery every week, of course, but they especially loved visiting the casino every weekend. One lady even insisted that, if she ever won the lottery, she would retire and spend every day in the casino.

Previously, I had asked them to consider that, perhaps, if they spent less money on lotto tickets, then maybe they would have enough money saved up to live comfortably without ever needing to do anything so desperate as play the lottery. Likewise, if they simply saved their money, instead of blowing it at the casino, then maybe they would have enough savings that they would never have to do anything so desperate as gamble at the casino.

They assured me that they didn't go to the casino expecting to win anything. They were quite certain that winning was impossible. Instead, it came back to doing what was fun for them, which was casinos. And that was the thing I didn't get. The only point in gambling, as far as I knew, was to try to win money. So if you kept failing at that, then how could the activity possibly be fun?

When I inquired further, they interpreted that as criticism, and that was when they would always try to settle the argument by reasserting that it was their choice. Having fun was how they were choosing to live, and going to the casino was how they were choosing to have fun.

I asked them specifically what made it fun for them, and they seemed rather at a loss how to articulate concrete reasons. One lady offered "The blinking lights are exciting," but I'm not sure she was serious. Finally, they sighed, as though the loss were mine for not being able to appreciate the inexpressible, irreducible joy of gambling. Fair enough. After all, how does one quantify fun?

But I considered my own hobby of choice, video games. Video games also offer blinking lights, but they involve other elements as well: practiced skill, challenging oneself, the pride and satisfaction of seeing oneself progressing and improving at the game. Many games contain stories as well, which can be enjoyed as one enjoys a book or movie. Sure, anything achieved in the game is ultimately erased by the final "failure" that is the eventual end of our mortal existence, so, in that respect, my fun was just as pointless as my casino-loving coworkers'. But I was not interested in getting into an existential debate with a bunch of old ladies who were not native speakers of English (and I had only picked up a handful of Tagalog words, all of them referring to intercourse). The fun of the casino seemed, to me, so temporary. For the money, the fun of video games seemed so much more "real."

Back to choice, though, it really seemed to me that, although they were claiming that they were exercising choice in wasting their time and money at the casino, the fact that they themselves did not seem to know why they enjoyed it suggested to me that this was not truly a meaningful choice they were making. As I saw it, they were being taken advantage of.

Finally, I tried to draw an analogy to drugs. Hard drugs also offer, like the casino, pleasure that is extremely temporary and produce no benefit afterward but are, rather, actually quite damaging to one's health, much as gambling is damaging to one's finances. And drugs, being addictive, actually impair the user's ability to make any choice other than to keep up the habit. So, did they not consider, perhaps, that the casino could also be an addiction, and anybody who is going there literally every weekend may not, at that point, actually have the sound judgment anymore to meaningfully exercise choice? Instead, would they not only be acting as slaves to the addiction?

As I should have anticipated, my questioning, instead of provoking serious thought, only led to them thinking that I was a drug user, and quickly they were trying to lecture me on why using was a harmful habit with no good side (unlike gambling, somehow). Oh well.

It's something I've thought about many times, however, in my more philosophical moments, and the Meatless Mondays thing perhaps even better illustrates the argument. It is all well and good to insist that one should be allowed to make one's own choices on what to eat. But when you choose to go for the fatty delicious food, is that really a choice? Are you not merely acting as slave to your own cravings for food that you know is bad for you? It occurs to me that, given the "choice" between healthy food and junk food, perhaps it is only when opting for the former that one is expressing choice; the latter is impulse. It sounds odd, because, for the old ladies at work, and as perhaps most people understand the concept, "choice" meant being at liberty to decide for oneself how one was going to live. How can it be that, presented with a choice, there might only be one path that properly expresses choice? It seems a contradiction, does it not? That there should be only one way to choose? But perhaps "choice" is not truly about the freedom to pursue many different and comparably valid possibilities but, rather, about having the chance to do the right thing of our own free will, without some overbearing daddy figure stepping in to make all the decisions for us.

And I suppose, in that case, the old ladies' point would stay the same. They're just a bit late, I think, as choice has clearly already passed our obese nation by. Now hooked, we haven't any longer the strength of will to free ourselves from the bondage of deliciousness. Thus, it is left to the healthy-living voting contingent to shepherd us away from our own weaker tendencies. And, anyway, were my libertarian working class coworkers truly so opposed to Meatless Mondays, they could have made their protests known before it passed. That is the people's choice, after all.

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