09 February 2010

Where is Agency in Compulsion?

As of late I have been thinking "what use is it to teach logic and thinking only to then insist we all think and act the same way?" We claim as a society that we value our liberties above all other things. We state that the First Amendment should be upheld everywhere and thus promote free speech, that everyone in the world should have the right to choose their leaders and thus push democracy throughout the world, that everyone can achieve the "American Dream" and thus bolster education.

We love liberty and revel in it, or at least in our own. When it comes to the liberties of others we slow down a little bit. We are happy that we can say whatever we want, but we cringe when we hear someone defending a distasteful opinion. We are joyous to vote for a leader, but then disrespectfully walk out of that leader's speech because we didn't choose him. We cherish our ability to achieve our dreams, but then get angry when others 'have it easy'. How do we overcome these frustrating differences? We slowly manipulate the perception of world until our way is the only reasonable way and every other way is corrupt, evil and bad.

A Lack of Diversity

It goes something like this: Someone does something we don't like so we institute a rule against it. They continue to do things we don't like and we continue to make rules. Each rule by itself seems mostly harmless, but when gathered collectively they create an intricate web of social do's and don'ts as determined by whoever made the rules. The problem is that the cumulative rules prevent anyone from being 'unacceptably' different from us. Time and again history has shown us that a lack of diversity is not just bad but can bring ruin. Let us look at Ireland's Great Famine:

One of the bounties of the New World was the potato. This marvelous new food could easily be grown in a large variety of places and climates. Europe loved this magic new food and embraced it whole heartedly. Not long after its introduction the potato became a staple of the Irish diet. Along came the 1840's bringing with it a potato disease that attacked only a certain kind of potato. It happened to be the one kind that the Irish, and most of Europe, used for food. The results were devastating, causing a 20% decline in Ireland's population over the next decade from death and emigration. The Indians of the New World never experience this sort of famine. The reason was simple: the Indians had planted up to a hundred different varieties of potatoes and the Irish one. When disease comes along and wipes out one of a hundred different varieties of food it is no big deal, when it wipes out one of ten varieties it is devastating.

By creating such strong restrictions so as to greatly limit diversity we invite the devastation of the Great Famine and risk complete failure, all because of a lack of tolerance.

Removing the Grey Matter

Another form of compulsion is to limit choice so much that people must choose between two extremes. This method gives the illusion that people still have a choice, and technically they do, but they have no viable options. For example, pretend I switched all of my roommate Red's shirts with Peran Sea monster shirts. Red still technically has choices: he can wear the Peran Sea monster or the Peran Sea monster. In the end Red will have to wear a Peran Sea monster shirt (which are actually quite good looking shirts, though I am biased). Red does have some other non-viable choices though: he can choose run away instead of wearing the shirts; he can choose to go shirtless; he can choose to defy me and buy a T-Rex shirt. None of these are considered viable options for one reason: humans innately desire to do and be good. Society teaches us that running away is bad; running around in public shirtless is evil and rebelling against the established order is corrupt. Therefore Red is left with the choice of Peran Sea monster shirt.

I will concede that non-viable options are sometime exercised, but I would ask "why?" Is it because the individual doesn't know they are bad? Not likely. In fact, I think that often rebellion happens only because it is rebellion; because it is outside the established norm that the action is chosen to express contempt for authority. If the action is suddenly brought within the norm, it is a useless form of expression as it is no longer contempt.

Back to the grey matter. Most decision have clearly white (right, correct, good) and black (wrong, incorrect, bad) boundaries, at least in our own minds. The trouble comes when we encounter situations that fall between our clearly defined limits into the grey zone where white and black mingle. Because every person has different experiences and looks at those experiences differently, everyone has different grey zones. These zones are important to our individuality. They are the zones that we feel like we can safely experience the thrill of something new and different without being outright in the black. They are higher risk from what we are used to, but not so far away from the white that we feel like we have gone too far. Grey zones allow us to experiment with the unknown without being 'wrong'. When the grey zone is removed, and with it our ability to safely experiment, we are forced to choose: Do we want to fulfill our innate need to be 'right' as others define it and loss our ability to express our uniqueness or do we want to fulfill our desire to be recognized as a unique individual and be considered 'wrong' by others? Compacted: we must choose someone else's white or black and either be seen as complacent or rebel, really good or really bad, because all the middle ground has been removed.


A healthy balance needs to be struck between allowing us the satisfaction of exploring curiosity and protecting us from harm. Though I do not clam to be an expert at finding this balance, I know that it is important. Limiting choices to the point where people must decide whether to forsake their agency or go into open rebellion in not agency at all and in the face of 'logical disease' a group that is devoid of any grey material will be devastated and an ensuing intellectual famine will follow.

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