Practice English Speaking&Listening with: Renata Salecl: Our unhealthy obsession with choice

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When I was preparing for this talk,

I went to search for a couple of quotes

that I can share with you.

Good news: I found three

that I particularly liked,

the first by Samuel Johnson, who said,

"When making your choice in life,

do not forget to live,"

the second by Aeschylus, who reminded us that

"happiness is a choice that requires effort,"

and the third is one by Groucho Marx

who said, "I wouldn't want to choose to belong

to any club that would have me as a member."

Now, bad news:

I didn't know which one of these quotes

to choose and share with you.

The sweet anxiety of choice.

In today's times of post-industrial capitalism,

choice, together with individual freedom

and the idea of self-making,

has been elevated to an ideal.

Now, together with this, we also have a belief

in endless progress.

But the underside of this ideology

has been an increase of anxiety,

feelings of guilt,

feelings of being inadequate,

feeling that we are failing in our choices.

Sadly, this ideology of individual choice

has prevented us from thinking about social changes.

It appears that this ideology was actually

very efficient in pacifying us

as political and social thinkers.

Instead of making social critiques,

we are more and more engaging in self-critique,

sometimes to the point of self-destruction.

Now, how come that ideology of choice

is still so powerful,

even among people who have

not many things to choose among?

How come that even people who are poor

very much still identify with the idea of choice,

the kind of rational idea of choice

which we embrace?

Now, the ideology of choice is very successful

in opening for us a space to think

about some imagined future.

Let me give you an example.

My friend Manya,

when she was a student at university in California,

was earning money

by working for a car dealer.

Now, Manya, when she encountered

the typical customer, would debate with him

about his lifestyle,

how much he wants to spend,

how many children he has,

what does he need the car for?

They would usually come to a good conclusion

what would be a perfect car.

Now, before Manya's customer would go home

and think things through,

she would say to him,

"The car that you are buying now is perfect,

but in a few year's time,

when your kids will be already out of the house,

when you will have a little bit more money,

that other car will be ideal.

But what you are buying now is great."

Now, the majority of Manya's customers

who came back the next day

bought that other car,

the car they did not need,

the car that cost far too much money.

Now, Manya became so successful in selling cars

that soon she moved on to selling airplanes.


And knowing so much about the psychology of people

prepared her well for her current job,

which is that of a psychoanalyst.

Now, why were Manya's customers so irrational?

Manya's success was that she was able

to open in their heads an image

of an idealized future,

an image of themselves

when they are already more successful, freer,

and for them, choosing that other car

was as if they are coming closer to this ideal

in which it was as if Manya already saw them.

Now, we rarely make really totally rational choices.

Choices are influenced by our unconscious,

by our community.

We're often choosing

by guessing, what would other people

think about our choice?

Also we are choosing

by looking at what others are choosing.

We're also guessing what is socially acceptable choice.

Now, because of this, we actually

even after we have already chosen,

like bought a car,

endlessly read reviews about cars,

as if we still want to convince ourselves

that we made the right choice.

Now, choices are anxiety-provoking.

They are linked to risks, losses.

They are highly unpredictable.

Now, because of this,

people have now more and more problems

that they are not choosing anything.

Not long ago, I was at a wedding reception,

and I met a young, beautiful woman

who immediately started telling me about her anxiety over choice.

She said to me, "I needed one month

to decide which dress to wear."

Then she said, "For weeks I was researching

which hotel to stay for this one night.

And now, I need to choose a sperm donor."


I looked at this woman in shock.

"Sperm donor? What's the rush?"

She said, "I'm turning 40 at the end of this year,

and I've been so bad in choosing men in my life."

Now choice, because it's linked to risk,

is anxiety-provoking,

and it was already the famous

Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard

who pointed out that anxiety

is linked to the possibility of possibility.

Now, we think today that we can prevent these risks.

We have endless market analysis,

projections of the future earnings.

Even with market, which is about chance,

randomness, we think we can predict rationally

where it's going.

Now, chance is actually becoming very traumatic.

Last year, my friend Bernard Harcourt

at the University of Chicago organized an event,

a conference on the idea of chance.

He and I were together on the panel,

and just before delivering our papers

we didn't know each other's papers

we decided to take chance seriously.

So we informed our audience

that what they will just now hear

will be a random paper,

a mixture of the two papers

which we didn't know what each was writing.

Now, we delivered the conference in such a way.

Bernard read his first paragraph,

I read my first paragraph,

Bernard read his second paragraph,

I read my second paragraph,

in this way towards the end of our papers.

Now, you will be surprised

that a majority of our audience

did not think that what they'd just listened to

was a completely random paper.

They couldn't believe that

speaking from the position of authority

like two professors we were,

we would take chance seriously.

They thought we prepared the papers together

and were just joking that it's random.

Now, we live in times with a lot of information,

big data,

a lot of knowledge about the insides of our bodies.

We decoded our genome.

We know about our brains more than before.

But surprisingly, people are more and more

turning a blind eye in front of this knowledge.

Ignorance and denial are on the rise.

Now, in regard to the current economic crisis,

we think that we will just wake up again

and everything will be the same as before,

and no political or social changes are needed.

In regard to ecological crisis,

we think nothing needs to be done just now,

or others need to act before us.

Or even when ecological crisis already happens,

like a catastrophe in Fukushima,

often we have people living in the same environment

with the same amount of information,

and half of them will be anxious about radiation

and half of them will ignore it.

Now, psychoanalysts know very well

that people surprisingly don't have

passion for knowledge

but passion for ignorance.

Now, what does that mean?

Let's say when we are facing

a life-threatening illness,

a lot of people don't want to know that.

They'd rather prefer denying the illness,

which is why it's not so wise to inform them

if they don't ask.

Surprisingly, research shows that sometimes

people who deny their illness

live longer than those who are rationally choosing

the best treatment.

Now, this ignorance, however,

is not very helpful on the level of the social.

When we are ignorant about where we are heading,

a lot of social damage can be caused.

Now, on top of facing ignorance,

we are also facing today

some kind of an obviousness.

Now, it was French philosopher

Louis Althusser who pointed out

that ideology functions in such a way

that it creates a veil of obviousness.

Before we do any social critique,

it is necessary really to lift that veil of obviousness

and to think through a little bit differently.

If we go back to this ideology

of individual, rational choice

we often embrace,

it's necessary precisely here

to lift this obviousness

and to think a little bit differently.

Now for me, a question often is

why we still embrace this idea of a self-made man

on which capitalism relied from its beginning?

Why do we think that we are really such masters

of our lives that we can rationally

make the best ideal choices,

that we don't accept losses and risks?

And for me, it's very shocking to see sometimes very poor people,

for example, not supporting the idea

of the rich being taxed more.

Quite often here they still identify

with a certain kind of a lottery mentality.

Okay, maybe they don't think that they will make it

in the future, but maybe they think,

my son might become the next Bill Gates.

And who would want to tax one's son?

Or, a question for me is also,

why would people who have no health insurance

not embrace universal healthcare?

Sometimes they don't embrace it,

again identifying with the idea of choice,

but they have nothing to choose from.

Now, Margaret Thatcher famously said

that there is nothing like a society.

Society doesn't exist, it is only individuals

and their families.

Sadly, this ideology still functions very well,

which is why people who are poor might feel

ashamed for their poverty.

We might endlessly feel guilty that we are

not making the right choices,

and that's why we didn't succeed.

We are anxious that we are not good enough.

That's why we work very hard,

long hours at the workplace

and equally long hours on remaking ourselves.

Now, when we are anxious over choices,

sometimes we easily give our power of choice away.

We identify with the guru

who tells us what to do,

self-help therapist,

or we embrace a totalitarian leader

who appears to have no doubts about choices,

who sort of knows.

Now, often people ask me,

"What did you learn by studying choice?"

And there is an important message that I did learn.

When thinking about choices,

I stopped taking choices too seriously, personally.

First, I realized a lot of choice I make

is not rational.

It's linked to my unconscious,

my guesses of what others are choosing,

or what is a socially embraced choice.

I also embrace the idea

that we should go beyond

thinking about individual choices,

that it's very important to rethink social choices,

since this ideology of individual choice has pacified us.

It really prevented us to think about social change.

We spend so much time choosing things for ourselves

and barely reflect on

communal choices we can make.

Now, we should not forget that choice

is always linked to change.

We can make individual changes,

but we can make social changes.

We can choose to have more wolves.

We can choose to change our environment

to have more bees.

We can choose to have different rating agencies.

We can choose to control corporations

instead of allowing corporations to control us.

We have a possibility to make changes.

Now, I started with a quote from Samuel Johnson,

who said that when we make choice in life,

we shouldn't forget to live.

Finally, you can see

I did have a choice

to choose one of the three quotes

with which I wanted to start my lecture.

I did have a choice,

such as nations, as people,

we have choices too to rethink

in what kind of society we want to live in the future.

Thank you.


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