On Choice

. . . and what we don't know


in Blog


My library has a display shelf, near the main circulation desk, of recently returned books. I love this shelf. They’re just random books, new and old — novels, cookbooks, photography books, biographies, how-to manuals, self-help. I often find something I want to read amongst them. It’s anti-curation — my options are reduced, but there’s no discernible algorithm behind the selection. They are not even recommended.

It reminds me of a game my brother and I used to play in the backseat of the family car. We’d flip through a catalog from a toy store or Sharper Image and choose the one thing we most wanted from each full-page spread. In airport bookstores, my husband and I like to go row by row and choose which bestseller we’d read if we had to read one. We don’t buy the books, of course; we’ve brought our own. As kids, we didn’t get the toys. But the act of choosing was a form of entertainment. Choice itself is pleasurable.

I have been thinking about choice. An election is a giant choice, made up of many smaller ones. We put a lot of faith in democracy, but choice itself is not well understood, at any level you look at it from. To look at one level: There is no mathematically viable way to hold an election with more than two candidates. Mathematician Evelyn Lamb explains it this way:

In my original example, 65 percent of people preferred candidate A to candidate B, 60 percent preferred candidate B to candidate C, and 75 percent preferred candidate C to candidate A. If you’ve played rock, paper, scissors, you understand the problem: No single move is always going to win, it all hinges on what you’re up against. (Mathematicians call preferences like this nontransitive.) No matter what system we use to choose between A, B, and C, a majority of voters will prefer a different candidate to the one who is chosen. If C is our choice, most people will wish B had been elected instead. If it’s B, most people will prefer A. If it’s A, most people will prefer C.

Paper beats rock, rock beats scissors, but scissors beat paper. Nontransitive. To look at another level: neurologically the very feeling of making a choice seems to arise after the brain and body are already making that choice. Studies have shown that when people’s brains are stimulated in such a way as to trigger a physical movement, say, in the hand, the subjects report an intention to move their hand. The intention, “I want to move my hand,” which feels like the cause, is actually an effect of the beginning of the motor sequence.

In a way this is all academic. I don’t believe in “free will,” but I still vote. Voting — not really an individual but a social act, a way of participating in the superorganism — feels something like “choiciness,” analogous to what Nathan Jurgenson has called “factiness”: “obsessing over and covering ourselves in fact after fact while still missing bigger truths.” I felt less anxious about the election after I’d voted, and when I got the email notification that my ballot had been received. My choice was official; it had been registered into the national choice.

The Monday before the election, Nate Silver put Hillary Clinton’s odds of winning at about two in three. These were not comforting odds, but the framing itself nagged me: as though the results of the election on Tuesday would be a roll of the dice, a game of pure chance, and not an accumulation of choices. As though the results were not already determined by the accumulation of all past history; we were just waiting to find out.

Probabilistic models are useful insofar as they can tell us the likelihood of outcomes in familiar circumstances. We know what conditions are highly likely to lead to rain. An election like this, which pitted a liberal woman against a fascist demagogue, has never happened in the U.S. Polls, which are flawed in any case, could be especially misleading under these circumstances — difficult to know if or by how much either candidate might be under- or over-polling.

In the aftermath, having looked to polls for assurance feels almost like superstition. Indeed, I (and some of my most rational friends) became superstitious in the days leading up to the election. I looked for omens in the weather reports — on November 8th, a man on Colorado Public Radio said it would be sunny that day and all week, not much change in temperature. It had been warm. I was feeling optimistic. I had bought champagne, envisioning a celebration, and said so on Twitter; several friends nervously told me not to “jinx” it.

As an atheist I lack accurate vocabulary for some of my emotions. I have caught myself using the word “pray” — “I’m just praying . . . ” etc. I do not, in fact, pray. I have used phrases like “Thank God” or “God forbid.” I have casually wished that prominent members of Donald Trump’s staff would “burn in hell.” I have casually wished I could believe in hell.

Shock is a mixture of incomprehension and denial. As the denial wears off and we accept the new reality, we’re still trying to combat the incomprehension. There’s a race to explain, to find the one true cause, the grand unified theory of how we got here. The one true cause has been variously assigned to third-party candidates and misled “protest votes,” lack of enthusiasm in Clinton (some attribute this to misogyny, others call her a “bad candidate”), voter suppression and the overturning of the Voting Rights Act, a failure of the left to understand rural voters, the left turning its back on the working class. But what does this buy us, choosing just one cause? Because the final vote count was so close — in fact, Clinton won the popular vote — any number of things could have pushed the election the other way.

I’m frustrated by these efforts to simplify history in real time, to distill these complexities into a single talking point, to conjure an atmosphere of certainty. I’m reminded of the countless interviews with Trump supporters I heard on the radio. Asked why they were voting for Trump and not for Hillary, they’d all repeat the same empty catchphrases — “Trump tells it like it is,” “I don’t trust Hillary.” (It’s a notion of trust that has nothing to do with verifiable facts; Trump’s supporters trust him to express his opinions.)

Robert Jay Lifton called these replicating soundbites “thought-terminating clichés.” In his book Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism: A Study of “Brainwashing” in China, he wrote, “The most far-reaching and complex of human problems are compressed into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.” Trump’s campaign and his debate performances were characterized by a handful of these, such as “X was a disaster.” Obamacare, NAFTA, inner cities, education, jobs, all a disaster. He said the word disaster 17 times in the second debate, but of course did not offer less disastrous alternatives.

So much of what is happening right now scares me, and one thing that scares me is the inclination to choose and proliferate an oversimplified narrative, so we can be lulled into false understanding. We already thought this could never happen in our country. If we oversimplify the causes, if we feel certain in what we know, we’ll quickly convince ourselves this can never happen again. A one-time error (never again will we nominate a woman). A freak accident (our system of government does not need to change).

Hannah Arendt, in her essay “Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,” quotes the following dialogue:

Q. Did you kill people in the camps? A. Yes.

Q. Did you poison them with gas? A. Yes.

Q. Did you bury them alive? A. It sometimes happened.

Q. Were the victims picked from all over Europe? A. I suppose so.

Q. Did you personally help kill people? A. Absolutely not. I was only paymaster in the camp.

Q. What did you think of what was going on? A. It was bad at first but we got used to it.

Q. Do you know the Russians will hang you? A. (Bursting into tears) Why should they? What have I done?

Arendt finds this last answer persuasive: “Really he had done nothing. He had only carried out orders . . . Since when could one only be decent by welcoming death?” We have to believe the people put to work in the death camps were not unlike us. But there are limits to empathy. (The people committing hate crimes around the country have not been coerced. These atrocities are not excused by a fight for survival.)

Later in the same essay, Arendt writes, “For many years now we have met Germans who declare that they are ashamed of being Germans. I have often felt tempted to answer I am ashamed of being human.” I am trying to find the right way to feel and to think about my country. There are evil forces around me, hate that I hate, and it’s all people. There are moments when I feel absolutely chilled by my own complicity. •

Image courtesy of mikethefifth via Flickr (Creative Commons).