Dan Harper raises some very provocative questions in his recent post about the power of choice. Citing examples like people choosing to shop at Walmart and ending up with fewer choices and how open selection of ministers allows congregations to practice discrimination, Harper implies at least that greater choice doesn’t always make us happy or encourage us to do the right thing.
And that’s a fair point. But I still like choice.
I bought Linguist Friend a hat for his birthday once. I didn’t know a thing about men’s hats other than he’d mentioned needing one offhand some months before and that he had trouble finding hats that fit his rather large head. I knew what style of hat I thought would look nice on him and had a vague idea of what that might be called. I researched hats online, looking at probably a hundred hats sold out of businesses literally all over the world. I eventually saw that one brand made London got frequent raves online as having good quality. Knowing then what I was looking for, I found a small hat shop in Ohio that sold this brand and style of hats in extra-large size at a price I could afford and made my order.
That’s probably an even better example of the power of choice that the guy who chooses Wal-Mart in that I decided what I wanted to give Linguist Friend, carefully shopped for several hours looking for the right mix of niceness and price, giving preference to companies other people spoke well of*. I didn’t just have Walmart and my local businesses to chose from, I looked at stores in London and Tokyo. It would have taken literally months to look at the number of hats I did had I been driving around to local small businesses, especially because there’s no surplus of hat stores in my area. I can’t help but note here that I have never heard middle class people criticized for hurting local businesses by shopping online. What you hear constantly is poor people criticized for shopping at Walmart. (Would I have even considered going to Walmart to buy Linguist Friend a hat? Of course not. I wouldn’t buy a birthday present for a friend at Walmart. Forget covenantal bonds with the highest ideals, my reasons are far more basic. If I’m buying my best friend a hat, I’m not buying it someplace where the hats will be of poor quality and out of style.)
Actually, the question of choice raises cultural questions that it is beyond the scope of this blog to answer. At one point, I read that there was a study about how poorer people like to have the same things as their neighbors. In a working class neighborhood, if one man buys a truck and another man goes out and buys the same make and model, the second man is seen to be affirming the first man’s choice and that’s a good thing for all concerned. But in a richer neighborhood if one man buys one kind of car, his neighbors are inclined to buy different cars because a feeling of individualism is more important. That seems to basically match my observation and if true sheds some light on the question of how we get these two different ideals of consumerism.
Choice is power, and this isn’t a case where I believe in taking away a power because people sometimes misuse it. To be fair, Harper doesn’t directly advocate taking away choice either, he simply notes that there can be consequences to having more choices. Fair enough, but as I wrote in my headline, do you have a better idea?
We sometimes limit our choices ourselves, and that’s fine. Open relationships aside, when we chose someone for a permanent relationship, we are choosing our relationship with them over all our other choices, in theory forever. That’s fine with me. If we chose to become vegetarians, cool. If I decide that I want to tape and watch mostly detective shows out of all the billion shows on a billion channels my DirectTv offers, that's fine. If you decide that navy blue is the best color on you and you want only navy blue shirts from now on, Peacebang may object on fashion grounds, but have at it. We’re limiting our own choices there, but again, if that leads to greater happiness for ourselves, great.
But I can’t see doing that for other people. The only way to limit the number of choices people have is to make their choices for them, and I don’t really know anyone whom I consider qualified to make choices for me. The unintended consequences of choice are significant, but I can't imagine that the unintended consequences of limiting people's choices wouldn't be worse.
I haven’t a clue what to do about white congregations picking white straight male ministers, other than to note that if they are determined to do so, they will pick the one straight white male minister off the list if presented with a short list. Unless we purposefully give them a short list with no straight white male minister and while forcing diversity on people is appropriate sometimes, I don’t think minister selection is one of those times.
Putting aside the polity questions on that one, which of course are legion, I have to wonder who would be making that choice and how well they would know the congregations involved and what their sources of information would be.
Would the choices they made for the congregation really be better than the choices the congregation made for itself?
*Yes, I’m quite compulsive about giving people presents. My parents never put much time or attention into present-shopping and thus gave me crappy stuff (one time when I was a teenager, they put off shopping until Christmas eve and bought me a cheap makeup kit. That alone would have been OK. But they didn’t look at the makeup kit enough to notice that this brand of makeup kits is put together by skin tone and hair color. My Christmas present was a non-returnable makeup kit for a natural orangey redhead. All the makeup was orange and gold and completely unsuited to the skin tone of a brunette.) So I have a thing about finding presents that are just right and display that I have listened when my friends talk about what they want and thought carefully about what I’m giving.