Whose Choice is it Anyway?
Report on the spiked conference.
spiked’s conference Whose Choice is it Anyway? Questioning the New Conformism, at London’s impressive Institution of Electrical Engineers building at Savoy Place on Friday 11 March, brought together an audience of 150 people from around the UK, to debate the meaning of choice in the twenty-first century. Journalists, academics, policymakers and a group of high-school philosophy students joined other spiked readers and writers to discuss why choice has become a ubiquitous buzzword in politics and public life, yet at the same time has become a degraded concept that accords us less and less capacity to make big decisions about society and everyday life.
In his opening remarks, spiked editor Mick Hume explained why we had organised a conference on choice. We appear to be surrounded by choices today, with politicians competing over who can offer the most choice over schools and hospitals, and everything being presented as a ‘lifestyle choice’. But this flood of trivial choices only highlights the lack of important choices available to us, about how to live our lives and in what sort of society.
Historically, explained Hume, choice has meant something rather more important than consumer choice in the supermarket, or which school you send your children to. The history of human progress from the caves to the twenty-first century can be seen as a struggle to create the conditions where people can exercise greater choice in their lives. Historic political moments of the past, from the English, French, American and Russian revolutions to the fall of the Berlin Wall, were also about people making choices about the sort of society they wanted to live in.
By contrast, Hume argued, human progess is now often interpreted in a misanthropic light, with warnings that we have ‘too many’ choices and ‘too much’ freedom. In politics, meanwhile, choice has become trivialised and emptied out of all meaning. The worship of choice is often a cop-out. Lacking the leadership or ideas required to resolve the crises facing public institutions, the authorities instead tell us ‘You have the choice of hospitals and schools!’, shifting responsibility back on to us as individual consumers.
Alongside these illusory choices, said Hume, we are now pressed to make ‘informed choices’ in the areas of personal and public health, even down to the food we feed our children. This is the language of what spiked has called the New Conformism, where making the ‘healthy’ choice is turned into a moral imperative to prove you are a responsible individual. Hume concluded with a call to defend the principles of autonomy and self-determination – including the right to make the ‘wrong’ choices – as a precondition for putting genuine choices about society back on the agenda for debate.
A session on ‘Euthanasia: Do we need “the right to die”?’ raised the question of whether we need to legalise assisted suicide in order to allow terminally-ill patients the right to choose the time and manner of their death. Dr Margaret Branthwaite of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society argued that competent adults who are suffering unbearably should be able to request an assisted death. She challenged the idea that legalised euthanasia would be a slippery slope to devaluing the lives of sick or disabled people, pointing out that in Oregon, the only American state that has legalised euthanasia, only very small numbers have requested it – assisted dying accounted for 0.14 per cent of all deaths in Oregon in 2003.
Neil Coyle of the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) disagreed. As author of the DRC’s evidence to the committee debating the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, Coyle argued that the legislation would shift society’s focus from improving palliative care for the terminally ill and providing more and better resources to allow disabled people to live full and equal lives, towards making death an easy option. Kevin Yuill, senior lecturer in American Studies at the University of Sunderland, said there is little demand for the ‘right to die’. He argued that doctors have for many decades come to informal arrangements with terminally ill patients to bring forward death, if requested. Yuill concluded that the debate about euthanasia today effectively amounts to condoning suicide, and suggests that society has given up on the struggle to improve life, instead providing the proverbial man on the bridge with a shove.
A discussion of the ‘Use and abuse of alcohol’ examined the debate around England’s recently reformed licensing laws. Nick Sheron, consultant hepatologist and senior lecturer at the Southampton Liver Unit, described the damage that serious alcohol abuse can do to an individual, and argued the need for more education about this question. Peter Haydon, author of Beer and Britannia: An Inebriated History of Britain, discussed the history of drinking habits and licensing laws in the UK, and the fact that drinking alcohol is not uncivilised, but has developed as a part of civilisation.
Also speaking on the panel, I described the way that the debate around the new licensing laws has not been about giving people more choices over when they drink, but seeking to impose more constraints upon how people drink, through a preoccupation with ‘binge drinking’ and a desire to create a government-sponsored ‘continental café-bar culture’. From the floor, participants discussed what it is about our society today that both hypes the problem of alcohol out of all proportion, and gives rise to the kind of drinking culture that is less than appealing.
In the midday session on ‘Is Britain becoming a nanny state?’, Dr Michael Fitzpatrick, East London GP and author of MMR and Autism and The Tyranny of Health, examined the way in which distinctions between public and private life have been collapsed in recent years, leading to the increasing instrusion by the state into the most intimate aspects of people’s private lives. In the past, a robust sense of the distinction between private and public life meant that the state was reluctant to interfere in individuals’ personal behaviour, and attempts to do so – even for such clearly publicly spirited ends as mass vaccination against smallpox – were met with fierce resistance.
Now, however, the state passes up no opportunity to attempt to modify people’s behaviour, and far from such endeavours being met with resistance, they tend to be embraced, by an atomised society that has become inwardly focused on its personal health. While extreme examples of official intrusion are sometimes met with the cry, ‘Nanny state gone mad!’, this merely indicates that the ‘nanny state’ in general has been generally accepted. ‘Nanny state’ is an inadequate term to describe the reach and authoritarian dynamic at play today; and while Dr Fitzpatrick suggested that the idea of a ‘therapeutic state’ might be a better description, he called upon the conference to start thinking of a term that could more accurately encapsulate it.
Dr Fitzpatrick’s session was followed by two debates. The session on ‘Obesity: Who decides what not to eat?’ presented a showdown between Dr Ian Campbell, president of the National Obesity Forum, and Peter Marsh, director of the Social Issues Research Centre. Marsh argued that claims of a childhood obesity epidemic have been grossly exaggerated; in fact, he said, obesity is most common among men and women in their forties and fifties (what used to be called a ‘middle-aged spread’). He said the obsession with obesity was taking the enjoyment out of food and causing kids to worry unnecessarily about their weight and body shape. Dr Ian Campbell accused Marsh of downplaying the problem; he said the statistics showed that rising numbers of British children are now obese, and argued that families need to be assisted in making their choices about what kind of food to eat.
The discussion of ‘Breast- and bottle-feeding: Is “better” always best?’ asked why the issue of how to feed a newborn baby has become intensely polarised and politicised. Kaye McIntosh, editor of Pregnancy and Birth magazine, described how whenever her magazine attempts to discuss the issue, it is received in a highly personal and emotive way, indicating that how you feed your baby has become considered a mark of how good a mother you are. Christina Hopkinson, a journalist and novelist, spoke about her initially disastrous experience of breastfeeding, which resulted in her son becoming severely dehydrated.
Both McIntosh and Hopkinson argued that the polarised culture surrounding infant feeding means that many women are made to feel guilty when they fail to breastfeed, and called for more support to help women breastfeed. Ellie Lee, lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent and author of Abortion, Motherhood and Mental Health, argued strongly that the current policies on breastfeeding promotion stigmatise women who bottle-feed, and the use of the term ‘informed choice’ often means misinfomation as a means to pressing women to ‘choose’ breastfeeding.
The final session of the day debated the question of whether ‘too much choice’ can be a bad thing. Julian Baggini, writer, journalist and editor of the Philosophers’ Magazine, raised the idea that we are not as free to make choices as we sometimes think we are, and that sometimes it is right that choices are made for us for our own good. Clive Crook, deputy editor of The Economist, argued that while many might agree that there is ‘too much choice’ when it comes to consumer goods such as breakfast cereals or cold remedies, few would accept the logical conclusion of this complaint – that somebody else should make individuals’ choices for them.
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent and author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, situated the misanthropic view of choice today in the key policy concepts of sustainability and the ‘precautionary principle’, which are central to the New Conformism. These concepts, he said, are both banal – who argues for unsustainability or recklessness? – and severely limiting, accepting the idea that human society should strive for more limits, and fewer choices. If we want to be agents of our own lives and the future of society, we need to reassert the need for choices and our capacity to make them.
On that note, attendees at the conference carried the debate into the local pub. But it should not end there. For spiked, this is the beginning of a much-needed debate that will continue into the General Election and beyond. If you think we should demand more out of politics and life than the illusory choices on offer today, support us in our work and keep watching this space.
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