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The Paradox of Choice

Shining a light on society’s infatuation with dystopian fiction

The apocalypse is #trending. Apocalypses of all shapes and sizes. To some degree, it always has been. Yesterday we listened to religious institutions preaching an eschatological end, today we’ll sit down to the The Walking Dead. This wicked lust for dark futures penetrates all forms of literature, famous examples being H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds and Sharknado.

Across the board these classics, cult classics and just plain pulp pieces, hold up a mirror to society’s masochism. From the horror genre through the disaster movie to the literary dystopia, a reader and a watcher is left wondering: what kind of sick species gets its kicks from speculating on its own annihilation?

Although it’s tempting to get all giddy with theories such as Freud’s Death Wish, I would advise against taking the advice of a man who once proffered cocaine as a miracle cure. Instead, my friends, we’ll be taking the advice of a more contemporary preacher. This is Barry Schwartz. Barry’s responsible for coining the term, ‘Paradox of Choice’.

You’ve probably never even heard of this old white man or his theories, but the content is quotidian. It goes like this: those who are blessed with unparalleled choice are not acting particularly grateful for these privileges. These benefits range from the opportunity to walk home at night without the threat of physical and sexual harm, to those opportunities offered by the gilded nepotism of Oxbridge alumni.

Studies in the UK reveal that depression does not discriminate between class, gender or any other social identifier. Lovely people such as myself, i.e. white, straight, male, cis posh boys, are often to be found revelling in existential angst. What could possibly be upsetting these poor darlings?

Privilege itself, of course. Now I know, dear reader, what you’re thinking. What a bunch of bloody wasters. And yes, you’re right. But why are they a bunch of bloody wasters? According to our pal Barry, a surplus of opportunities leads to eternal comparison. The lucky individual picks listlessly at his char-grilled calf’s liver in the booths of The Delaunay, thinking of all the other, potentially more luxurious eateries he could be dining in. The fortunate soul on holiday in Martha’s Vineyard wonders what the sky looks like in Tenerife.

To get to the point: with infinite possibility arises infinity’s concomitant dread. One possibility is never enough. It is a constant riddling of “What If?”, the haunting of those perennially greener pastures. Dissatisfaction and unhinged disillusionment can only follow. Everybody’s favourite Frenchman Michel Foucault quips: ‘Madness… is merely the penalty of the liberty that reigns there, and of the wealth universally enjoyed.’ If Michel says so, it must be true.

The problem of a depression instigated under liberty is spreading. Those groups that are becoming freer via the technologies of tomorrow and the relaxation of societal norms will continue to suffer from this headliner of first world problems. The population of the poor darlings is growing – insofar as North Korea and Trump don’t invite the rest of the globe to their dick measuring competition, and so long as the blasted proletariat doesn’t revolt – which leads us to ask ‘what’s the solution?’

Escapism. In an age of perpetual nihilistic crises, ranging from the West’s secularisation to the milestones made in quantum physics (Ye Gods is Nothing Real?), what could be better than a fictional world of absolutes? I’m thinking specifically of our species’ all-time favourite: Good versus Bad. Think of a world in which oppression is perpetually faced with revolution (and who doesn’t love the sound of that word “Revolution”?). Certainly the student body does. We’re a collection of young people recently come into adult independence, still recovering from puberty and squealing over paying nine grand a year to rewatch lecture slides on Q-Review. English students may recall being begged not to write their dissertations on George Orwell’s classic dystopia 1984.

But this desire for an absolute evil, at least an explicit unfairness, to fight against is not isolated to the student population. All ages and classes of peoples may be discovered at their laptops, Torrenting and Netflixing The Hunger Games, The Handmaid’s Tale and The Man in the High Castle. It seems your daddy and your daddy’s daddy simply love escaping to despotic regimes.

Wouldn’t it be nice, just for an hour or two, to retreat to a reality wherein that which is right and that which is wrong are clearly defined? No more frets over which club night to attend, which unfortunate person to swipe left or right on, which privilege to utilise next. A binary choice between unequivocal options eliminates the dissatisfaction that taints our plethora of choice. All that is left in this perversely attractive world is the decision between submission and rebellion.

We have always adored the end times. An ending is a guarantee that we are not merely prisoners of our departure but destined for a worthy finale. Members of a race who deserve and will certainly earn a climax. The only difference between today’s world and those worlds which came before, is the nature of our ending.

Rather than an immediate, divine judgement that punishes the evil and rewards the holy, we will instead reach out our fingers to grasp at an oppressive regime. A regime which, by its very cruelty and despotism, reminds its consumers of the values of beauty and freedom. This is the poor darling’s escape from a world that it is too kind, too generous, too servile, for the poor darling’s own good.


Image: Aaron Mello on Unsplash


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