Freedom and Choice

In a recent conversation with a friend who immigrated from Nigeria, we were talking about why he had pulled his two sons out of an after school program. “They were being taught freedoms in a way that goes against their family’s beliefs. The meaning of freedom is you obey the law. If you obey the law, you are free. If you don’t, you are not.”

My friend’s statement caught my attention. It wasn’t that I actually disagreed with what he was saying, but rather that I hadn’t thought of freedom in quite those terms before. I wondered about the relationship between our different upbringings and our interpretations of the word “law”. Did he include institutional “rules” under the heading of “law”? I realized, having grown up in New England, I’d come to associate freedom, particularly American freedom, to some degree with Henry David Thoreau’s notion of “civil disobedience” and a responsibility to disagree, albeit respectfully, with rules and even laws that were in violation of my moral beliefs.

Columbia professor Sheena Iyengar explores the complexities of choice, from how the culture we grow up in shapes our perceptions of and reactions to choice to the intricate relationships between choice and freedom, in her newly published book The Art of Choosing sildenafil citrate 100mg. Drawing upon Erich Fromm’s distinction of the two complementary parts of freedom, “freedom from” and “freedom to,” Iyengar asserts “True choice requires that a person have the ability to choose an option and not be prevented from choosing it by any external force, meaning that a system tending too far toward either extreme will limit people’s opportunities.”

Acknowledging the power of “the American Dream” in both shaping the ideals of the United States and serving as “the foundation for everyone’s life story,” Iyengar encourages readers to “acknowledge its power [so] we can also begin to understand why other nations and cultures with other dreams have very different ideas about choice, opportunity, and freedom.” Iyengar calls for moving to “whatever comes after tolerance,” stating “We cannot live solely by our own stories or assume that the stories we live by are the only ones that exist.”

In her TED talk about the danger of a single story, Chimamanda Adichie warns against allowing a single story to define another person, group of people, or country. Recounting how story has shaped her understandings of others as well as their understandings of her, Adichie remarks on “…how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of a story, particularly as children.” “Show a people as one thing, only one thing, over and over again, and that’s what they become.” For instance, Adichie’s American college roommate was shocked to hear Adichie’s excellent English, and confused when told that English is the official language of Nigeria.

“It’s impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power,” stresses Adichie. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

In fact, the implications of the single story perspective can be profound, as has been the case for my Nigerian friend’s sons. Despite coming from a country whose official language is English, their high school placed them in the English Language Learners track of classes. And that, my friend recently learned, means his sons will not graduate from high school college ready. Certainly for these two young men, as for many others, freedom from and freedom to are directly connected.

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