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Hobson’s Choice

Posted by tinako on April 8, 2010

Cowardice asks the question – is it safe?
Expediency asks the question – is it politic?
Vanity asks the question – is it popular?
But conscience asks the question – is it right?
And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular;
but one must take it because it is right.

– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today’s Word-a-Day Calendar vocabulary was “Hobson’s choice,” defined by the calendar as “an apparently free choice when there is no real alternative.”  The example given is Henry Ford’s reported comment that customers can have their car any color they want as long as it’s black.  The phrase “Hobson’s choice” apparently originated as a result of a 16th-17th century English stabler, Thomas Hobson, who rented horses out to university students.  Students would have their favorite horses, and those horses became overworked, so Hobson offered his customers this choice: take the horse nearest the stable door or none at all.  According to the calendar, people were soon using the term to mean no real choice.

I reject this, flat out.  I was watching who knows what movie a while ago, and one of the characters whined that he had had to do some awful thing, he didn’t have a choice.  The other character said, “There’s always a choice.”  That line has stuck with me, and I have tried it out in various situations that seem impossible, and I have found it to be true so far.  The thing is, the choice is not always obvious, and it is not always pleasant.

For instance, if Ford’s customers do not like black, they can not buy a car or paint it themselves or pay someone else to paint it.  There you are.

No horse at all is most certainly a livable choice, and includes staying home or various other modes of transportation, such as coach or feet.

Martin Luther King, Jr., could have said he had no choice but to accept violation of his civil rights.  Or he could have said he had no choice but to react with violence.  The world is a better place because he rejected those paths as unacceptable and led people on an alternate route.  His path was difficult, dangerous, and unpopular.  It ultimately took his life.  He would probably have preferred to spend his life in peace and dignity with his family in an unprejudiced world.  He did what he did because it was right, it was the best choice, for one and all.

I make a point, as I watch TV or read, to notice when a character is making what I would call a bad choice, what his real options are.  Not real as in the definition above, wherein they mean convenient.  I mean real, as in actual, any.  For instance, I was watching a Torchwood episode and one character set off a bunch of bombs in a crowded city and buried his buddy alive because someone  had strapped a bomb to his wrist and threatened to blow him up.  He claimed he had no choice, but the way I see it, he could have cut his arm off or refused and been blown up, all of which would have been better than what did happen.  Except to him, you see?  He killed a whole bunch of other people to save himself.  And that was his choice.  There’s always a choice.

I think many people believe they have no choice when it comes to food.  The USDA breaks our diet down into the five food groups, and there’s a meat (and beans) group and a milk group.  Our mothers ask us if we’re getting enough protein.  There you go, what choice do we have?  Animals may suffer, but I can’t help that, I’ve got to eat.

How about this?  We can use another food pyramid.  We can visit vegan nutrition sites.  We don’t have to go to the meat department in the grocery store.  We don’t have to stand in front of the dairy case – we can walk right by – it’s our choice.  We can leave the eggs on the shelf.

We don’t need eggs to bake a cake.  We don’t need cow’s milk to pour on cereal.  We don’t need meat for anything.  We can go to restaurants that offer compassionate food.  It’s just a choice, and when we fool ourselves into thinking there’s no alternative for doing things the way we’ve always done them, then injustice continues with a shrug of the shoulders and a “what can I do?”

The notion of “Hobson’s choice” being no real choice makes me angry.  It irritates me when people claim that a choice they do not want to select is impossible, doesn’t count as a choice.  Go ahead and say, “I don’t want to do that,” but don’t tell me you can’t.  Most of the people I know are very lucky to live in this time and this place, where our lives are really very easy.  We don’t have to decide whether to be collaborators or rebels.  We don’t have to spy on our neighbors for the government.  We are not called on to risk our lives to hide runaway slaves or persecuted families.  We can speak out, and we don’t have to endure political imprisonment.  We don’t have to choose between our religion and our freedom.  Usually none of our choices are really that awful for us.  The next time you find yourself feeling trapped into doing something, maybe something that doesn’t seem quite right, ask yourself, what is my choice?

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