On Privilege and Free Will

 

Asli Pekcan is a second year Neuroscience major from Hoboken, NJ. She has a passion for spreadsheets and Microsoft Excel, which is convenient for her role as Finance Director. When she’s not GlobeMedding, she works in a neurobiology lab at UCLA that studies learning, memory, and cognitive disorders.

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I have a severe lack of faith in the notion of free will. We wake up every morning and go about our days, making the conscious decision to put one foot in front of the other, never questioning that it is our own internal motivation in control. But I take issue with the view that equates the power of day-to-day decision-making with the force that drives our inner motivation and frames our aspirations. Consciousness is a discomforting illusion of autonomy.

From the moment we are born, our environment begins to shape our behaviors and attitudes, dictating what we should like, what we should dislike. What to eat, what to buy. What is good, and what is bad. This is where our identity forms and our place in the world becomes clear.

I grew up drinking a glass of milk every day because my mom told me it would strengthen my bones. In school, on TV, in Got Milk? commercials, it was an accepted dietary convention. I never questioned why.

The Got Milk? advertising campaign is one of the most famous and influential campaigns in history. I’d be surprised to meet anyone who hasn’t at least heard the slogan, let alone seen the ads. The campaign was originally created under the California Milk Processor Board (part of the California Department of Food and Agriculture) in the early 1990’s, but has since been licensed to dairy boards and farmers across the country. It is interesting to note its timing in response to greater social change towards the end of the 20th century. From the 60’s onward, America’s consumption of soft drinks, bottled water, and energy drinks increased significantly as soda marketing improved. Dairy, a historically well-subsidized sector of our economy, lost demand while supply kept increasing. To recover profits, the Got Milk? ad campaign began marketing milk in association with celebrities, special occasions, and related popular foods, indiscriminately slipping milk into the most relevant and referenced parts of our lives. It became a conversation starter, a household phrase, and eventually an international icon.

Once low-fat health fads came about, Got Milk? became part of the fat-free movement as milk transformed into a nutritional drink for health-conscious folk trying to lose weight. In response to the demand, dairy farmers began stripping milk of its fat, turning the byproduct into cheese—a lot of it (we have such a massive cheese surplus: the government spent $20 million last year buying out 11 million pounds of cheese to give to food banks).

Obviously, every time I picked up a glass and drank my morning milk I technically exercised my “free will.” But what irks me is that my routine, habitual behavior was more a product of my surrounding environment, in which government subsidies and debatable research influence public health attitudes and habits, than of my own will.

This isolated case is only a small part of a larger system. Our environment guides our preferences as much as it controls our behavior. Expectations and norms dictate our actions, making the decision to stray from the path burdensome, and a rarity at best. Most dramatically, in the context of the rights and abilities society grants us, embracing free will can be almost impossible.

I am extremely privileged. This is the case for most of us at UCLA, and it can be difficult to keep that perspective in mind when there aren’t constant reminders (although GlobeMed does a pretty good job at this, which I appreciate immensely). I hold privileges because of the life I was born into. My path was laid out for me without my knowing: it directed me to become educated, go to college, get a job, make money, get married, raise a family, save for retirement, live a successful life.

But that’s not the case for the majority of America. I am privileged because I had the choice to go to college, and to focus on my education, instead of having to work to support myself. I am privileged because I have the ability to apply for a job, pass through security checkpoints, and walk city streets without being distrusted or judged based on my appearance.

Just last week in our chapter meeting, we discussed the countless privileges associated with heterosexuality. I am privileged because I have the choice to get married and live openly and comfortably with my partner. In a heteronormative world, a lot of people don’t have that same ability—they are not guaranteed a doctor will openly talk about their sexuality with them. Job promotions are less attainable. Child custody is not guaranteed, and even then, there is still fear children may face rejection or discrimination based on their parents’ sexuality.

These are rights I take for granted. They are a part of life I never even considered I should doubt. And I realize now that they are privileges I could not imagine living without.

Here I am making a fuss over the lack of free will in my choice of beverage at breakfast, when free will extends so far beyond individual choices to systemic injustices, biases and discrimination based on race, sexuality, gender, religion, etc. With the lack of basic liberties comes a severe restriction on free will, as breaking societal norms may bear severe consequences. At this point, we have a responsibility to be aware of our privilege, and the related systems that confine our behaviors. Taking note of these realities is the first step to finding solutions that will extend free will to an even greater part of our community.

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“As for free will, there is such a narrow crack of it for man to move in, crushed as he is from birth by environment, heredity, time and event and local convention.”

  • Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
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