Conformity to Choice

The making of the sausage may not be pleasant, but do read the conversation in Part III

Part I: Stuff We All Know: Gender

The Annual What is Free Choice Debate Day has come again. Also known as Karwa Chauth. For those more learned than me, those who do understand whether free choice really exists or not, this will be trivial. For the rest of us mortals, it is a fascinating question that we can wrestle with, as we choose our actions.

Whether it is Karwa Chauth fast, or the Burqa, or the need to validate oneself with a certain peoples using a version of teenage-fantasy-locker-room-talk, the issue remains the same. This is not always a gender issue — all genders have been asked to conform to either of the two. Gender based roles impose the burden of conformity on all, and that is what I question today. Conformity, as opposed to choice — and its degrees of freedom.

Part II: Next Level Question: Choice

(Staying with the illustration of fasting. Equally applies to other conformist acts)

Sure it is about choice and you are free to choose to fast or not; to deny that would be to go back to the medieval ages. Let us assume that people are not forced to fast, even though we know that in many millions of households, they don’t really have a choice.

For those who think they are choosing to fast, I have a few questions:

Do they know what they are choosing? Do they know the history? Do they know the implications of the choice they make? Why was the tradition established? Why is it perpetuated? Who does the tradition serve? What happens after observing the fast — how does the politics of the family change? What are the consequences of choosing to join or abstain?

How does one ever know whether this was conditioned choice or real choice?

(Does one ever have the ability or make free choices?)

Do we continue to make choices that do not rock the boat? Is the rocking of the boat essential to its progress, or are the gentle doldrums a good place to stay?

Upon reflection, do those who have the option of choosing (or not), to keep the fast ever wonder — whether this was really a choice available to them? And if and when they do, do they exercise that choice?

Because the proof of choice is in the exercise of it.

Part III: The Simple Counter: It’s up to You: A conversation

A: Why over think it? Just do or not, it is up to you. (She said…)

B: Is it really? Is it really up to me or do I think I am exercising free choice but am really responding to my conditioning? Because that often looks just the same as choice.

I may think this is fun, but I have been told it is fun. I may think this is good, but again, that’s what I’ve been told. How would I know this for myself?

A: I feel good, so I know it is good. I dress up, apply mehendi, feel pretty, and share a ritual with my married friends. (Let’s ignore the widows argument today, anyway it is a day to ignore widows, and let them feel excluded and miserable, right? Tradition). So, we are all having fun together, and I choose fun.

B: Really? That’s your argument? Toys and trinkets? And pretend games? Adults anyone?

A: It is a moment of bonding with my family, with my husband. We feel really close after we do the ritual with the moon and everything.

B: Yaar, what does that have to do with fasting? Any ritual you set up, you can condition the family to feel good about it. Try charitable giving and bonding over it. Or climbing a mountain (yup, the religionistas figured that out too, most temples and abbeys are on mountain tops). Set up an apple pie ritual, or a eating kheer together annual ritual. Or being unusually kind to each other and not fighting one day of the year. Each of these works. And guess what, each of these has been incorporated into the day just to reinforce the conditioning. Smart design.

A: I want to fast okay!! Do you have any problem?

B: Nope, not a bit. You can do what you want. But just don’t call it choice.

It is participating in a drama, a ritual, a delusion. Something one sets up. Go on, do it, have fun. But don’t claim it as free choice. Because you cannot ever know whether it was truly free or not.

A: Do I have to prove that it was free choice?

B: No, and that is the beauty of it. It is fine to go along with a delusion, an act. Who am I to tell you which delusion to choose — the one of choice or the one of tradition. Go, go on and have loads of fun. Share some pictures too!

A: So, what what this whole argument about then?

B: Just don’t call it choice.

Thing is: the only way you can prove choice is by breaking away from tradition. If you occasionally perform the fast, and sometimes don’t, just because you don’t feel like it, then you are exercising choice. But again we can be sure only when you don’t do what is expected. When you do, then how will even you know whether you are giving in to pressure, conditioning, or even the feel good of rejoining a tribe?

It’s like this: you see an advertisement for an icecream or coke, and you want to have it. To indulge is to respond to the stimulus, not to exercise free choice. But to not have it is an act of choice.

A: So, I am not having food that day. I am choosing not to have food though others are eating. Even by your argument, I am exercising choice.

B: No, you are joining the tribe and tradition of those who deny themselves on this specific day. Do the dressing up and fasting on any other day, if it is by choice. Or never. But to join in, is not provable as an exercise of choice. To deny yourself denial on this day of denial is definitely proof of choice.

A: I don’t need to prove myself to you or anybody! So what if I conform? Or behave according to my conditioning?

B: That’s what I said earlier. Go, do what works for you. Do it and be aware of the consequences. Some will be good, some less so. Do it as a political move, as a chessboard move in your life. Do it because it works, not because you claim freedom. It may be many things but it is not an exercise in freedom.

Part IV: The Analyst Steps up: A 2x2 Matrix, no less

They say that everything can be explained in a 2 by 2 matrix.

Here is one: The Y axis is about beliefs. Internally driven (bottom half), and externally driven (top Half). The X-axis is about Behaviours, internally demonstrated and externally demonstrated.

The Journey to Choice © Meeta Sengupta

Two of the quadrants are clear — if the internal belief and behaviour do not match, there is no free choice. If one is forced to fast (or wear a certain garment, or walk a specific path), then obviously choice — and self agency are being harmed. The other extreme is also clear — when one chooses not to adhere to the norm, and consciously and visibly breaks away from conformity, then self agency is being expressed. To choose to not conform to the norm is the only provable freedom.

(Whether that is true free choice or not has been much debated in literature and philosophy — and I bow to all those arguments.).

It is only when the internal and the external clash that we have interesting options… (more later, for now just look at the picture).


We have to be careful with the terminology here, it is very easy to be misunderstood… (more later)

Beliefs, for example is a laden term. I’d have done better to go with ‘Mind’… but this is an exercise in thinking aloud, so here it is — Beliefs. The question is where did they come from? Were they driven internally, sourced from life experiences and evidence, testing and proof, a rigorous journey of self discovery even if via others’? Or did they come from hearsay. And were heard often enough to be received wisdom — that’s what we are calling ‘external driven’. There is no value judgement here. One is not better than the other. At least not automatically. It has to earn that right based on the context and purpose.

Behaviours are the other axis. Demonstrated behaviours could be driven by internal or external led beliefs. Only one of them represents freedom.

(This is a personal thought exercise, by no means an ideology or a philosophy. Any constructive discussion is welcome. No fingers were pointed in the writing of this, nor will pointed fingers be tolerated in discussions.

Now, should this be thought through more and become a paper?)