A few years ago, Michael Savage had a call-in segment called “Linguistic Linguini.” He wanted callers to tell him what vacuous or oft-used phrases or words irritated them. Among the phrases cited as irritants were “at the end of the day,” (a lot of politicians use it — When do they ever analyze something that happens at the beginning of a day?), “in the final analysis,” (JFK used that one a lot, though no analysis is ever truly “final,” as T.S. Eliot might say), “thinking outside the box,” (so much an object of corporate reports that I’m sure Word has a keyboard macro to insert it — I’d like to reward someone for thinking “inside the box”), “s/he’s good people,” (mainly 1960s), and some others.
An object of linguistic linguini for me is “I could have sworn,” i.e. my keys were in the drawer, the hotel was right off the interstate, and so on. What “I could have sworn” means is that I don’t know, but I want to put on like I know.
However, that was the last time that a phrase bothered me, until today.
I read a lot of St. Louis news sources about the David Freeze DWI arrests, and some of the user comments made about the treatment of that story in several STL MSM outlets. Add to that a few unrelated national stories, and I kept reading over and over the word “choices,” and the phrase “life is all about choices.” That has always bothered me, but it hasn’t bothered me enough to bitch about it until today. You’ll hear this phrase uttered in anti-drug programs held in schools, health/STD/teenage pregnancy forums, near the beginning of the movie ATL (by the rapper T.I., who is sitting in Federal prison right now, I might add, while we’re on the subject of “bad choices”), and dozens of other situations. Pay attention, and you’ll hear it enough to bug you to death.
The reason it bothers me is because it’s a gross and deliberate misinterpretation of the meaning of “choice.” To have a choice, you have to have two or more legitimate options, where you have the reasonable expectation (if not the reality) of satisfaction no matter which choice you make. For example, I have $4 with which to buy a box of cereal. Do I buy Crispix, Wheaties or Raisin Bran? I can go on one vacation this year. Do I go to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Mecca? I’m ten years old, and think I’m all grown up because I happened on one of those “booklets.” Do I use Speed Stick, Old Spice or Right Guard? I’m being laid off at the end of the week. Do I stay here and find new work, or move back to my native St. Louis and find work there? (I’ve already let that cat out of the bag.)
It does not apply to illicit and illegal drugs because satisfaction isn’t supposed to be an option with one of the choices, because of the affects that, e.g. crack cocaine has on your body, and because the law has taken the legitimate choice away from you. In other words, you can’t “choose” between doing crack and not doing crack, because the former is illegal, and even if it weren’t, everybody you know would advise you against it. Do I run with gangs in Atlanta, or not run with gangs? While the former choice is not technically illegal, it virtually always works out that way in the final analysis. Therefore, you can’t choose between ganging up and not ganging up. And while contracting an STD or becoming an expectant mother at the age of 14 isn’t illegal in any way, unless you live in fundamentalist Islamic screwballville, and the latter condition is physically impossible for half the population, save Oprah freaks, getting an STD or becoming a teenage mother makes life difficult, so it is in no wise a choice that can lead to satisfaction.
For anti-drug programs to portray the use of illicit drugs as a “choice” serves to semi-legitimize drug use. That’s perhaps part of the reason why they don’t work well. If they told the truth, by saying that you have no choice, then they might get the message.