Friday, November 2, 2012

The Idea of "Choice" Amidst the Rising Waters of Life

Seen in Hoboken, NJ
I felt my frustration grow with every news channel that I flipped through.  Hurricane Sandy was ripping through my hometown.  I wondered if those fabled ghosts that pace the "widow's walk" atop Victorian homes paced extra hard as the swirling storm closed in.  I watched the boardwalk that I had grown up walking along be washed away in the torrent.  I watched the waves pulverize the dunes where I discovered my very first conch shells for my shell collection.  I watched the cameras roll by the faces of the people standing among the destruction   The TV flashed images of people with shell-shocked faces standing on doorsteps wet with flood waters.  The cameras zoomed in on complacent folk sitting in their flooded backyards in lawn chairs.  TVs everywhere pictured boaters and jet skiers traveling on roads-turned-rivers to evacuate friends and family members.  No news story was complete without footage of a disenfranchised looking person wading through murky, chest-deep water with a few belongings held high over their heads.

Then, I heard a newscaster utter these words, "Those that chose to stay."  And I felt angry.

Behind the Victorian mansions, the manicured golf courses, ornate churches, couture boutiques, and sprawling developments in my hometown, there is poverty.  I assure you that poverty was one of the many systems at play that defined "choice" for so many community members that day.

What are your "choices" when you have no where else to go?  When you have no place else to stay and no money for lodging?  When you do not have the means to transport your possessions, and you want to watch over what little you have?  When your home is all you have?  When your primary means of both mobility and transportation is a powerchair, and no one has a van to help you move yourself and your things longer distance?  When you have pets that you would not be able to take with you?  When you are sick and unable to be moved from your bed in your home?  When you lack planning and coping skills that makes acting and planning in emergency situations, under pressure, almost unbearable?  When your friends and family have these limitations and cannot leave and you don't want to leave them?  When you are an undocumented immigrant who fears being identified therefore won't seek more formalized systems for support or shelter?

If your only choice was to stay, did you still choose it?

I publicly expressed concern for the safety of the undocumented immigrants in my hometown during the storm.  I am more than aware that some people did not appreciate or agree with this.  The idea of "choice" only becomes more complex here.  For many migrants, the decision to come to the U.S. is one of survival.  An alarmingly large and growing rate of individuals making the trip through Mexico to the U.S. border (an example, the issue of migration is certainly not exclusive to one group) are children who are unaccompanied by an adult.  The trip through Mexico alone takes more than 30 days and it is not uncommon for migrants to be harassed, attacked, extorted, and even killed along the way.  Many migrants are attempting to escape chronic poverty, threats of violence, political oppression, and are trying to save their loved ones and children from being added to the growing "missing persons" lists.  They migrate to send just a little money back home to family, that some researchers tell us may take them 50-100 years (a.k.a not in their lifetime) to reunite with, so that they can escape the "poorly paid peasant" cycle and rise above poverty and oppression.

Why is it easier to believe that most people didn't evacuate from the hurricane because they just didn't want to listen, rather than acknowledge that bio/psycho/social/economic systems defined what their options were?

Why is it easier for to believe that the issue of undocumented immigration can be viewed as an "othered" group of people who try to cheat the system, rather acknowledging that a lot of migrants are seeking to save themselves and their children from violence, oppression, and poverty?

The other day, my dear friend Claud was so kind as to provide the New York Times with her insight to "choice" dialogue in adoption.  As children are typically adopted from poorer families to wealthier ones, following the traditional lines of privilege, Claud used the adoption tax credit (as applied to private adoption) as a foundation to discuss the economic limitations of "choice" for potential surrendering parents in adoption.  Whether one agrees with the tax credit or not is beside the point.  Claud's contribution to the debate called into question how we can stay true to a mission to reduce the losses of children in the expansion of this tax credit when economic disadvantage may, in some cases, be the reason behind the relinquishment in the first place.

An incredible number of commenters responded to Claud by gaslighting her, by telling her that most surrendering mothers/parents experience no complexity and are simply averted to parenting  and by suggesting that economic factors play such an insignificant role in surrender and adoption that support systems for single and impoverished parents are not worth investigation.

Why is it easier to believe that adoption is a nonchalant decision made entirely by personal preferences, rather than an incredibly complex situation shaped by the bio/psycho/social/spiritual/cultural/economic systems at play in the lives of expectant parents?

We will not always understand the choices we perceive others to have made.  We may not always identify with the life circumstances that shaped what options someone had to choose from in a given situation.  We may not always grasp what someone means when they explain they feel they had no choice or that their choices were limited.  This is why we as a society need to listen and accept feedback from those who are giving it.  When it comes to one's safety, their well being, and their human rights, we should seek to expand the opportunity for choices to be made--not limit them.  Some human rights issues that involve expanding or limiting choice are political.  We debate on how much support should be available to people and how much should be spent on that support, or not, and why.  No matter what side of politics we are on, it should never stop us from understanding that "choice," whether real or an illusion, has human need behind it--and often times--human suffering behind it too.