State used Budget in December to pit woman against woman
Choice is the buzz word of the modern world. We all use it, all the time. Uniformity in vocabulary is part and parcel of all the other uniformities that dominate our life. In the aftermath of the recent Budget, it seemed to be the most appropriate word we could find to express our concern at the discrimination and injustices contained in the same measure.
But what does choice mean and who can exercise it? What are the assumptions that underpin the notion of choice? Real choice belongs only to the rich and the powerful. It has no place in the emotional or economic lives of the impoverished. The true victims of human abuse will always need something like the caring hand of a Christina Noble or the financial assistance of the St Vincent de Paul. Choice just does not enter the equation at all.
The State, it could be argued, through the Budget has helped to narrow "the choices" of all women whether working in the home or in the paid workforce. It has pitted woman against woman. It has sown confusion between men and women. It has created jealousies between one-income and two-income families. It has pandered to the worst human excesses of the Celtic Tiger, triggering fear and insecurities where none may have existed before. It has used its power to choose, to reward one section of society and not another.
One blinding truth remains, however. Women, whether working in the home or in the paid workforce, never know when circumstances will force them to abandon one situation for the other. The weight of these circumstances is more likely to afflict women in the paid workforce rather than vice versa.
Natural happenings, economic downturn, maternal instincts and the sheer stress and pressure of the workplace may all converge on the career-maker, which is why she is, in reality, as much a victim of this Budget as is her sister in the home.
In any event do we really want our lives defined by choices, subject to the latest whim of social engineers? The truth of the matter is that choice does not always enter into our calculations when we decide on a certain course of action.
If a woman decides to stay at home to rear her children, that is a decision, a judgment, not a choice. She does not choose, she just does it. If she instinctually believes that this is what she wants to do, then choice has nothing at all to do with her decision. She has no choice. She merely acts on her belief.
By penalising a homemaker for not returning to the paid workforce, the State is not simply limiting a "choice", it is undermining the fundamental beliefs and instincts that every human being should have the freedom to follow.
Choice belongs to a philosophy of the will. It is the supremacy of the individual over all else in society, i.e. community, poverty and even humanity itself. To say I choose a certain path in my life is to say "I will it ". All that is good and beautiful and just about life is necessarily submerged under the weight of the will.
Because we have elevated the notion of choice/will to its present-day lofty position, the State is free to exercise its own concept of choice, its own will, at the expense of those who may be less powerful and less influential.
As long as we continue to accord such reverence to choice, then we are allowing the will, the autonomous individual, the self-legislator to be the source of all our morality. Yet this is far from the reality of our condition. It is the circumstances of life itself, the conditions of our very existence, which determine any choices that we may have.
The myth of "choice" is part of a modern-day ideology which idealises the free, the strong, the self-determining and the self-realising individual. This concept of person has been around since the linguistic movement and the existentialism of Sartre.
The idea is that when this person engages in a relationship, it must primarily be fulfilling for each other. We "choose" each other in line with the social mores of the day. Yet there can be little inherent stability built into such relationships. The temptation is always there to change your choice, to "choose" again.
We may not wish to advocate impermanency but we are in essence advocating a form of relating which inevitably leads to impermanence. There is a risk that the "plans" built into modern relationships may fall apart and a character which is shaped and formed only on variety and choice may be unable to sustain the resultant pressures.
The ideology of choice, by its very nature, cannot absorb the concept of commitment. It limits our freedom to engage in real and lasting relationships. It holds choice up as the superlative value, when all it ever is or can be is a means to an end and not an end in itself.
Our children have naturally become part of this ideology. We force autonomy and independence upon them before they have an opportunity to become rooted. The Budget accelerated this doctrine by pandering to adults at the expense of children.
The children were forgotten. Quick growth and independence were encouraged. Yet this independence, far from benefiting children, as modern folklore would have us believe, rocks the structure of all relationships and fragments rather than solidifies the family as we know it.
It is not independence but dependency which is the fundamental idea in all human relationships. Mutual dependency is what bonds us all together. Take that dependency away and we are left floundering in a Darwinian world of autonomous, self-cherishing and self-captivating individual beings.
Our children learn dependency in the home. Whether we work in, or outside, the home we need to foster that dependence, not destroy it. It is dependence, and the memory of it, that sustains our young as they grow and mature. The homeless fill our streets, many never having experienced it.
The vulnerable, under many guises, are all around us. They fill our mental hospitals, our prisons. The longing to belong, to be needed, to be dependent, to have some person to depend upon, must first be learned by and taught to the young.
It is that dependency, that mutual early dependency between parent and child, which draws out love and warmth in both and is one of the essential ingredients in all human relationships.
If that dependency is absent in childhood, it is difficult to establish it in adult relationships.
In our choice-driven, autonomous and individualised society, we have an ideology which separates rather than unites, which uproots rather than roots, and which gives supremacy to the head at the expense of the heart. It is an ideology which the powerful - as in the Budget - can use to justify discrimination, because those who have the most power have the most. To give the last word to Thucydides:
"Where there is equality of power, there is no need for justice. Where there is inequality of power, the strong take what they can, the weak give what they must."