Tyranny of Choice

By Derri Smith, Founder

I gave my well-practiced order to the Starbucks barista: A tall, slightly sweetened chai latte with almond milk, no water, and a blueberry oatmeal. When advised they no longer carry the slightly sweet chai mix and didn’t have blueberries, I revised my order, choosing from the numerous alternatives, commenting with a laugh, “And I thought I was ready for this quiz.” The barista smiled, nodded and said, “Tyranny of choice!”

Here in America we have an abundance of choice about virtually everything from breakfast cereals to college majors. And, indeed, limitless choices can actually lead to stress. FOMO is ever present:  What if we don’t make the BEST choice?!

But what if all that suddenly changed? Say you show up for work one day to find a rule posted on the locked restroom door: “Request the key from your supervisor.” No, this couldn’t be. But everyone plays along because, surely this is a joke or a mistake that will soon be corrected by upper management.

Then comes a series of emails:

“Find attached a list of acceptable attire.” The list is short (in more ways than one) and not what you are comfortable with.

“Find attached a list of words and phrases that are acceptable (and unacceptable) in the work place.” Oh good, you think, finally certain crude people will have to clean up their language around here. But the list is quite the opposite.

What if you head to the breakroom for lunch, and you find the sign, “There will be no breaks or lunch until you meet your quotas.” Now, you are the one thinking (if not saying) those bad words! You say, that is it! And you reach for the phone to complain to the Department of Labor. But the phone is not there. In its place is a note that says, “Phone use is entirely at the discretion of your supervisor.”

What would you do at that point? Walk out, of course. But at the door is a sign: “You may not leave until we say so. And right now, you may not leave. You may not EVER leave.” And then in small letters at the bottom, “If you don’t comply, we know where your family lives. If you don’t comply, you will suffer harm.”

Sound like an episode of The Twilight Zone? Tyranny of choice is a somewhat humorous consequence of our abundant first-world existence. But the workplace scene described above only begins to portray the existence of a human trafficking victim.

Victims are treated as property, a commodity, whose decision-making capacity atrophies like a seldom used muscle.

At End Slavery Tennessee, we recognize the dehumanizing effects of a life without choice—a transactional life in which you only get something (eat, sleep, remain safe…) if you do exactly what your trafficker dictates; only if you earn a set sum of money, seven days a week.

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From the moment a survivor enters our Care Center, they have the choice in what clothing, toiletries and food they prefer. When they look over the roster of support groups, they can choose one from multiple options in each category. They may participate in a focus group or lunch with the CEO in which they have a voice in programming. We guide survivors to think through the results of various options. But, ultimately, the choice remains theirs.

That means sometimes making poor choices, as every human being sometimes does. We parents want our children to learn to make wise choices. To do so involves helping them get to know who they are and are not and exposing them to the ‘real world’. Helping them grow in confidence that they CAN choose well. Letting them know you will always be there to support them. And allowing them to make mistakes. Due to the abuse and trauma they have suffered, human trafficking survivors often get frozen in the age at which their abuse began. They need an opportunity to grow in the ability to choose.

The next time you feel overwhelmed by the “tyranny of choice”—what food to eat, movie to watch, job to pursue, shoes to wear, where to travel, whether to say “no” to a request,  or how to respond to that jerk who cut you off in traffic—pause and give thanks for that freedom of choice, and use it well. And remember those who finally have a safe place to gradually emerge from their own twilight zone.