Amish communities routinely practice the institution of rumspringa (from the German herumspringen, to jump around). At 17, their children (who until then have been subjected to strict family discipline) are set free and allowed, solicited even, to go out and experience the ways of the “American” world around them. They drive cars, listen to pop music, watch TV and get involved in drinking, drugs and wild sex. After a couple of years, they are expected to decide: Will they become members of the Amish community, or leave it and turn into ordinary American citizens? Far from allowing the youngsters a truly free choice–that is, giving them a chance to decide based on the full knowledge and experience of both sides of the choice–such a solution is a fake choice if there ever was one. After long years of discipline and fantasizing about the illicit pleasures of the outside world, when the adolescent Amish are thrown into this world unprepared, they cannot but indulge in extremely transgressive behavior, gorging themselves fully on a life of sex, drugs and drinking. And since they have never had the chance to develop any self-regulation in such a life, the wholly new and permissive situation inexorably backlashes, generating unbearable anxiety. Thus, it is a safe bet that, after a couple of years, they will return to the seclusion of their community. Indeed, 90 percent of the children do exactly that.
This is a perfect example of the difficulties that accompany the idea of a “free choice.” While Amish adolescents are formally given a free choice, the conditions they find themselves in while choosing make the choice “unfree.” In order for them to have a truly free choice, they would have to be properly informed of and educated about all their options. However, the only way to do this would be to extract them from the Amish community, which would effectively render them American.
This deadlock also illustrates the problems with the standard liberal attitude toward Muslim women who wear veils: They can do it if it is their free choice and not an option imposed on them by their husbands or family. However, the moment women wear a veil as the result of their free choice (say, in order to realize their own spirituality), the meaning of wearing a veil changes completely. For liberals, it is no longer a sign of their belonging to the Muslim community, but an expression of their idiosyncratic individuality. The difference is the same as the one between a Chinese farmer eating Chinese food because his village has done so from time immemorial and a citizen of a Western megalopolis deciding to go and have dinner at a local Chinese restaurant.
A choice is thus always a “meta-choice,” a choice that simultaneously defines and is defined by the conditions of the choice itself. It is only the woman who does not choose to wear a veil who effectively makes a choice. This is why, in our secular societies of choice, people who maintain a substantial religious belonging are in a subordinate position. Even if they are allowed to maintain their belief, this belief is “tolerated” as an idiosyncratic personal choice or opinion. The moment they present it publicly as what it is for them (a matter of substantial belonging), they are deemed “fundamentalist.”
So what does all this have to do with the recent French (and then Dutch) vote of “No” to the European Constitution?
[Extract. Appeared in In These Times, on June 19th, 2005. (full text).]