Choice: The Measure of All Things . . .


Anthony J. Marsella, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Reflecting on Human Nature and Oppression

The Measure of a Person’s Life . . .

What then is the measure of a person’s life? By what criteria should we judge, evaluate, and/or assess a person’s life? Is it the summation of all things good and bad the person has done – the virtues demonstrated, the enduring values supported, the actions of consequence, the sins of omission and commission, identified, mapped, and summarized? Should Moments of kindness and caring offered for the sheer delight — the reflexive pleasure of purpose — of giving of oneself in time and effort to another — the wondrous experience of connection. Or, perhaps, the exercise of these through conscious choice — free from influence?

I do not know for sure. How can we know with any certainty what should be the measure of all things? There are those offering formulaic answers to this question, content the formula avoids risks and discomforts of uncertainty. Among these, it is more comforting to know without doubt or hesitancy, the measure of all things. Some will say the presence of abiding “faith,” “charity,” or “love”

I have lived life deeply. Life has offered me the opportunity to rise from a troubled and traumatic youth to my present positions, roles, and statuses. For this, I am grateful, especially as I witness the widespread suffering and grief in our world. I have been afforded the chance to question “meaning” and “purpose,” and to reflect on “choice” as a measure of all things.

I find myself at this moment in time in an effort after meaning. The meaning I seek must make sense to me, and must offer comfort and solace amidst the uncertainty of daily life — it must provide me with a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, and purpose beyond immediate survival, and I must acknowledge a willingness to change and to adjust as circumstances and situations contend.

The Eve of Surgery

On the eve of a complex and risky surgery, March 31, 2014, I found myself turning to words I wrote many years ago as personal guide for my actions: Those words are part of every email I send. They have acquired some popularity and endorsement by others.   This is good! But not necessary! The words emphasize the importance of demonstrating through active behavior the choices I value:

Show by my behavior I have chosen peace over war, freedom over oppression, voice over silence, service over self-interest, respect over advantage, courage over fear, cooperation over competition, action over passivity, diversity over uniformity, and justice over all.      

I have tried to live these words, failing, of course, many times. But the words have also been a source of comfort and light for me. I have thought about adding others. For example, I wonder if I should add “choose forgiveness over revenge,” “humility over pride,” and/or “dignity over dishonor.” Clearly, I do not mean “dignity” excessive or pompous displays of dignity via character reserve or control (e.g., “He was a dignified person”). I mean, for the latter, the choice of integrity – constancy in character in the face of pressing alternatives for self-interest.

Religion: Dogma, Doctrine, and Ritual

Often times in life, in the face of pressing conditions that threaten life and wellbeing, we turn to religious beliefs associated with particular denominations. Some of these beliefs and practices are admirable, in my opinion, for the latitude they offer an individual to experience the moment beyond the fixed or formulated beliefs and actions of a formal religion. Some of these, in contrast, lend themselves to a paralysis of mind and faith. For example, in my opinion, and obviously there will be disagreement, I have come to think rigorous adherence to traditional Calvinistic notions of reserve and control impose a burden upon the vitality of the human spirit; they, in my opinion, suppress the experience and expression of a love for life — an exuberance.

In my travels and research, I saw the destructive consequences of Calvinistic zeal for indigenous people. The natural delight in life indigenous people possessed became suppressed and denied, as well-intentioned, but ultimately destructive missionaries demeaned and denigrated indigenous ways-of-being. In doing so, they relied upon fears and superstitions that restricted choice in favor of identification with missionary beliefs. In Hawaii, early Native Hawaiian people were condemned to an eternity of hell for engaging in the most natural expressions and appreciations of life. I understand the motives and intentions, and in many cases, the benefits of missionary contact and proselytization, although I will be accused of apophasis.

The Connection to Choice

Calvinism, and many other traditional and formal religious doctrines and dogmas, are rooted in the notion of “choice,” especially the relations of choice and personal responsibility. Too often, in my opinion, these religions begin with assumptions human beings are essentially evil, and the nature and goal of human life is to overcome the evil by making moral choices and actions in accord with specific religious beliefs. The problem here is the concept “moral.” Who decides what is moral? And have not the very religions who claimed moral standing engaged in some of the most brutal acts, including genocides of indigenous populations. I accept some religions pursue conversion or proselytization with a vigor and commitment bringing oppression and forced choice. One only has to recall the decision by the Roman Emperor, Constantine (274-337 CE), who claimed Christianity to be the empire’s religion, even as he tried to reconcile Christian and Pagan beliefs in a bible. So be it! I am concerned here with choice.

The word “choice” needs elaboration because it is embedded in the timeless philosophical and psychological debate between free will and determinism. Indeed, new developments in neuroscience have also entered the debate, rooting view in brain architecture.

I have come to believe choice is very much a function of role and status: “Men have more choice than women (at least for the moment), educated people have more choice than the uneducated, whites have more choice than blacks or browns, the wealthy have more choice than the poor, and the free have more choice than the oppressed.” Choice is a function of the range of alternatives one has available to them in a given situation. Freedom of choice in prison, or in oppressive nation states, is limited, although as prisoners have long demonstrated, hunger strikes remain a source of choice for protest.

The Measure . . .

As we witness and experience the oppression of human and legal rights within the national security state the United States of America has become, and is imposing throughout the world, the issue of “choice” becomes critical to personal and collective identity. Mass surveillance, monitoring, and archiving of all biometric and social data for all human beings under the guise protecting national security constitutes a violation of human rights, dignity, and identity. In essence, what is occurring is a re-defining of human nature according to the preferences of a small group of public and private individuals who stand to benefit from absolute control and domination. There is no need to cite individual names, agencies, and projects — these are now well known. What is critical is that the power and position of this group nullifies or restricts “choice” to minimal limits of demonstration.

To the extent “choice” is rooted in individual and collective capabilities, the imposition of a global mass communication and technology information network, swallowing all individuals, groups, organizations, institutions, and nations, the national security state now defines human nature as a prisoner to imposed constraints for exercising “choice.” Ahhh, I see the raised eyebrows! “Human beings still have choices within the constraints. You have said that regarding gender, race, education, and wealth.” This is true! Human beings can weigh the nature of their situation and the consequences of certain actions using all manner of sources – reason, emotion, and intuition.

Human beings may “decide” to act against an oppressive system — the national security state. They can speak out! They can protest! They can resist with non-violence, or even, unfortunately violence. But it is clear their choices have now been constrained by the very harsh and punitive consequences of their actions. Are they willing to do so? Has humanity — en masse — ever been faced with a monolithic state or “entity” — a Leviathan — of such proportion and means? It is important to note the national security state has been assigned many other names commensurate with “security.” For example, the emergency state, the police state, the military state, the STASI state, and the fascist state, the latter being familiar to so many because of WWII when government, business, and religion collaborated in pursuit of control and domination.

Dystopian novels are now cited and discussed — Brave New World, 1984, The Time Machine — across the world. Prophets of decline, destruction, and doom are speaking of the potential consequences arising from the mass surveillance, monitoring, and archiving. We are told again and again by those in charge: “It is for the benefit of national security! There are those who wish to harm us!” The tragedy is most people know little about the many and varied specific technologies beings used to impose absolute control and domination. Most people do not know national intelligence services are cooperating with one another in a nation and across nations creating an impenetrable net of total coverage of individual and collective information. It has proven impossible to elude. Using a combination of human and technical intelligence, people can be surveilled and monitored at all times. There house or apartment offers no respite. Using material-filtering technology, it is possible to peer through walls, and this can be accomplished from thousands of miles away via satellite. Facial, ocular, postural, and gait data, seal our fates as we travel to shopping centers.

Project Infra-Guard authorizes millions of private and commercial businesses and organizations to gather data for the FBI via vast video camera systems. This is occurring in shopping malls, stores, streets, schools, and virtually any place, one travels. If the government doesn’t get you, then the private sector will! Sounds like words from an old folk song!

There is a pretense FISA and courts offer protection; but this is deceit! Information may be gathered and stored without your knowledge within the legalities of the law because there are numerous loop-holes. You are guilty, until proven innocent, and innocence is now redefined. You cannot defend yourself, because you have no knowledge of what is collected or who collects it. You have no “choice.” In addition, foreign governments and businesses all gather information about you without any legal restraint.  The court may decide your case does not warrant specific focus and listing as a threat, but agencies simply have to ask private or foreign resources to gather information that can eventually be used against you. All information is available for use and abuse by those who have access to files as Richard Snowden demonstrated. Is there a powerful political figure you spoke against because of their corruption? They may have access to all your information, and can exact revenge. Tragic! A betrayal of laws, rights, and privileges! A denial of choice!

Some Closing Thoughts

So where have these reflections taken me — or us –these comments about the essence of human nature, religious dogma and doctrine, and national security states.

Human nature has been defined across the ages by the distinct presence of “choice.” While differences in the importance of choice for human nature are present, “choice” is understood in legal, philosophical, and theological moral codes. All, in one way or another, recognized “choice” may be constrained by circumstance, but the capacity for “choice” remains an essential foundation for descriptions of human nature, and various expressions of personal and collective identity.

The emergence of a global security state system, in which all personal and private information is gathered, monitored, and archived, imposes a level of constraint on “choice” that has never before existed in human history. The national security state is now re-defining human nature via global uses and abuses of information and communication technologies. There is in this tragic circumstance, a homogenization and re-definition of human nature. “Choice” is not a moral arbiter when robotic and reflexive controls are imposed. I am surprised religions are not in actively involved in protests since their foundations are at risk. The silence of the lambs!

“Choice” may exist, but the consequences of exercising “choice,” are more controlling, dominating, and punitive. Human nature is what human nature does! We are witnessing a new human nature emerge in which “choice” is eliminated as an option. En loco parentis!


Anthony Marsella, Ph.D., a member of the TRANSCEND Network, is a past president of Psychologists for Social Responsibility, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Hawaii, and past director of the World Health Organization Psychiatric Research Center in Honolulu. He is known nationally and internationally as a pioneer figure in the study of culture and psychopathology who challenged the ethnocentrism and racial biases of many assumptions, theories, and practices in psychology and psychiatry. In more recent years, he has been writing and lecturing on peace and social justice. He has published 15 edited books, and more than 250 articles, chapters, book reviews, and popular pieces. He can be reached at


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 11 Aug 2014.

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