As a class, we’ve constantly had to grapple with the idea of choice in almost all of the books we’ve read so far. This is largely because choice ties in closely with the concept of consent; when individuals have no choice or are given no choice, they have their consent violated. We are given many examples of this: Washington describes many cases in Medical Apartheid where individuals had their organs removed without choice, Morrison at the end of Home describes how a young boy was forced to kill his father in a fight to survive, and Butler describes how individuals infected with the Clay’s Ark organism no longer have complete self autonomy.
One scene of choice that we examined in class was the penultimate chapter of Everett’s Zulus. In chapter “XY,” Kevin Peters and Alice are implied to pull a lever that would release the “Agent” (Everett, 245). Kevin had previously told Alice that the Agent is a gas that “kills only humans”; pulling the lever would release it and the wind would take it around the planet, annihilating the human population (Everett, 243). In class, we talked about whether it was fair for Alice and Kevin to make the decision to kill the entire human population when they are just two people; interestingly enough, when considering this, we began to question whether their choice mattered because it was already made for them (and humanity) because of the war. There was the implication that, because the choice to kill humanity was already made, Alice’s and Kevin’s decision isn’t significant. This made me question: does choice matter? Especially in the aftermath when the larger decision was already made without your input? The characters in Clay’s Ark seem to question this, too. When Stephen Kaneshiro asks her to come with him, Rane asks “‘Do I have a choice?’” (Butler, 530). Rane’s likely thinking back to how she (and her family) didn’t have a choice to come to the Clay’s Ark community and doesn’t have the choice to leave; if she’s stuck in a situation she cannot leave, do the smaller choices (such as going with someone to talk) matter?
I found some semblance of an answer in Washington’s Medical Apartheid. Washington, when speaking about contraceptives and how eugenics played a part in the development of birth control, noted that regardless of, “whatever the intent of the whites who introduced (reproductive clinics and birth control), such measures were widely embraced by black women” (Washington, 201). In particular, Washington states: “(Black women) welcomed contraceptive choice, however warily they eyed those who offered it” (Washington, 201). Attempts at increasing reproductive choice were held in suspicion because, as Washington details, medical practitioners have a history of removing a woman’s uterus (without consent) in order to prevent childbirth in black communities (190). Despite this, the women still accepted contraceptive methods offered by medical practitioners. I found this particularly telling because the women’s desire for choice overcame their suspicion of the medical field. They welcomed choice even if it came from a system they did not trust, one where they were not given choice in the past. Washington’s anecdote shows that there’s something about self autonomy that trumps suspicion, that having the ability to make choices even in the aftermath (in the background) of dubious choice is important.
I believe Clay’s Ark, despite the characters questioning choice, also shows that choice is important even after it’s initially violated. The Clay’s Ark community reflects a complicated relationship with choice. Notably, they aren’t allowed to give kidnapped individuals the choice to leave the community. It’s as what Lupe says to Rane after explaining the Clay’s Ark organism to her: “‘You think you can choose your realities. You can’t’” (Butler, 522). Rane and her family are not allowed to choose their “realities,” their lives, the way they want to. Stephen is the same way; he told Rane that not being able to play the violin anymore feels like “an amputation” (Butler, 533). His description is significant because it parallels what Washington discusses in Medical Apartheid about the non-consensual removal of organs, particularly reproductive organs: Washington talks about a woman named Hamer who had her uterus taken from her (amputated) when she was only supposed to get a tumor removed (Washington, 190). Yet, despite not being able to give kidnapped individuals that initial choice, it seems as if the community members try to give them as much self autonomy as possible after the new members are forced to stay. After Rane asks if she’s allowed to chose to go with Stephen or not, Stephen assures that she does (Butler, 530). This respect for choice is also shown in what Meda says to Blake: “‘None of us are rapists here. No one is going to take your kids to bed against their wills’” (Butler, 488). Meda’s statement is later echoed by Stephen who tells Rane that she doesn’t have to go with him unless she wants to: “‘You don’t have to come to me until you want to. We’re not rapists here’” (Butler, 532). Perhaps it’s because the community is built upon a foundation of no choice or perhaps it’s because the community knows what it feels like to have a lack of self autonomy, but the community seems to value giving choice when they can give choice. Even Rane, who is initially shown questioning choice, seems to realize much later the value of having choice in an environment where choice was broken. When thinking about how the car family have violated her choice, Rane reflects on Stephen and how Stephen “could have hurt her but had not” and “had tried to share part of himself with her even though she had not understood” (Butler, 596).
So it seems like choice does matter even if it exists in a background or environment of no choice. Clay’s Ark and Medical Apartheid might thus offer us (the class) an answer to the dilemma we had with Zulus: did it matter that Kevin and Alice pulled the lever when the choice to destroy the human population was already made by the war? Is their choice, or the fact that they have a choice, significant? Yes because choice matters even if it occurs in a setting of no choice. This then gives Kevin’s and Alice’s choice to release the Agent the gravity it deserves and allows the readers to qualify it: was it ethical for them to release the Agent and make a decision that impacted the rest of the world by themselves? I lean more towards no because it was a significant choice, it held value regardless of the war, and was made by two individuals yet was a decision that impacted everyone.