Opt Out Culture – Is It a Problem?

I’ve been thinking a lot about America’s growing ‘opt out culture’ these days. We don’t like something, we opt out. The concept seems simple enough, harmless enough. Last night, I opted out of broccoli at the dinner table. I’ve never been a fan of those little healthy trees. Some days I opt out of taking a shower or washing my hair. My people still love me. Right now, I am opting out of cleaning the house after a busy weekend. But look! I’m being productive, writing this post, exercising my mind! It’s all good.

But is it? Some things folks are opting out of have higher stakes than a stalk of broccoli. Vaccines, public education, religion, voting. More and more Americans are opting out of all of those things and the cost of that is starting to assert itself.

The Pew Research Center continues to detail that as Millennials age, our nation is becoming less religious overall. While still an overwhelmingly Christian nation in identity, the fastest growing religion in America is Islam. Those religions that have seen the greatest drop in followers are Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism.

In the 2016 presidential election, only 55% of those eligible to vote actually filled out a ballot. The last time more than 60% of Americans came out to vote was in 1968 (at the height of the Vietnam War) and the last time 70% of Americans cast a ballot in a presidential election year was freaking 1900. Shout out to the GOP’s William McKinley for winning that distinction.

Yesterday the New York Times posted an article called, “How Anti-Vaccine Sentiment Took Hold in the United States.” It was chilling to read. When you connect the dots as a historical review, as the article encourages, you can see how different factors (social media, poorly conducted research studies, celebrity proselytizers) contributed to the growth of the anti-vaccine movement that is now posing a threat to others.

Public school education has seen a sharp decline in numbers in recent decades. More people are opting out for a variety of reasons, leaving less funds for those that remain. The growth of homeschooling and charter schools, pulling resources (more than just financial) in different directions, leaves fewer resources for public schools. Something that has historically been the domain of the government — using public funds to educate our children in a communal classroom setting that the whole community benefits from and contributes to — is now shrinking and struggling as we watch it flounder.

And lest you think I am scolding you, dear reader, for something I am not guilty of myself, I, too, am guilty of engaging in the easy to justify opt out.

We opted out of sending our oldest boy to our neighborhood school. Instead, he is thriving at what Chicago likes to call a “selective enrollment school” for gifted and talented kids. It’s a public school, but he had to test into it. My younger guy is spending his kindergarten year at a private Montessori school that seems to be a better fit for him than our neighborhood school that made very clear they have an academic based kindergarten environment where every child is expected to perform to a level we felt would or could be detrimental to our kiddo. We opted out.

As a woman in my 20s, I opted out of religion. I went on to marry an atheist, so, yeah, we are not raising our children in any religion. This month, I made a conscious decision to opt out of promoting or advocating for Childhood Cancer Month, something that would have been unthinkable to me just a couple of years ago. In the spring, I opt my son out of the PARCC standardized testing that I believe serves corporate interests more than it benefits school kids or teachers.

I have defined reasons that I can articulate passionately and convincingly for everything I opt out of, which, I am certain, those who do not vaccinate their kids or bring them to Church or Temple or Mosque, or choose to homeschool can also do.

My question, really, is where does this bring us? What are the costs of so much opting out? This is what I think all of us need to be paying more attention to in our increasingly polarized culture.

I can’t help but wonder if this gasp of religious fervor some of our elected officials are exercising is a response to some of these trends. Or the mother that threw her menstrual blood on California lawmakers who were voting to tighten up and eliminate vaccine exemptions. Or the law that was passed under Illinois’ last Governor that enables tax payers to donate money to subsidize scholarships for private school education.

If so many of us are opting out of so much, perhaps we should start to think about what that will create and how it will impact the world around us, in ways large and small.

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