Monday, December 2, 2013

Black Friday, Cyber Monday, Personal Shameday

By historic standards, Black Friday 2013 was fairly mild. Though reports of shoplifting, incivility, and even a knife fight have trickled through with tedious predictability, we haven’t sat transfixed by news reports of employees trampled to death by rampaging shoppers. (I’d have expected we’d hear the end of “doorbusters” by now.) We’ve heard nothing as dramatic as soccer moms pepper-spraying each other over PlayStations. This year was remarkably tame.

In news-cycle terms, violence is passé. Paid opinionators have moved onto telegenic umbrage over retailers commencing sales on Thanksgiving Day itself. While retailers open earlier every year (K-Mart opened at 6 AM this year), and shoppers reward this move by buying, professional worriers get exercised over what this means for our economy, society, and values. Such naked mercantilism must, must, betoken a failure of common American ethics, they say.

A friend demonstrated such arguments’ vacuity by noting that bar and restaurant workers, who generally get paid much worse than retail clerks, already work on Thanksgiving, and often Christmas too. Families which consider themselves too time-strapped to cook at home, or sufficiently flush to outsource food preparation, take holiday meals out regularly. If you want to reverse the peonage of underpaid workers, start by cooking your own goddamn dinner.

Yet the complaints about merchant encroachment on holidays don’t mainly come from workers. Many people doing restaurant or retail work, especially adults, need the time-and-a-half that holiday hours provide. The anti-holiday-shopping complaints substantially come from people sufficiently well-heeled that they use accumulation of stuff as emblems of personal or social status. That is, people with holidays free to shop, complain about their peers shopping on holidays.

This socially expedient self-flagellation serves to deflect from what Black Friday, and its kissing cousin Cyber Monday, say about shoppers. Wal-Mart and Bloomingdale’s welcome Black Friday, and advertise substantial discounts in hopes of moving sufficient volume, but they didn’t invent the event. The massive shopping day directly after Thanksgiving has existed since at least 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving itself to expand the lucrative Christmas shopping season.

Common American shoppers remain blasé about Black Friday excesses because we’ve internalized the belief that our ability to acquire stuff signifies our social worth. We come to blows over plastic trinkets and publicized gewgaws that, sometime after Christmas, we’ll recognize as instrumentally worthless. Consider all the Cabbage Patch Kids and Tickle-Me Elmos collecting spiderwebs in attics nationwide. This year, it’s the X-Box One and PlayStation 4.

Importantly, we can’t lump this behavior under the conventional vice of “selfishness”—at least not directly. Even the poorest laborer wants to give their loved ones gifts commensurate with their love: I care about you enough to risk bodily injury to retrieve this thingamabob. But nearly every adult I’ve spoken to, when asked what they want for Christmas, suddenly reverts to stammering infancy: they don’t know their own desires.

Our ability to purchase do-funnies thus becomes a direct manifestation of inner virtues. Where once we demonstrated love by providing a decent standard of living, undertaking onerous enterprises, or fighting off Vikings, we now substitute ability to buy stuff. When Jacob loved Rachel in the Bible, he served her father for fourteen years to demonstrate his worth. Purchasing the iPad Air or suitable Batman memorabilia now serves that role.

Old-line liberals and anti-capitalist activists might complain that aggressive retail advertising created this unsatisfying substitution. As a Wendell Berry devotee, I can’t disagree that advertisers structurally create a sensation of want, which they subsequently offer to assuage. Yet that explanation rings hollow: we wouldn’t look to retailers to plug the holes in our spirits if we didn’t first acknowledge that such holes exist. Some deeper problem holds sway here.

James Twitchell asserts, in Lead Us Into Temptation, that modernity successfully produces copious quantities of stuff, but strips that stuff of interior meaning. We accumulate and discard at rates our ancestors would consider appalling, not because we’re wasteful, but because we have no relationship with our work or its product. Hoarding on others’ behalf supplants action as the way we maintain relationships, which we hoard as surely as we hoard things.

We rush retailers on Black Friday, and vilify others doing likewise, for the same reason: because both buying and umbrage create the temporary illusion of meaning. We disregard the contradiction of complaining about others’ holiday shopping while dining out on holidays because our complaints are mere stories we tell ourselves. Until we find meaning internally, such unintentionally hilarious discrepancies will remain our society’s tragicomic emblem.

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