There have been a number of Facebook posts noting the contrast between our tradition of giving thanks for what we have on Thursday, and then joining the frenzy of acquisition that begins the next day with Black Friday. (Does anyone know why we call it “Black Friday?”)
Tis the season to consume. And while it may make us feel morally superior to condemn the orgy that is the Christmas shopping season, reality is more complicated than such condemnations might suggest.
Individually, most of us don’t need the gadgets, trinkets, toys and–let’s be honest–mountains of disposable trash that we buy during this time of year. Collectively, however, our economy depends in significant measure upon the Christmas buying season. Should I complain about the forty emails I’ve already had this morning urging me to buy this or that on “cyber Monday”? Or should I hope for a robust season of buying unneeded stuff, as welcome evidence of economic recovery?
This structure of culture is what students have difficulty appreciating. Why do Americans have only two political parties? Why don’t we start another? Well–one tries patiently to explain–our entire political system grew up around a two-party reality. Changing that structure wouldn’t be impossible, exactly, but it would be a massive undertaking–far more massive than most of us appreciate.
Haven’t civil rights laws mostly eliminated racial discrimination? Well, those laws have certainly changed many behaviors. But the structure of discrimination still operates. Your company has a job opening, so you call a friend. Until your friends are truly integrated, that friend is likely to look a lot like you. Attitudes about “those people” persist. Neighborhood “complexions” change slowly. Civil rights laws nudge us toward cultural change, but the pace of that change is slow.
So what do we do about the waste inherent in a consumerist culture? On the one hand, the mountains of unneeded “stuff” pose an environmental hazard–there is enormous waste involved, energy expended, resources consumed. On the other hand, our economy depends upon the activity of buying and selling and consuming. It’s a conundrum.