Friday, November 28, 2008

Black Friday Massacre: Great Holiday Deals at the Cost of our Humanity

By now, pretty much everyone knows about Jdimytai Damour, a temp Walmart employee who met his untimely demise on "Black Friday". For the .0000000001% of the population that reads my blog (already an infinitesimally small percentage), doesn't know about this, AND is too lazy to click a link, here's the synopsis: the day after Thanksgiving, "eager" shoppers in pursuit of deals on holiday gifts trampled to death a 34-year old black man.

I'm going to repeat that last part, just so it can sink in. A crowd of people, in pursuit of things, trampled a person to death. A real live person, with hopes, dreams, and aspirations. If that right there does not indicate a major systemic error in society, I don't know what does. The last time I checked, humanity still had yet to create an HDTV that could dream, or that could love. Yet some 2,000 people judged such things as more valuable than the life of a person--who, incidentally, is now as lifeless as the inanimate objects for which he died.

I've been sitting on this post a long time. This is partially due to the beast that is finals. But only partially. More than that, I simply cannot find the right words to describe the utter failure of human values that permits a tragedy like this to happen. I would like to take this opportunity to do two things: first, to generally denounce consumer culture as a partial (if not predominant) cause of a tragedy like this, and second, to encourage everyone to engage in copious appreciation, and what I'm calling "responsible" gift-giving, this holiday season.


As a wise person once said, "Success is getting what you want. Happiness is wanting what you get." We received an object lesson from Wall-E this summer about what happens when you focus too much on getting what you want. It was a parable about a society where people were so focused on getting stuff (all vended, no less, by a Wal-Mart-esque company called "Buy-N-Large") that they neglected personal connections, themselves, and eventually, society at large. The planet Earth filled up with all the crap they accumulated and they found themselves forced to abandon the planet. Now, a luxury spaceship carries the human race aimlessly through the cosmos. No one seems to notice this state of affairs, however; consumerism is present even on the ship, everyone gets everything they want brought right to them

Wall-E's message, alas, has gone largely unheeded. Nowadays, everyone seems to believe that the answer to all our problems lies in the spending of money. So you've gotten fat, have you? Heaven forfend you go for a run, or change your diet; no, the answer to your problems is diet pills, expensive gym memberships you're not actually going to use, or imitation foods marketed as "healthy." Don't have a girlfriend, huh? Not to worry; countless dating services, self-help books, and singles events are at your disposal. Even the simplest of human problems, hunger, has fallen victim. Feeling a mite peckish? Don't bother taking the time to cook yourself a healthy meal; McDonald's, Wendy's, and other proper-names-that-aren't-really-people are ready to cater to your needs. All this leading to the same general theme: if you're not quite satisfied with the way things are going in your life, you're not throwing enough money at the problem.

The perception of money as a cure-all is most evident in our personal connections--or lack thereof. Once upon a time, people showed love to each other through appreciation: "Thanks for a delicious dinner, Mom." "Thanks for the ride to the airport; I really appreciate it." "This presentation was hard to put together; I couldn't have done it without you." Then, somewhere along the way, gift giving became a proxy for appreciation. "Talk is cheap," as they say; if you really want to show someone you love them, you've got to buy them a gift. Thus, we have scads of commercials touting this, that, or the other as the "perfect gift" for that special someone on your list, regardless of what their particular needs or preferences might be. Got a sweetie? Buy her a diamond ring! Teenager? Xbox 360! Wife? New car! And God forbid if you've got a young kid; there's always a Furby, Tickle-Me Elmo, or whatever-the-hell-it-is-this-year to be had.

And yet, even this kind of "one size fits all" gifting, by itself, wouldn't be so bad. Maybe your wife does need a new car. Maybe your kid really does want that Tickle-Me Elmo (and anyway, he's a kid; who among us didn't have their tastes shaped by fads as a child? Cut him some slack). No, the real problems came when gift-giving, instead of acting on behalf of appreciation, took its place entirely. To put it bluntly, when people began mistaking things for love.

To be continued...

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