Friday, November 25, 2011

Black Friday and Worldview: Consumerism

Every year the traditional starting point for the American Christmas shopping season begins the day after Thanksgiving, known as “Black Friday” (a term referring to retailers who, hopefully, will turn a profit and get them out of the negative red).  What's caught my attention this year is the intensity of advertisement to lure people from their homes and be first in line for holiday bargains.  Throughout the nation people have been camping out in front of stores for days so they could be the first to snatch up the super sales when the doors open.  Some stores actually began their Black Friday sales at midnight.

I am in the midst of reading, “Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Studies That Shape Our Lives,” and the second chapter deals with the worldview of consumerism.

Not all aspects of consumerism are negative.  Since the beginning of time people have made or grown goods to sell.  It’s the cycle of consumption that is the part of life.  Even if one grows roses as a hobby, as does my wife, we consume the flowers by cutting and putting them in a vase to beautify and bring color into our surroundings.  Consumption, then, is an inherent part of who we are as human beings (one can argue that the animal world are also consumers, though they are without one distinguishing characteristic, a consciousness of self). 

The consumption ritual of Black Friday, and indeed the shopping season leading up to Christmas and beyond (don’t forget the after-Christmas sales), reveals a materialistic worldview; that we are by what we own.  Self-worth and worth of others is dependent on the philosophy of consumerism.

Materialism is a worldview irrespective of income, held by both the wealthy and the less affluent.  The car we drive, the home we live in, the clothes we wear and even the food we eat are all symbolic indicators of consumer power.  The feeling of being successful or making economic advancement is marketed by brand, price and exclusivity.  The “I’ve got to have it,” regardless of whether one can afford it, is the power of the consumerism worldview.   

Authors Wilkens and Sanford also point out in their book that consumerism buys and discards the ever-elusive definition of “need.”  The commodity that is so desperately needed this year will soon be thrown away or in next year’s garage sale.  The dream home becomes inadequate over a period of time and the ultimate mobile phone becomes obsolete within a matter of months.  So prevalent is the worldview of consumerism need that it even affects marriage.  The ideal husband or wife loses their value and the search for a more meaningful relationship lead some in our society to discard their mates because they no longer meet their needs.  Consumerism is the pursuit of greater fulfillment.   The reality of Black Friday and all consumption activity is that it is a black hole.  What we own materially is never sufficient, echoing the words of J. D. Rockeller when asked how much money is enough replied, “Just a little bit more.”

Guilt is also a marketing technique of consumerism.  Several years ago, in my own home, I was given a catalog of a certain product.  The sales pitch was, “I think your wife really deserves something this nice for Christmas.”  The subtle message was, “If you value her, don’t go cheap, go big.  Show her you REALLLY love her by buying something expensive.”  So moms and dads all over the nation will get up at 3 a.m. on Black Friday and fight traffic and endure shoulder-to-shoulder crowded stores just to show little Ethan they love him by buying the latest XBox game, or little Emma has the coolest IPod. 

Mary Douglas wrote in “The World of Goods: Towards an Anthropology of Consumption,” that materialism is driven by envy and competitive display.   Envy of what other people have influences the market and what the consumer perceives as need. 

Conspicuous consumption is the pitiful cry of the self-absorbed consumer saying to the world, “Look at me.”  Suffering from a severe case of inferiority, the consumer tries to mask their feelings of inadequacy by buying the symbols that will prop up their self –esteem.

The Bible is actually neutral in matters of wealth.  Having material things is never the issue but the attitude behind consumption.  It’s the attitude of greed that makes it easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than the rich entering the kingdom; it is the foolishness of pursuing riches that is equated to trying to catch the wind.    A biblical worldview is about contentment, helping those in need (not just the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table) and pursuing God rather than money.  A biblical worldview recognizes that our worth is not in what we own, but rather who we are in Christ.   God, who created our material world, gave charge to His creation to be stewards of the earth and all that is in it, not to consume, gain or hoard.

Black Friday is an attempt to manipulate the retailer’s bottom line and feeds the worldview of consumerism as well as promotes competitive shopping.  However, this holiday ritual of consumption will never contribute to the real bottom line of man’s greatest need.  The water that Best Buy or Khols offers requires that we go back to the well each day.  The maker of the water said that if we ask He will give us living water and we’ll never thirst again. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving and Inequities

For those in the U.S., this Thursday is our national Thanksgiving Day.  This is the one day of the year that, officially, we stop to give thanks to God for the abundance and blessing that He has bestowed on our country.   As we approach this year’s holiday, there’s a lot of talk about inequity. 

The “Occupy Wall Street” protesters claim that 1% of our citizens are taking advantage of the 99% of the rest of the population, holding most of the wealth, not sharing or spreading the prosperity to others.  While it is true that there is a disparity in income, the purpose of Thanksgiving is not to focus on what we do not have but be thankful for what we do have, which should include all Americans.

I read recently that two-thirds of the world’s population has an average wealth per adult of less than $10,000.  About 1.1 billion of these adults hold a net worth of less than $1,000.  Even the poorest of Americans are above this poverty line.  The inequity of the rich and poor is troubling and though many of us are a long way from being a part of the 1% of those who are considered rich, this Thursday 99.9% in this country will be thankful for how good we have it.
A greater inequity of the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” are those who have heard the Good News of Christ and His salvation.  Of the 7 billion people who occupy our planet, less than a half-billion people are followers of Christ (2.1 billion people embrace Christianity as a religion, most are nominal, about 500 million claim to be evangelical).  Ninety-percent of all resources, money and time, are to those who have access to the Gospel, while less than 2% of world Christian outreach is to the 2 billion people who have never heard the name of Christ.  3.6 billion people in this world have never met a Christian.
I do not, nor ever will, understand the inequities in this world.  While Jesus said, “The poor you will have with you always,” He also said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”  And, while the gap between those who have and who have not heard His Name grows wider the Great Commission remains mandate for the church to go into all the world and make disciples.
To those who have enough to eat, be thankful.  For those who are blessed to live in a community where you can learn more about Jesus, be grateful.  Hopefully, a grateful heart will prompt those blessed to be a blessing to others.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Status and Role - Non-Verbal Communication: A Case Study

“I think I saw you at the Delhi airport,” I said to the woman sitting next to me on the flight from Amsterdam to Minneapolis. After confirming that she, indeed, was making the air-o-than of nine hours from DEL to AMS; nine hours from AMS to MSP, she told me that it was her first trip to the sub-continent. When she learned I taught cultural anthropology and had visited India often, she had a lot of questions.

Working for a large multi-national corporation, this trip took her to Chennai to visit engineers.She was in the country less than a week, though she said she found the India interesting and her experience positive, there were some cultural issues that had her confused.

“There was one engineer in the company in Chennai that was clearly smart and had great potential for advancement. We pressed the manager of the company to allow this junior employee to get additional training to enhance his skills, but the manager never granted permission for such training.


“We were told , by another employee, that it would not look if a junior employee had more advanced training than the manager.”

There is nothing more important in India than status and role. Status is often due to caste ranking. Ascribed status is seldom coupled with achievement, and to have an employee of lower status to rise in the ranks though achievement is a cultural impossibility.

“Another thing we could not figure out,’ she continued was their ‘head wagging.’ My colleague from the U.S. was really upset with this behavior and complained that he thought the Indians were ‘blowing me off,’ with their head wagging.”

I smiled and told her that’s the way south Indians show agreement. They weren’t disagreeing with the American, they were actually showing they were understanding and agreeing with what he had to say.

She laughed when I explained the meaning of the Indian head bobble and said, “I can’t wait to tell my colleague as he was really upset with the whole experience.”

“Doesn’t your company not offer any cross-cultural training for your employee’s?”

“Some,” she answered, “but not much.”Align Center

I did a bit of a head wobble myself as I got off the plane, but not in agreement, with my travel companion, but in dismay. With all the money multi-nationals spend for global business, it looks like they would spend a little time and money teaching their employees how to communicate and understand people of other cultures. Cultural anthropology is not just important for people going to work with tribals in the jungles of Africa but for multi-nationals companies, and missionaries seeking ways to communicate their message. Non-verbal communication is as important what comes out one's mouth. Why say "uh-huh," "yep," when one can just wobble your head.