Thursday, 21 December 2017

Modern Christmas and Equality

A white kitten sits next to a string of Christmas lights, on a red cushion. The kitten is looking at the lights.
The kitten is not impressed by Christmas excess.
As I noted in my recent post on Quakers and Christmas, albeit in passing, the way we “do Christmas” in this country (and in some others) raises profound concerns regarding equality – particularly regarding economic inequality. This is something that I would expect to be of deep concern to Quakers, considering our long-standing testimony to equality and general concern for the well-being of our fellow people; it is also something that I think should be of concern for others that support such ideals of equality and social justice, from whatever source that conviction arises. It also leads to significant environmental impacts, but for now I'm concerned with the human impact of consumer culture – the environmental side of things can wait for another post.
The socially constructed and normalised phenomenon of the modern Christmas is reinforced in so many ways. From the depictions of family Christmases in films, to the driving commercialism of Christmas adverts from major retailers – which have now become a social phenomenon all of their own – Christmases are shown to be big, generous, extravagant. Children receive lots of presents, and as many as possible of them are extravagant, generally overpriced, tying in with the latest fads and trends. Toys and other merchandising from film franchises, the latest expensive video game equipment and the games to go with them, even the eye-watering expense of the latest smartphones. Even the gifts normalised by the media for giving between adults are naturally driven to the more expensive end, perfumes and fancy jewellery – and, of course, the same video games and smartphones and a raft of excessive consumer electronics. Commonly advertised TVs, aimed at general consumption, rapidly approaching the size of a child's bed.
It's not just the gifts. We are urged to compete to give the most extravagant Christmas dinners and parties, to dress up and use expensive beauty treatments and grooming tools, to decorate our homes in ways that surely increase the risk of fires. We are shown that we should aspire to the best, or in the case of some retailers that we should aspire to something that might pass for the best. All of the forces that drive consumption in our culture seem to reach an apex in the run-up to Christmas, and being the social creatures that we are – not to mention with the general sense of aspiration that other forces have inculcated in us – we seek to conform.
This has an immense, but complex, impact on the lives of those who are “less well-off”. Looking at the lowest income brackets, people who are reliant on state support to maintain a meagre income, disposable incomes can be practically – or actually – nil. Yet for those who wish to maintain contact with wider society, maintain friendships with those who are better off, there is immense psychological and social pressure to participate in the expectations of the season, of socialising and parties. For those with children, there is pressure to protect the well-being of those children by not making it clear to the child how much worse off they are than their friends' families, to not let them be the ones in class who don't have some wonderful present to tell their schoolfellows about.
Further down the economic scale, those with no means of support at all find themselves in largely the same situation they're always in, and may feel somewhat more free of the expectations of Yuletide profligacy, but are forced to witness that same profligacy while they (in the northern hemisphere) are suffering from rapidly worsening conditions. Christmas shelter operations for homeless people give some relief and support, but the psychological impact over the situation people find themselves in cannot be overstated.
Those are some of the symptoms – but what is the cause? Is it the inequality that is pervasive in our society, or is it the unrealistic expectations about Christmas that are culturally inculcated? Neither would be so much of a problem without the other, and it's hard to say which is primary. But perhaps that's the wrong way to look at it.
Perhaps neither is primary, because they cannot be separated. Perhaps the reason for these expectations of consumption is actually related to the reasons for economic inequality. Perhaps it is right to ask who directs these cultural assumptions, and who benefits from mass consumption. In both cases, you mostly have to look at the economically privileged classes. Huge corporations direct our consumption through advertising, and the expectations generated by film and television are largely driven by people who are wealthy, or their corporate supporters. Sure, when you buy that extra gift, you are supporting the employment of the person working in retail (or in an Amazon “distribution centre”), and in shipping and logistics, and in manufacturing (wherever the product is manufactured) – but mostly you are supporting the owners of all the businesses involved.
(Yes, there are consumer choices you can make to ensure that more of the economic benefit goes to ordinary people, and I support those choices, but I'm not going off on that tangent today.)
Christmas consumerism is driven by, and benefits, the wealthy classes and large corporations (the latter of which are largely controlled by the former, in practice if not in terms of ownership). Now, I'm a socialist, and I link that to my faith, but I'm well aware that Quakers have a wide range of political views and will generally see them as linked to their faiths. You don't have to be a socialist, however, to see a problem with the way corporate culture and regulation currently works. Whatever your theory about how it should be different to make things better, I think that people who generally support the idea of equality should be able to take a look at how society tells people to do Christmas and see that something is rotten in the state of capitalism.
So how do we push back on this? We can't hold back the tide; ostentatiously modest Christmases may seem like a way to let our lives speak, but the only time that sort of thing will be noticed is if we get to the point where it's normal for every house on a street to have gaudy Christmas lights all over the outside. That's when the plain house will stand out. To address this, we need to be more direct, which is harder to do. It's hard to work out what we should do, and it's likely that whatever we do will be something that makes us vulnerable, whether we act as a group or as individuals. But we can lend our voices to the growing calls to rein in corporate culture. We can do whatever we can to help support people who struggle with an inability to meet expectations at this time of year, whether it be for financial reasons or due to mental health or disability. We can support care for homeless people. I also refer you to my written ministry of yesterday, A Christmas Prayer.
We cannot be true to ourselves, and the Spirit, if we close our eyes and say everything is fine.
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