In Gary Chapman’s book The Five Love Languages, he outlines the five most common ways we express and receive love from one another. In no particular order, the languages are:
- Words of Affirmation
- Quality Time
- Acts of Service
Since everyone is a unique flower of a person, we all interpret each love language differently and speak each language more or less fluently. And deep, deep down, we also have a secret opinion about which of the love languages is actually pure, selfish evil.
For example, maybe you think anyone who expresses love through Touch is a perv. Or maybe you think those who receive love through Acts of Service are a step away from being slave-owners. Maybe Words of Affirmation is just for the incredibly insecure. Or, Quality Time is just for people who are too lazy to get a job or buy a planner.
And then there’s Gifts. The most universally-hated of the Love Languages. The love language reserved for the Donald Trumps and Hitlers of this world. With hearts too cold to feel the warmth of true love, these jerks just want your stuff. (At least, that’s what people tell me to my face when I tell them my love language.)
Is this hatred justified? I think not. It doesn’t make sense to most cultures in the world. In Eastern countries, the giving of gifts is an integral part of being a friend, business partner, house guest, and more. Gifts aren’t reserved for holidays. Like a hug or a genuine word of encouragement, gifts are very normal ways to express one’s feelings.
So why does our culture inherently hate the love language of Gifts? How did the purchase of material possessions become so personal and become less about community?
What Is Consumerism?
“Consumerism is a social condition that occurs when consumption is especially important if not actually central to most people’s lives, and even the very purpose of existence.”
—Colin Campbell, Elusive Consumption
“Under consumerism, our consumption habits define how we understand ourselves, how we affiliate with others, and overall, the extent to which we fit in with and are valued by society at large.”
—Nicki Lisa Cole
In the simplest sense, you are a consumer because you consume resources to survive. You breathe air. You drink water. You use electricity and gas to keep warm and cook your food. To survive, you consume.
But that’s not what we’re talking about.
Consumerism is what happens when a culture becomes so preoccupied with consuming goods and services that it becomes the driving force of the economy (and often the individual). Consumerism is what happens when your culture identifies you primarily as a “consumer.” To your economy, government, and social groups, you are–first and foremost–a consumer. You are what you buy, where you travel, what you wear, what you read, what you watch, what you drink, and what you consume.
Here’s how Amitai Etzioni puts it.
“As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs — safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education — it is not consumerism. But when, on attempts to satisfy these higher needs through the simple acquisition of goods and services, consumption turns into consumerism — and consumerism becomes a social disease.”
I agree that consumerism is a social disease. Not only does it cause businesses and governments to see you as simply a “potential buyer”; consumerism forces you to relate to friends and family as consumers. Your social status and place in the hierarchy of worth is primarily determined by your effectiveness as a consumer.
And being a consumer is not just about buying name brand stuff and BMWs. Consumerism isn’t inherently materialistic. We are consumers of digital media. We are consumers of travel. We are consumers of books. We are consumers of church services and other social events. We are consumers of concerts and brewery tours. How we consume tells the world something about who we are. (No wonder Snapchat and Instagram are so important to twentysomethings! How else would we display to the world our non-material consumption habits?) Donating all of your stuff to Goodwill doesn’t fix consumerism.
By no means are music, travel, books, and concerts the problem. The problem is the cultural attitude toward their importance. The problem is the Consumerist Culture that equates worth to consumption.
Ramifications of the Consumerist Culture
“I’d rather have fun and make memories than have none and make money.”
— a text my brother sent me on Friday
“Responsibility now means, first and last, responsibility to oneself (‘you owe this to yourself’; ‘you deserve it’), while ‘responsible choices’ are, first and last, those moves serving the interests and satisfying the desires of the self.”
— Zygmunt Bauman
A culture that sees the individual as, primarily, a consumer seems like the kind of place where the love language of Gifts would thrive. As a consumer, I am expected to find happiness in consuming goods and experiences. It would make sense to extend that happiness to others through gifts.
But it doesn’t. As a consumer, I am taught that my resources serve a singular purpose: the maximization of my pleasure. And since there is a “Supersize Me” option for anything I could ever desire, there is no resource to spare on someone else. I cannot miss an opportunity to upgrade an experience if I am to be truly happy.
And since our Consumerist Culture tells me that I am a consumer first, relationships are just another thing to consume. There is always an upgrade. Every acquaintance, friend, and S.O. is a status symbol and a resource. Each is an exchangeable piece in the ever-changing identity of the consumer. If I am what I consume, then I can improve my identity and self-worth by simply upgrading my consumable friendships.
Not only does a Consumerist Culture promote the “virtue” of selfishness, but it demonizes the virtue of delayed gratification. If I am to maximize my pleasure and happiness through consumption, I must maximize the experience of novelty. This means that waiting has no place in a happy life (think: marriage). Businesses like Amazon understand this. Two-day shipping exists because novelty wears off quickly, meaning the happiness associated with a purchase diminishes as shipping time increases. Waiting diminishes novelty, which diminishes happiness, making “delayed gratification” an oxymoron in a Consumerist Culture.
But it’s cool if you like being a consumer. It simplifies things. It simplifies the purpose of your life (consume). It simplifies the purpose of friendship (consume). It simplifies what makes you happy (consumption). It allows you to be so many things–Christian, atheist, minimalist, aficionado, world traveler, homebody–because these identities are fundamentally the result of how you consume. And consuming is easy.
But I’m not sold. And I want to put a little distance between myself and consumerism.
Ways To Reject Consumerism
“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
—Dr. Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park
“No man has a right to be idle . . . where is it in such a world as this that health, and leisure, and affluence may not find some ignorance to instruct, some wrong to redress, some want to supply, some misery to alleviate?”
— William Wilberforce
See consumerism as an identity problem.
If consumerism is a money problem, it’s an easy fix. Just budget, read motivational quotes about contentment, and give your when-I’m-finally-skinny jeans to Goodwill. Boom, done. You’re no longer materialistic.
But consumerism is an identity problem, not a materialism problem. Consumerism is the mentality that I am what I consume. It is how I fit myself into the social hierarchy. It is a way of assigning worth and significance to myself and to others.
So if we’re going to fix that, we need to start by consciously rejecting the identity of a consumer. Our Consumerist Culture will continue to see us that way, but we don’t have to.
As we actively reject the default identity of consumer, we will also need to find new ways to find/discover/create our identities. Here are three thoughts.
Replace Consumerism with Communitarianism.
I’ll just let my boy Amitai explain:
“Communitarianism refers to investing time and energy in relations with the other, including family, friends and members of one’s community. The term also encompasses service to the common good, such as volunteering, national service and politics. Communitarian life is not centered around altruism but around mutuality, in the sense that deeper and thicker involvement with the other is rewarding to both the recipient and the giver. Indeed, numerous studies show that communitarian pursuits breed deep contentment.”
Where consumerism is focused on self, communitarianism is focused on “the other.” The greatest good is not personal satisfaction, but engagement with fellow humans. Under communitarianism, identity is found in the strength of relationships, not consumption.
So join a club. Buy someone a beer. (Buy me a beer.) Volunteer. Be nice to a jerk co-worker. Make someone dinner. Go on a date. Start a book club. Call your mom. Get a workout partner. Sit next to someone new at church. Write a letter. Throw a party. Host a board game night. Join an intramural team (even with strangers!). You got this.
Replace Consumerism with Transcendentalism.
“The Transcendentalists…believed that at the level of the human soul, all people had access to divine inspiration and sought and loved freedom and knowledge and truth.”
— Jone Johnson Lewis
I’m not a Transcendentalist in the traditional sense. (Choosing a spiritual worldview like you choose items from a buffet line is ridiculous.) But the pursuit of the Divine has always occupied the great thinkers of history. Theology was once considered the Queen of the Sciences. Finding one’s identity in relation to a Higher Power is more than a good idea.
But even if you don’t believe in The Divine, that is no reason to give up on transcendental pursuits. Simply pursue “freedom, knowledge, and truth” in a non-religious context. (Maybe those pursuits will even lead you back to a belief in The Divine?)
So swing by a church this Sunday and grab lunch with the pastor. (If you can’t get lunch with the pastor, it’s not a church worth going to, btw.) Pick up a copy of The Reason For God or Walden. Watch a TED talk. Forgive somebody. Go for a long walk and meditate. Skim through a religious text. Pray. Journal. Watch some introductory videos on philosophy. Join a group of like-minded thinkers (or challenge yourself and do the opposite!). And then, maybe, pray again.
Encourage a Productivist Culture, not a Consumerist Culture.
The beauty and downfall of consumerism is that it is risk-free. A consumer pays someone else to suffer the burden and risk of creating something to consume. This is great for things like socks (I don’t think I’d enjoy knitting my own socks), but crushing for those that have been conditioned to believe that intimacy, friendship, success, character, and happiness can be purchased/consumed.
The consumer is removed from life by one degree because he is not an active participant in the creation process. Even more, the consumer is chained to the present (where the consuming and the novelty happens).
The creator, though, finds satisfaction in the past, present, and future. The creator delights in the progress of the past, the challenge of the moment, and the hope of the future. Creators experience joy to a greater degree than consumers. Creators use their free time to explore and build relationships, projects, art, insights, wisdom, passions, and much more. Creators step into the uncomfortable fray of life. Consumers pay someone else to do it.
A Productivist Culture is one that sees people as creators, not consumers. It is a culture where identity is closely tied to what we create. It’s the kind of culture my favorite President had in mind for America.
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
We are all consumers, by nature. But when our primary identity is that of a consumer, we get consumerism. And consumerism sucks. The culture it creates leaves people gasping for an identity with substance.
So reject finding your identity in the things you consume. You are more than that.