In Western societies such as Australia, UK, or the US, Christmas is a consumer driven festival with a slight veneer of religious significance. One does not need to be a Max Weber or Emile Durkheim to draw this conclusion.
In step with the proliferation of Christmas identities such as Father Christmas (aka Santa Claus), Carol-ers, elves, reindeer, and snowmen etc. a relatively new addition has emerged: the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge. Distinct from the regular Scrooge or Grinch, the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge does not dislike Christmas per se, but what they regard as unethical spending on consumer goods. These Scrooges make statements such as “if everyone in [insert country] didn’t buy gifts for one year and instead gave money to [insert ngo] then we would eradicate [insert catastrophic event] undeniably.”
Despite strong arguments that the eradication of events such as famine or poverty don’t occur through mere donations or redirection of fundings – see here – it is difficult to deny the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge’s point. People do buy a lot of stuff during this period. Some of the stuff is good, some is useful, some is edible and a lot is utter crap. Almost all of it is unnecessary. However, almost all of the stuff that fills our shopping carts (real and virtual) for the other 364 days of the year is unnecessary. This is the point that these Ethical Scrooges neglect, and through this neglect reveal themselves as no more sincere than a ‘peace on earth’ Hallmark card.Unlike the Dickens Scrooge who proclaims ‘a pox on all your houses’* and goes to bed in a cold empty mansion, these Pseudo Ethical Scrooges inform us of the catastrophe to which we all contribute while still participating in the party. Like a vegetarian lecturing on the vice of meat eating, while wolfing down the last pork roll.**
Exhibit B: Popular ‘web-posters’ juxtaposing starving children with Christmas consumerism***
The problem is not drawing attention to the excesses of Western consumerism or the suffering of others, but the use of ‘poverty-porn’ as an immunity mechanism that enables rather than prevents further consumption.
The early practice of smallpox inoculation serves as an example of this practice. In order to be protected against small-pox, an individual would have smallpox scabs rubbed into incisions on their body, delivering minimal infection yet immunity from the disease. Similarly, by exposing oneself to the graphic horrors of global poverty in the context of excessive of consumerism, the effect is not a revaluation of values, but protection from such a revaluation, thereby enabling the continuation of consumer practices.
Through ‘poverty-porn’ the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge is able to cleanse their conscience of the guilt associated with excessive consumption, continue with the festivities and avoid the difficult process of revaluing and restructuring their existence for the other 364 days of the year.
To be clear, the conclusion here is not that global poverty or excessive consumption should simply be ignored, or even that the Pseudo Ethical Scrooge is a kill-joy. Rather the consumer excesses that take place on every other day of the year AND the systemic injustices of global trade, resource distribution and political economy require sustained critical reflection. Critical reflection that doesn’t come through a song or an image.
Giving gifts to friends and family – with or without acknowledging the symbolic significance – is an important cultural practice. To refrain from this practice for the sake of global poverty, could be a noble gesture, but it could also preclude the formation of significant bonds and relations. These bonds not only characterize us as humans, and enrich life, but also provide the conditions for the communal and social change necessary to confront problematic issues like consumerism and poverty.
So I will be giving my family and friends Thomas Pogge and Amartya Sen books for Christmas. Just kidding- you’ll still get your iPads and Steve Jobs biographies.
*I know Scrooge didn’t say this – but Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet.
**OK, I admit I may have been this person…oops
*** I won’t provide an image because I think these posters are crass but you can see some here