May 15, 2014

Facebook and Consumerism

Recently, I saw a post on Facebook by a friend who, on a late evening shopping run, asked help in finding a (what she terms) “frivolous” purchase, and realized that there was a possibility that the person from whom she was seeking help may have been an immigrant refugee from Sudan, displaced by the wars there. She felt shamed and “like a real twit”. She stated this in the context of how people, like her (and myself), could reconcile a knowledge and appreciation of the social justice teachings of the Church, a desire to abide by those teachings, and the fact of consumerism. 

Her question is important….regarding consumerism, we can borrow the words of Trip, from the movie Glory: “Yeah, It stinks bad. And we all covered up in it too. Ain't nobody clean.”

And yet, I think it is critical, even as we separate “science” from “scientism”, to distinguish between “consumer” and “consumerism”. We, as humans, must consume, even in order to follow the teachings of the Church on the problems inherent in consumerism. We must be clothed, we must eat, some must raise children, we must teach, learn, and work; we must play, create, and love. In short, in order to live and be social beings, we must consume. 

This summer, my eldest daughter begins to play the French horn. I do not view our purchase of that horn as consumerism, but as consumption – use of wealth in a valid way to teach another and enable her to learn an art, and if in learning, she becomes a sub-creator (as she must, it seems to me), then she may glorify creation, and thereby God, through such creation. 

“Consumerism”, however, is what results when one makes a god of consumption – like scientism, and in many instances, capitalism (when driven by, for instance, consumerism). “Consumerism” is what happens when consumption is driven by sin – by our lack of holiness, and therefore, either mortal or venial. It is the elevation of goods over need – of desire of goods solely for sake of possession. Ordinate purchase of food due to hunger, (or, as Pieper or Chesterton might note, for true celebration) is a good and even holy thing – stewardship of the things of the earth. Purchase of food due to gluttony or desire simply to have that food, rather than out of hunger, becomes problematic and is symptomatic of consumerism. The same can be said of cars, houses, education, or anything else that could be consumed. 

With that said, it is very difficult from the outside to tell if one’s use of goods is holy or not – is driven by need or desire to fulfill the commandments of God, or by an inordinate desire. This is something that, except in rare cases, is between one and God and must be constantly questioned through prayer and the Sacraments.

Finally, let me complicate the scenario a bit. I noted earlier that this posting occurred on Facebook. I have begun to consider whether those who are truly anti-consumerism (not anti-consumption – that way lies the anti-humanists) can use Facebook. Let me explain. I do not know anyone who pays Facebook for use of it – in fact, I am not sure that an individual can do so. I believe it is completely driven by advertising. And, while some of that advertising is surely neutral or beneficial, much of it must also be for frivolous “stuff” – video games, etc. Facebook derives revenues from these businesses, who advertise to the users of Facebook. This is both consumption and, probably, consumerism. If we are truly concerned with frivolity, can we continue to use Facebook for free? It seems almost like lower-cost public schools driven by lotteries, which are nearly always purchased disproportionately by those who cannot afford to do so….and what does this say of our other favorite mediums, themselves disproportionately funded by advertising – television…magazines…sporting events….?