Saying “Just Stay at Home” Does Not Solve the Problem

As we approach November 29th, shoppers across the U.S. are looking forward to the blood-sport of Black Friday shopping. The day after, some will still be basking in the post-shopping glow of a deal well found while others will watch the antics of shoppers on the weekend news. This yearly performance will elicit the usual finger-wagging from political pundits who decry how selfish and consumerist we’ve all become. We, the audience, will nod sagely and promise never to shop on Black Friday again, a promise that will be kept for precisely 364 days.

retail-black-fridayAs a person who studies contemporary American life, I must say that the whole Black Friday experience is fascinating. It’s a ritual—like going to church or watching Sunday football—and it creates and sustains ideas about what we think is valuable and important. However, unlike political pundits on mainstream news, I’m not really interested in talking about how people who shop on Black Friday are terrible, selfish, or greedy. In fact, I think that although obviously people can choose to shop or not on Black Friday, most of the responsibility for the consumerist practices that we witness can be laid squarely at the feet of corporations.

Have you ever been in a fight? Maybe at a bar or at a late-night party? The last time I was in a fight was in high school. I was in off-season training for football, walking back with friends from the weight room. A guy walked behind me, continuing the daily ritual of calling me names and trying to trip me. One day, it was too much and I swung around and confronted him. We started smack-talking each other and, as the exchange grew more heated, the people around started yelling “fight, fight, FIGHT!” As the crowd cheered he pushed me. I regained my balance, threw a right hook, and knocked him to the ground. To this day, I remember people cheering as I stood over him.

Now, you may be asking “What does this have to do with Black Friday.” Just like I was responsible for hitting another student (and I have the detention slip to prove it!), shoppers are responsible for continuing the ritual of no-holds-barred, winner-takes-all shopping. On the other hand, the crowd is guilty of creating the social pressure to fight in the same way that corporations are guilty of spending millions of dollars to pressure shoppers into thinking that this is the “only” day to get a good deal. What if those students, instead of cheering, had stepped in and separated us? What if corporations, instead of whipping up shoppers into a frenzy with artificial claims of scarcity, had those deals for weeks, months, or (heaven forbid) year round?

This is why it’s so hard to do something about Black Friday. It’s easy to see the wrongness in throwing a punch, but so much more difficult to see the complicity of the crowd. That’s why saying “just don’t shop” doesn’t really fix the problem. It’s like saying “don’t hit another person.” I knew that it was wrong and (I’m assuming) the other boy knew it too. But we did it anyway, the ritual continued despite our knowledge because there’s always a crowd, always that social pressure to slug it out. And if it hadn’t been us, it would’ve been someone else. It always WILL be someone else until we do something about the crowd, about the corporations who continue to cheer us despite our broken bones and bare bank accounts.

So what can we do about it? As someone who does activist work on the behalf of the union, my answer is that we must cultivate better relationships with one another. Central to this claim is the idea that we cannot replace love with money, care with toys, or empathy with TVs. Instead, we must (re)recognize the love that we have for one another and, through that act, come to understand how we can find hope, faith, and meaning outside of the aisles of Wal-Mart or Target. Doing so won’t get rid of the crowd; instead, it will create a new one—a crowd based on peace, cooperation, and solidarity. Finding value in each other on Black Friday? That sounds like the best bargain for this holiday season.

C. Kyle Rudick is a doctoral candidate in the department of Speech Communication

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