Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Giving, Receiving Create Complex Social Dance

Fresno Bee, December 17, 2011

Christmas is the Superbowl of giving and receiving.  All of our social and interpersonal skills are needed to give and receive well.  We can learn a lot about social life, by carefully observing the details of the annual Christmas potlatch.  And we can learn about ourselves by considering how we deal with giving and receiving.

Gift giving is a form of communication.  Gifts send social messages.  A perfect gift is a sign of care and thoughtfulness.  A great gift shows that the other person really understands you.  Although we say that it’s the thought that counts, inappropriate gifts are expressions of thoughtlessness. What message is being delivered when you give an alcoholic uncle a bottle of booze or a conservative niece a subscription to your favorite liberal news magazine?

Good givers are perceptive interpreters of social reality.  It takes considerable finesse to figure out who should get what, in our complex social world.  Do you, for example, give a gift to the mother of the man you just divorced, when she comes to pick up her grandchildren?  It takes a lot of tact to negotiate these sorts of situations.

The Christmas gift ritual is subtle game of secrets and excitement.  We keep these secrets wrapped in bows—to be given at the right time and in the right way.  Wonderful gifts can be ruined by an over-enthusiastic or half-hearted presentation.  Children can be forgiven for spilling the beans or for ripping into a gift too soon.  But adults are expected to display a subtle balance of eager enthusiasm and cool nonchalance.

There are a lot of details to attend to.  Sometimes a gift-receipt is appropriate.  But it is usually considered tacky to leave the price tag on. Homemade gifts can be charming—but some people will think you are a cheapskate.  What about an expensive gift: is it too flashy or over-the-top? And is “re-gifting” allowed?  Probably, as long as you don’t tell the original giver or the new recipient.

Gift-giving relationships are fraught with social significance.  Consider the annual Christmas card list.  When do you drop or add someone from your list?  And those newsy holiday letters are subject to interpretation: are you bragging too much about your fabulous life or complaining too much about your deteriorating health?  Should you write a personal note to a casual acquaintance?  Or can you just send the family picture, without a note?  These choices convey social messages.

There is also an art to being a gracious receiver.  We need to know how to say thanks.  Expressions of gratitude allow the act of giving to be successfully completed.  And you need to fake gratitude when necessary.  Even phony gratefulness is important, as a sign that the gift has been received.  In the modern world, it is difficult to figure out what counts as an appropriate thanks.  Is a text message or phone call sufficient?  Or should you write a good old-fashioned thank-you note?

If this sounds difficult, that’s because social life is difficult.  Giving and receiving are complex social practices.  Generous givers and gracious receivers are social geniuses.  They negotiate social situations with grace and style, nimbly imagining the other person’s attitudes, expectations, and desires.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle recognized that generosity was in the middle between stinginess and wastefulness.  It is wrong to give to little—but it is also wrong to give too much.  The key for Aristotle is figuring out how to give the right amount, to the right person, at the right time, in the right way.  This takes careful reflection and lots of practice.  The same can be said for receiving: we need to carefully practice graciousness and gratitude.  The key is to be mindful, thoughtful, and aware of the complexities of the social game.

No one is born knowing how to give well or to receive graciously.  All of this is learned behavior.  Our children work on it throughout the year—at birthday parties and elsewhere.  Adults participate in acts of giving and receiving every day.  We give each other our time, our attention, and the small favors that lubricate social life.  Christmas crystallizes this for us, as a ritual reminder that human life is a complex dance of giving and receiving.

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

You’re a Foul One, Shopping Season

Fresno Bee, December 3, 2011

I watched “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” the other day with my children on television.  Every fan of the cartoon knows that the Grinch’s heart grows three sizes when he realizes, “Christmas doesn’t come in a store.”

But this soft Seussian message was drowned out by the ads that interrupted the show.  Nearly every commercial was promoting Christmas shopping!  Even my kids noted the irony.  The network was using Seuss to sell us the idea that Christmas really does come in a store.  It is easy to feel Grinchy at times like these.

Consider the odd degeneration of the Thanksgiving weekend.  Thanksgiving day is overshadowed by the next several days of shopping.  These shopping days now have names that can seem like something from Seuss: Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and Cyber Monday.  This silliness got serious this year, when Black Friday frenzy turned bloody, as sleep-deprived shoppers competed for door-buster ads with elbows, fists, and pepper-spray.

Even the President got into the spirit of the shopping season. Obama went shopping with his daughters on “Small Business Saturday,” buying books at a local bookstore.  He said, “This is Small Business Saturday.  So we’re out here supporting small business.”  Holiday family time is now oddly connected to a patriotic duty to go shopping.

Shopping is an American hobby.  We shop when we are bored or lonely.  And some shoppers treat it as a competitive sport, vying for bargains.  Or they try to be the first to buy something, even if that means standing in line in the middle of the night.  This is not just confined to Black Fridaybedlam.  Shoppers camp out for new video games and the latest iphone.

Our culture appears to be built upon Grinch-like values such as envy, greed, and—to use a good old-fashioned word—covetousness.  It used to be a sin to covet things in this way.  But now it is built right in to the holiday season.  Children are encouraged to give Santa a list of what they desire. Adults write up holiday wish lists.  And many of us use the holidays as an excuse to buy ourselves things—even going through the ruse of wrapping these “gifts” and putting them under the tree.

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to get a deal.  From the housing bubble to “Antiques Road Show,” it seems that we remain obsessed with finding bargains and turning a profit.  We are fascinated by stories of “extreme couponing.”  And the Seussian term “shopaholic” has entered our vocabularies.

“Shopaholism” can be a serious problem.  A syndrome called “Compulsive Buying Disorder” afflicts about one out of twenty of us.  A more technical term for this condition also rings Seussian: “Oniomania,” which literally means “maniacal buying.”  This occurs when shopping becomes a primary way to deal with stress, boredom, and anxiety.  As with gambling addiction, a downward spiral can result for the shopping maniac: as debt increases, anxiety increases, and the desire to shop grows.

We might think that obsessive shopping and compulsive buying are peculiar to modern capitalist societies.  But Biblical writers routinely condemned covetousness.  Even a Roman philosopher such as Seneca understood the problem.  Seneca thought that the inordinate desire to buy things can leave us unhappy and indebted, especially when hucksters try to make a buck by manipulating our desires.  He cautioned that we must “see how much we must pay for that which we crave.”

For Stoics such as Seneca, the cost of owning things is usually more than they are worth.  Our craving for new things and the desire to make a good deal can leave us deceived, miserable, and indebted.  Seneca concluded, “We should belong to ourselves, if only these things did not belong to us.”

You don’t have to be a Stoic sage or a Christian saint to understand that many of the things we buy end up owning us.  Just ask anyone who got swept up in the housing bubble and left underwater.  And most kids understand the message of “The Grinch.”  The Who’s down in Whoville didn’t mind that the Grinch had just stolen all of their Christmas loot.  They knew that Christmas was about the community they shared.  And they recognized that Christmas doesn’t come in a store.

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Violence Can Move Bodies, But Not the Spirit

Fresno Bee, November 18, 2011

Martin Luther King thought that nonviolent civil protest created a “tension in the mind.”  This tension is the result of seeing good people jailed and brutal power unleashed upon passive resisters.  King’s insights help explain reaction to recent police brutality against Occupy protesters.

Police have used rubber bullets, stun grenades, pepper spray, and clubs to break up Occupy encampments across the country.  An Iraq war veteran was injured in Oakland,  An 84-year old grandmother was pepper sprayed in Seattle.  And at UC Berkeley, cops in riot gear jabbed students with nightsticks.

In the Berkeley case, officials defended police action in public statements that do indicate a certain tension in the mind.  The UC Berkeley police captain explained (in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle), “the individuals who linked arms and actively resisted, that in itself is an act of violence.  I understand that many students may not think that, but linking arms in a human chain when ordered to step aside is not a nonviolent protest.”

Robert Birgeneau, The UC Berkeley Chancellor, explained this more fully in a letter to the campus.  “It is unfortunate that some protesters chose to obstruct the police by linking arms and forming a human chain to prevent the police from gaining access to the tents. This is not non-violent civil disobedience. By contrast, some of the protesters chose to be arrested peacefully… They did not resist arrest or try physically to obstruct the police officers’ efforts to remove the tents. These protesters were acting in the tradition of peaceful civil disobedience, and we honor them.”

Although the Chancellor invoked our tradition of civil disobedience, he appears to have forgotten the power of the images of police violence from the Civil Rights era.  Police who strike unarmed, nonviolent protestors are usually on the wrong side of history.

Violence is effective in the short term.  Police were able to clear protesters out in Oakland, Seattle, and Berkeley.  The philosopher Hannah Arendt explained, “Out of the barrel of a gun grows the most effective command, resulting in the most instant and perfect obedience.”  Violence does move bodies.  But it cannot move the spirit.

Violence does not prove anything about justice or truth.  King explained, “in the long run of history might does not make right and the power of the sword cannot conquer the power of the spirit.”  In fact, violence can provoke a spirit of rebellion in the hearts of those who are bullied.  And thus violence tends to escalate, as those who are harassed begin to push back.

Violence and nonviolence are slippery concepts.  We can use the term “violence” metaphorically to describe storms and emotions.  And some people speak of structural violence—which is the tendency of a system to harm people through racism or oppression.  But violence is usually understood as harmful physical force intentionally applied against the will of some victim.

It seems clear that on this definition, the police have been violent.  When cops strike students with clubs or pepper spray old women, it is obvious that there is intent to cause physical harm.  Protesters who link arms do resist police power.  But linking arms is nonviolent because it does not intend to cause physical harm.

Occupy protesters have invoked the idea of structural violence, claiming that the system is set up in a way that harms the majority.  When the police attack peaceful protesters with batons and pepper spray, one suspects that they may be right.

The protestors at Berkeley, for example, were trying to call attention to the problem of education in our state.  Tuition keeps increasing. Classes are cancelled or jammed to overflowing.  And students graduate with large debts and few opportunities.  Students are beginning to push back against a system that is failing them.  But linking arms in protest is not violence, despite what the Berkeley Chancellor said.

Some people may think that it is better to clear the tents and end the protests quickly, hoping that the structural problems will go away.  But attacking the protesters won’t solve our problems.  And it is wrong to suggest that the police are somehow justified in assaulting those who are directing our attention to these problems.

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

With 7 Billion of us, Can We Keep Buying Nonstop?

Fresno Bee, November 5, 2011

It is difficult to balance individual liberty with concerns of a global nature.  We want to be free to consume and reproduce.  But the choices of free individuals add up, creating significant impacts.  This is especially true now that there are 7 billion human beings on earth—a number that will grow to 10 billion by the end of the century.

We passed the 7 billion mark on Halloween.  This is a kid-friendly holiday, which makes parents glad they have children.  But it also marks the beginning of the typical American over-consumption calendar.  Once the Halloween candy is gone, we turn to Thanksgiving gluttony and then on to Christmas overindulgence.  Imagine the environmental impact of 2 or 3 billion more people gorging themselves as we do every year.

Ecologist Madhu Katti, from Fresno State’s Biology Department put it this way in a recent post on his blog, “A Leaf Warbler’s Gleanings”: “There are many reasons to be worried about the consequences of having so many of us crowding this pale blue dot of a planet.  Especially if so many of us are keen to continue spending billions of dollars on seemingly cheap plastic junk.”  Common sense tells us that as population grows and consumption increases, we will hit a limit.

This point has been known, at least since the time of Thomas Malthus, the 18th Century economist.  Malthus is famous for arguing that as populations grow, they will suffer a dieback caused by environmental pressures.  He is infamous for hinting that it is wrong to support poor people since aid to the poor increases population in counter-productive ways.

So far, we have found technological solutions that have helped us avoid the grim Malthusian limit and reach the 7 billion mark: increased agricultural productivity, new sources of power, better medicine, etc.  But there may be a limit to technological solutions.  And as population and consumption grow, the Malthusian limit looms.

So what can we do?  Policies that use coercion to prevent people from reproducing are immoral.  The right to reproduce is very basic.  It would be wrong for the state to license reproduction or require sterilization.  The morally acceptable response to population pressure is to increase each individual’s sense of responsibility for reproduction.  Perhaps we could do the same for consumption.

This individualistic approach is, however, vexed by the problem of diffusion of responsibility.  When there are 7 billion other people involved, my own choices appear to be infinitesimally insignificant.  It is odd to demand that I should consider global population and environmental issues when thinking about my reproductive life or shopping patterns.

So where does that leave us?  Perhaps it helps to return to Malthus.  Malthus thought that one solution to the population problem was “moral restraint.”  He defined this as celibacy until marriage and refraining from marriage until one is ready to support a family.  Not only would this help to moderate population growth but Malthus also thought it would be good for women, since it would prevent the “evils and unhappiness” that arise from “promiscuous intercourse.”

Malthus was on the right track here, despite his prudish sense of sexual morality.  The key to population pressure is to find ways to empower and educate women, including giving them more control of their own reproductive lives.  Professor Katti explained it to me this way, “the empowerment of women and reduced infant mortality are the key factors” in slowing population growth.  Women choose to have fewer children when there is “greater economic security, better health, and some measure of control over their futures.”  This has helped to lower birth rates in industrialized countries as well as in places like Bangladesh.

So far, so good.  The further problem is that despite lowered birthrates, we continue to consume loads of cheap plastic junk.  Professor Katti continued, “we have figured out how to lower birth rates, but are far from tackling the wasteful consumerist lifestyle that is at the root of so many of our environmental problems.”

Is it possible that some version of “moral restraint” could work when it comes to consumption?  Instead of focusing on promiscuous intercourse, it may be time to begin thinking about how to limit promiscuous consumption.

Occupy movement about sense of unfairness

‘Occupy’ movement about sense of unfairness

Fresno Bee, Oct. 21, 2011

The “Occupy Wall Street” movement is an expression of resentment about inequality. The motto of the movement – “We are the 99%” – shows this. The top 1% of Americans hold half of the nation’s wealth. Corporate CEOs are doing well, while wages stagnate, hours are cut and debt increases for the rest of us.

It is not surprising that these inequalities cause resentment. Resentment is about fairness. And things seem unfair to many Americans today.

Some inequalities are fair: such as inequalities that result from differences in talent or expertise. We want the pilot to fly the plane, not the flight attendant. Resulting inequality of income is fair – so long as it is reasonable and leaves the flight attendant doing well. In a similar way, inequalities resulting from certain genetic differences can be fair. Tall and fast kids get to play on the basketball team. But fairness means that there should be other opportunities for other kids.

Genetic differences can produce unfair inequalities. Racial discrimination and sexual inequality are unfair because racial and gender differences are irrelevant to performance. It would be unfair if women were not allowed to be pilots, for example, as was once the case.

Individuals do not earn the advantages or disadvantages of their genetic differences – these differences are a matter of luck. The advantage of inherited wealth is also a matter of luck. Rich kids don’t earn the advantages of wealth: They are just fortunate. Individual initiative does matter in the long run. Poor kids can do well, despite their relative disadvantage; and rich kids can fail to achieve. But a privileged starting point will give you an advantage. And this seems unfair – because neither the poor kid nor the rich kid has earned their relative difference.

This is not to say that we should engage in “class warfare” to make rich kids miserable. In a certain sense, that would be unfair as well, since parents should be free to help their own children excel. Rather, the point is that poor children should have fair opportunities for wellbeing. The drive for equality is not about bringing the privileged down. Instead it is about lifting the underprivileged up and providing a fair starting place. Women should be able to fly planes and poor kids should have decent schools.

The basic idea here is equality of opportunity. This idea was defended by John Rawls, the most important political philosopher of the past century. Rawls said that inequalities are justified only when they benefit the least advantaged. The basic idea is that as the rich get richer, the poor should also do better. When this happens, resentment diminishes because even the poor will agree that they benefit from the system.

This idea undergirds our graduated income tax system: as the rich get richer, their tax dollars help poor kids in poor schools. This creates equality of opportunity and a sense of fairness. For Rawls, the aim is to “improve the long-term expectations of the least favored.”

Presumably, most Americans agree with this idea. It is a basic value in the Christian tradition. In the parable of the sheep and the goats, for example, Jesus says that we have an obligation to the “least of these” among us: the sick, the hungry, the imprisoned.

But one wonders whether we are actually fulfilling that obligation. The “least favored” includes a growing number of unemployed, disenfranchised, imprisoned and indebted people. Unemployment hovers around 10% (15% here in Fresno County). Twenty percent of American homeowners are underwater in their mortgages (closer to 45% here in Fresno). The median student loan debt for recent college graduates is $20,000 – without good job prospects. And 1 in 100 adults are in prison – the highest incarceration rate in the world.

Statistics such as these remind us that we are not improving the long-term expectations of the least favored. And this is what is fueling the resentment of the “Occupy” movement.

The Occupy protesters have not offered much in terms of concrete policy initiatives. It is not clear what we should do to promote fairness in a dysfunctional economy. But first we should get clear about our shared conception of justice. The Occupy movement is reminding us of the basic idea of fairness. This is not the only principle of justice: liberty matters too. But it is important to focus our concern on the “least” among us.