The hidden cost of compassionate consumerism (revised)

“In the very consumerist act you buy your redemption from being just a consumer.”

“My point is this very interesting short circuit where the act of egotist consumption already includes the price of its opposite”

– Slavoj Zizek

It seems misanthropic to take a company like TOMS shoes, and companies that operate on a similar business model, to task.  Who can argue with this: “With every pair you purchase, TOMS gives a new pair of shoes to a child in need.  One for One.”  It’s clear that there are children in the world today that didn’t have shoes before TOMS came along.  That’s a good thing.

The question is, do we settle for a good thing because the cost of a better thing is too much?

To me, this is the best case scenario; that everyone in the global family would participate as productive citizens of a community, earning enough resources through their work to supply the basic needs of their families, and collectively being able to provide for the basic needs of their community.  That is a vision of a world where God’s shalom is present.  It is consistent with “manna economics”, found throughout the scriptures.  The one who gathers much should not have too much and the one that gathers little should not have too little.  The world would work better that way.

It’s clear that for the best case scenario to become reality, some radical reshaping would have to take place.  A number of things hinder this radical reshaping.  One, those who benefit from the current system are not eager to give up those benefits.  Two, those who are hurt by the current system have little power to change it.  Three, those who benefit tell powerful myths that rationalize why they have the benefit and others don’t (i.e. the myth of equal opportunity, everyone can make it if they try hard enough, my benefits are a result of my hard work, God is helping those who help themselves, and so on.) Four, the haves and the have-nots rarely meet, get to know one another, share stories or become friends.  There are likely more, but that will suffice.

The arena where all of this plays out within consumer capitalism is the mall.  Nobody will know you are a person with resources unless you use those resources externally.  Since wealth is related to status and status can’t be seen in the closet, people with resources can’t help themselves when it comes to consumption.  Even if people can’t afford the best, they tend to buy the best they can afford (unless they are uncomfortably aware of their social status).

This is where it gets tricky.  Due to the influence of media technology, the world is shrinking. Increasingly, that means that we live in a world where we are aware of the disparity of wealth, resources, life-style, access to basic services, and so on.   Not knowing used to provide a level of distance from the reality that to be on top in our system depends on exploiting others.  Today, it is getting harder, if not impossible, to claim that you don’t know.

So what do good people do?  Consumption is tied to identity and place in the community. The myths that fuel egotist exceptionalism (I’m blessed because of something inherent in me that makes me successful for makes God like me more) are under assault from multiple streams of truth coming from flat screens of all sizes.  It’s increasingly difficult to avoid the reality that those on top benefit from the exploitation of those on the bottom.  Is there a way out?

Enter the redeemer: compassionate consumerism.  Compassionate consumerism promises to resolve the crises by embedding the solution to egotist consumption within consumption itself.   Hence Zizek’s quotes above.  It says that you can keep consuming as you always have if you consume in a compassionate way.  That usually involves a “one for one” program like TOMS shoes, or a donation of .50 cents to coffee growers for every cup purchased, or a 30% off coupon on a new coat if you donate an old one to Goodwill, etc.

The question is, does compassionate consumerism do enough to truly change things?  Is the difference between the haves and have-nots really just .50 cents on a cup of coffee?  Are we really one pair of free shoes away from solving the injustices of the world?  Are we really just one gently used coat away from God’s shalom?  Of course not!  I doubt that anyone thinks we are.  Then what’s really going on?

What’s really going on is that we are buying our way out of anxiety and guilt over participating, and benefiting from, a system that benefits some while others are being chewed up and spit out.

We can’t consume our way out of a mess that is created by consumption.  Embedding the price of it’s opposite into egotist consumption may elevate guilt, and it may even help some people get some things they otherwise wouldn’t have (and that’s good), but in the end it simply maintains the status quo.

The opposite of egotist consumption is not egotist compassion

The opposite of egotist consumption is sacrificial love that shows itself in sacrificial compassion.  What is the difference between egotist compassion and sacrificial compassion?  Well, egotist compassion is compassion for the sake of self (to elevate guilt, to pitch in, to be a good person, and so on).  That’s not to say that the compassionate act isn’t helpful to some degree.  It’s simply that the overall impact of the act doesn’t put a dent in the problem, or even address the underlying, or systemic, problem at all.  Sacrificial compassion is compassion of a different sort.  If focuses on what it will take to put multiple dents in the problems and then uses the totality of resource (time, talent, treasure) to see that happen.

Jesus summed this up when he said that the greatest in his kingdom would be the servant of all.  The highest will be the lowest.  The one who wins is the one who loses.  The one who lives is the one who dies to self for the sake of the other.  That’s sacrificial compassion, which has another name: Love.

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4 thoughts on “The hidden cost of compassionate consumerism (revised)

    1. I am still trying to get used to being a consumer on the Internet. This is my second iPhone. Just to follow on to new technology I am not proficient in yet. I have tried to follow on about Columbia etc. How did the podcasts go?

  1. This is very well thought out. I agree with you that it seems to just be a quick fix… however, I feel like shifting of beliefs happens for everyone in a different way. Some people are so involved in consumerism that the only way to introduce them to the idea of compassion is by, first, introducing it within the context of consumerism and then moving it out. It’s kind of like a person stuck in a burning building. You have to get them out first before you teach them future fire safety.

    Thank you for sharing ❤

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