Friday, 19 March 2010

Perils of consumerism

With each life experience and interaction with the world, our minds are shaped, opinions formed and decisions made which alter our viewpoints, challenge our existing knowledge and understanding. Every form of media and popular opinion that we are exposed to changes our perceptions and way of thinking. We are consistently being bombarded with advertisements, trends through an array of different forms of media. All of which have an impact regardless of whether or not we are actively involved in following them or passively. An example of this is technology (gadgets). Every few months there is a new and ‘better’ phone, laptop/computer, car, and TV / DVD system and on and on… It doesn’t stop! The temptation is too great with all that is positioned around us to desire these things. Advertisements make us feel like what we already have is outdated and invalid and that we need to consistently search and seek something new whether we really need these things or not.
Consumerism is a social and economic order that is based on the systematic creation and fostering of a desire to purchase commodity goods in ever greater amounts [].
Fashion is another excellent example of this; being a great lover and ardent fan of shoes, I recall the introduction of the UGG boots, (if you escaped them you are one of the lucky few!) They are an Australian branded and made ‘snow’ type boot for winter (the irony was certainly more than I could bare…) These shoes became popular almost overnight at the ridiculous price of approx £100 and true to form, as soon as the celebrities started being seen in them, they flew of the shelves like the last few loaves of bread during the Zimbabwe ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ food crisis of the last few years!

Outrageous I know but a powerful example of how little choice one can have in life. If you ask anyone who owns a pair of these oversized boots if their choice was completely uninfluenced by who had them in the celebrity world as well as their own local circles, you will find that the decision to purchase was influenced even sub-consciously through advertisement or directly through peer pressure. I am pleased to report that on a matter of principle I refused to purchase UGG boots and deliberately chose to buy a pair of Emues instead  (another Australian brand but at half the price). My choice at the style of boots was however influenced by the UGG craze and therefore is debatable where choice stopped and external influence took over. In contrast; my good friend (whose identity will be concealed to protect the guilty!) who took a similar stance to mine in relation to the cost of UGG boots, but she spent an hour of her life filling in an online questionnaire with the promise of a free pair of these boots at the end…they never materialised!

One of the most influential pulls or pressures if you like, that drive consumerism, is the ‘keeping up with the Joneses syndrome’. It is a phrase applied to competitive acquisition: trying to have all the new things that your neighbours have []. This is the final link in the vicious cycle called consumerism. It uses advertising to tell us we are not good enough as we are; incapable of having style unless we follow their fashion, unable to connect to the world without all the latest gadgets to be able to use new technologies to do things we do not really need. It then provides for us the solution to our inadequacies or areas of lack... (...fill in the blank), and it’s sold in the nearest shopping centre or town to you. Finally it gets all your friends, family, neighbours;  people in your class at school or work colleagues to buy things and brag about how great they are and how it has changed their life. Then you see it, the look that says oh dear you still have that old version or last seasons... and you’re spurned on to ‘shop ‘till you drop!’ or ‘buy, buy, buy’ (for the gents). So next time you go out to replace that mobile phone or computer or your perfectly working radio, pause, tell yourself you’re a victim and chuckle quietly to yourself  ... 

How free is your 'Freedom of choice'?

Choice… to choose, to pick one over another… This is a concept we assume we understand without due consideration of the depth of its meaning and how far removed that is from day to day practice in today's society.  Let us start form the postulate that choice really is an act of one 'following one’s own will'.
Choice is defined as; 1. The act of choosing (selection); 2.The power, right or liberty to choose (option); 3.One that is chosen; 4The best or most preferable part. Care in choosing, an alternative. []
Often choice is associated with the word 'freedom' which is often used as a prefix resulting in the expression 'freedom of choice'. Freedom is defined as the condition of being free of restraints...freedom, liberty, license. These nouns refer to the power to act, speak, or think without externally imposed restraints. []

Deciding on preferences is hardly ever done without considering, at least on a subconscious level, external influences and restraints. These can come in the form of culture, religion, race, tribe or status in society. In each of these groups there is a selection of social norms that one is to adhere to in order to be a part of that community / society. This results in altered perception / repressed expression of one’s true natural choice by temperament and character. For example, a young Muslim woman will make her choices within the confines of what is acceptable in Islam for her to do, like the wearing of the hijab headdress. It is similar in many African setting where a girl child is not as important to educate than a boy, therefore a girl child’s view on her education will be highly influenced by this thinking which could very well lead to an intelligent girl never realising her potential (thank God my parents believe in educating all children as far as the individual wants to go!). Choices made by each girl would be highly influenced by her society and the passive acceptance of its social norms, not just her choice.

The opinion and practices  of individuals with an influential role in one’s life can also shape and adapt one’s thought pattern’s to theirs which result in decisions being made in line with their views / opinions, instead of the individual reflecting inwards to discover what it is they personal believe or deem right and good.  – Influence is the capacity or power of persons or things to be a compelling force on or produce effects on the actions, behavior, opinions, etc., of others [] If this sort of ‘controlling power is yielded to another, then the ability to have ‘freedom of choice’ in dissipated and the result is what I like to call ‘conditioned choice’. Most people live in the realm of conditioned choice without even realising it, until something so earth-shattering occurs that forces a process of soul searching resulting in rebellion of this ‘control’. This is a common occurrence in history, colonialism and neo-colonialism being good examples. Colonised countries, having had one or two ‘liberationists’ (Those who act or begin a process of trying to achieve equal rights and status []) rise up in the minority group (which ironically was usually the majority of people), a wider variety was suddenly opened up to that group. Neocolonialism is a far worse monster than colonialism ever was in my opinion. Neocolonialism can be defined as the continuation of the economic model of colonialism after a colonized territory has achieved formal political independence. []. This has been said to be controlled externally of the nation by past colonial masters of the west but this is not always the case. In Zimbabwe for instance, the government and leaders operate in the ‘command, subdue and control’ style of governing which is neocolonialist in nature. The same is true for Kamuzu Banda’s Malawi where ‘command, subdue and control’ was the governing style of choice. He even went one step further in adopting ‘Hitler style’ propaganda and controlling all forms of eternal communication coming in to ensure his ‘subjects’ had no alternative influence that would give them real choice.  I remember stories of my father as a member of the youth movement for change, he became very vocal against Banda’s style of governance and calling for true independence of every man (a great liberationist). His political stance of achieving ‘freedom of choice’ and true liberty for his country resulted in a 27 years exile (a year short of my entire lifetime so far!) and countless attacks against him and his family. Why? because there is no true freedom, or choice where there is control and manipulation of one’s thought processes until said one chooses what is deemed ‘right’ by another’. 

These are obvious and clear examples of choice being inhibited to the point of non existence but there are much more subtle forms of this very thing prevalent in today’s society; political parties, educators, ‘thinkers ‘of the day, parents, those anti-religion and religious leaders. Each with their own agenda and for the majority good intentions, they all seek to push an agenda that favours their way of seeing over your freedom to choose and see for yourself.  Many like parents, educators and religious leaders operate in this way in the full belief that youy best interests are at heart whilst the others seek their own. The truth remains that anyone or thing that imposes a set of social norms or “acceptable practices” on you are in a greater or lesser extent seeking to control your choice, removing freedom from the equation.


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