To Gift or Not to Gift? A Philosopher’s Christmas Dilemma

Skye C. Cleary and John Kaag at the IAI website (the article was originally published at The Independent):

SetWidth592-sartregiftThe holidays are supposed to be about reconnecting with family, generosity, and celebrating Santa’s birthday. Or Jesus’s. For others, it’s supposed to be about the rededication of, and to, a sacred temple. But it’s not. Instead, it’s a dreidel-spinning, holly-wreathed distraction from the meaninglessness or loneliness of everyday existence. It’s a dreaded chore, filled with stressful shopping, hidden disappointment, and feigned joy. It is the season of vacuous gifts. It is supposed to be a season of amazement, and it is: people who are supposed to know you best turn out to be completely clueless. Or worse – you discover that the gift is the ultimate weapon.

Zombie-like feeding of the consumerist monster is the standard objection to holiday gift-giving. Yet there’s another, darker side to generosity: when it’s used as means of exercising power over another. We are expected to be appreciative of gifts, regardless of whether they’re wanted or thoughtful. A gift from an abusive spouse or parent can be a means of disarming the abused, or manipulating him or her into continued submission. Gift-giving can also easily turn into a competition to see who can give the best or most expensive one.

This latter approach to gift-giving has ancient roots. For example, as Marcel Mauss describes in The Gift, the potlatch is a Northwest Pacific Coast tribal ritual where some clan leaders would give away lavish amounts of merchandise such as clothes, canoes, and weapons in a display of wealth. It was partly about generosity, but often the merchandise was destroyed, making it much more about reinforcing the giver’s status and prestige at the top of the social hierarchy. Beneath the destruction, according to Mauss, was the simple fact that potlatch “gifts” were not gifts at all – they were given by people so powerful, so wealthy, that they could afford to burn their goods. Potlatch – and modern winter holidays – often celebrates this wealth. And that doesn’t seem good at all.

More here.