The net effect of a culture that prioritizes material prosperity above all else is that family relationships suffer, either directly through family breakdown, or indirectly from the array of pressures that prevent families from being properly ordered.
In the course of their investigation, Christian Voice researchers discovered seven primary areas where consumerism has been damaging families. (See below for a list.)
Robin Phillips, who oversaw the research, commented that he wanted to look beyond simple family breakdown to explore the more subtle ways consumerism is harming families. “Normally when we talk about threats against the family we have in mind things like divorce statistics” Phillips told the media in a statement this morning. “But we should also be attentive to the quality of family life. Our research suggests that the quality of family relationships has been a casualty of unrestrained consumerism. This runs against current thinking which tends to associate the good life with material prosperity.”
Phillips, whose book Saints and Scoundrels was published last year, added, “Although people have been warning about the effects of consumerism for years, what amazed us was the sheer scale of the problem. There are few areas of family life that have been left untouched by the ethic of unbridled consumerism. The impulses and metaphors of consumerism have exerted tentacles beyond the marketplace to affect nearly every area of life.”
Below are the seven areas Christian Voice identified where consumerism has wrought particular damage to the family.
1. Products Are Replacing Relationships
In order to satisfy the demands of consumerism, parents’ willingly embrace work-schedules that result in them neglecting their children. As a result, children are suffering from higher levels of anxiety and depression.
Consumerism promises to fill the vacuum created by inattentive parents. Diane Abbott, the shadow minister for public health, has warned of what she calls “McParenting,” where parents compensate for lack of parental involvement by buying consumer goods for their children.
The problem has become so acute that a United Nations’ report found that British parents are trapping their children in a cycle of “compulsive consumerism” by showering them with toys and designer labels instead of spending quality time with them.
Summarizing the findings, journalist John Bingham commented that “while parents said they felt compelled into buying more, the children themselves said spending time with their families made them happier.”
2. Throw Away Culture
If a certain type of self calls for a certain type of society, it is also true that a certain type of society calls for a certain type of self. The type of self that consumerism calls for is one whose longings are easily assuaged with what is new and trendy, yet just as easily dissatisfied when the newness rubs off; a self for whom the disposable mentality has become normative.
Whereas people once prized products that were lasting, consumer culture has re-educated us to prize products that are new, trendy, up to date, but will soon be superseded by products which promise to be even better.
To sustain a profitable constituency of constantly dissatisfied consumers, successful industries have enormous financial incentives to orient the public to prioritize transience over permanence and newness over stability. For example, in order to convince users to purchase Windows 8, Microsoft must convince them that Windows 7 is inferior.
“It would be naïve to think that this disposable mentality of consumerism has not etched itself in our subconscious beyond the confines of the marketplace,” Robin Phillips commented. “Our research suggests our disposable culture has left deep imprints in the cadences of how our minds approach relationships, including marriage and family life.”
The lead-researcher for Christian Voice continued: “The bias for newness that is necessary to sustain emerging technological industries is subtly orienting the public against the types of values necessary for stable marriages and families, including permanence, longevity, consistency and stability. As we prize what is new over what is lasting and permanent, we become easily bored with the fixities of our environment.”
3. Lifestyles For Sale
In his book Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times, David Lyon showed that consumer capitalism once focused entirely on producing products but now seeks to produce consumers. Where industries once attempted to simply make good products, they now focus on making us the types of people who will buy their products.
Put another way, instead of producing products for consumers, advertisers produces consumers for products. One of the ways companies do this is not by trying to sell us a product but a lifestyle. “The net result” one person pointed out, “is the creation in our minds of an idealized ‘lifestyle’ matching those suggestive messages. It is this idealized and artificial lifestyle that is then pursued as the principle means to achieving life satisfaction, happiness, and contentment or the so-called ‘good life.’ For the consumerist, all of their creative and intellectual energy is redirected toward this goal: a goal which is, in essence, an illusion created largely by the commercial interests of corporate [life] and the entertainment industry.”
The idealised lifestyle fostered on us by advertising runs directly counter to the priorities needed for healthy family life, including the values of frugality, sacrifice, and caring for others’ needs above our own. The images of the good life foisted on us by advertising carries with it the subtle message that our number one responsibility is to be true to ourselves.
As David Cain put it in his article ‘Your Lifestyle is Determined for You’, “We’ve been led into a culture that has been engineered to leave us tired, hungry for indulgence, willing to pay a lot for convenience and entertainment, and most importantly, vaguely dissatisfied with our lives so that we continue wanting things we don’t have.” Cain continued:
We buy so much because it always seems like something is still missing.
Western economies, particularly that of the United States, have been built in a very calculated manner on gratification, addiction, and unnecessary spending. We spend to cheer ourselves up, to reward ourselves, to celebrate, to fix problems, to elevate our status, and to alleviate boredom.
Can you imagine what would happen if all of America stopped buying so much unnecessary fluff that doesn’t add a lot of lasting value to our lives?
The economy would collapse and never recover.
4. Commodification of the Body
The impulses and metaphors of consumerism have exerted tentacles beyond the marketplace so that the body itself begins to be seen as a commodity. In the process, consumerism has harmed marriage by creating new ways in which men and women navigate their relationships with each other.
One example of this is the shift away from marriage and family life as intimate relationships are reduced to little more than a platform for two people to be consumers of each other’s bodies.
This purely consumerist approach to relationships orients many women to link physical appearance to moral worth. When women cannot compete with the ideals of beauty inflicted on the public through advertising, the result is often that wives become uncomfortable even in the presence of their own husbands while husbands become dissatisfied with their wives since advertising has inflicting them with unrealistic ideals of feminine beauty. Moreover, many wives end up spending inordinate amounts of time each day on their appearance instead of investing themselves in their families and community.
5. Advertising Changes Identity Perception
To compete in the new market of global consumerism, companies have had to embrace new methods of advertising in order to survive. Consumer-directed advertising gives us a matrix of what the well-lived life looks like which is often at odds with the values needed to sustain family-friendly communities.
In his book Consuming Religion, Vincent Miller showed that much of modern advertising has not simply focused on fostering greed, but on the more subtle task of shaping identity. We become the types of people who need to want and whose wants are insatiable. Once again, this works directly against the values needed to sustain long-term marriages, notably: longevity, permanence and contentment.
In these and other ways, our experience as consumers is formative even when we are not actually buying. It is literally shifting how we think of ourselves and each other.
6. Consumerism Breeds Radical Autonomy
One of the mistakes people often make about consumerism is to confuse it for simple greed and a preoccupation with possessions. However, in Craig Gay’s essay ‘Sensualists without Heart’ in the volume The Consuming Passion: Christianity and the Consumer Culture, he shows that the spirit of consumerism runs much deeper, involving “a commitment to self-creation and autonomous self-definition.”
Put another way, our shared identity as global consumers makes it difficult to believe there are fixities prior to the reality of our own autonomous choice. One example of this is given by Barbara Whitehead in her book The Divorce Culture, where she shows that the consumerist mentality has resulted in young people prizing portable assets (i.e., education, good jobs, the type of success that looks good on job resumes, etc.) above marriage and family. As a result, women are marrying later in life to the detriment of themselves and their future families.
Even religious communities have not been immune to the radical autonomy wrought by the consumerist mindset. Christian churches are increasingly seeking to make themselves “seeker-friendly” by importing into their worship the methods and practises of the marketplace. The religious marketplace is largely consumer-driven, as potential church-users shop for the venues that best meet their social and emotional needs in much the same way they might approach a trip to Starbucks or the local mall.
7. Where Consumerism and Social Media Meet
The sense of radical autonomy has been intensified by the potent conjunction of consumerism with new communication media. By harnessing the impulse of radical autonomy, our digital media makes it possible for us to choose our own virtual communities instead of being attentive to the needs of those around us. As our social nourishment is increasingly dislocated from the real world of time and space, our social spaces come to be something we can approach and control as consumers.
As social interaction is increasingly being folded into digital technology, our relationships become an assemblage of online interactions disconnected from the larger context of people’s lives and shared experiences.
Family relationships have been the primary casualty of these shifts. The 24/7 freneticism of non-stop stimulation via social media means that we have very little incentive to cultivate the dispositions necessary for attentive interaction with those closest to us, including those within our own families.
Family therapist Bill Doherty warns that family members are less inclined to spend time with each other when electronic distractions are available. Ironically, platforms like Facebook that were developed to help connect us with each other often end up separating us from the people we love and isolating families members from each other.
When asked if the research yielded any surprises, Christian Voice researcher Robin Phillips replied: “the main effects of consumerism surprised us because they were not the areas that first come to mind. Greed, ambition and the accumulation of wealth do create great obstacles for healthy families. However, the primary harm consumerism does to families is more subtle, in so far as it orients family-members towards a false idea of what it means to be human. When joined with the powerful industry of advertising, the consumerist impulse underscores ideas of autonomy and self-definition that make it hard to accept the fixities of marriage and family life.”
Christian Voice, which has campaigned for many years against forces threatening to destroy the family, said it would be broadening its campaign to warn people against the temptations posed by unrestrained consumerism. The group is calling people to revaluate what truly matters in life based on Biblical teaching. They pointed out that although scripture teaches that wealth is a blessing (Proverbs 3:9-10), it also warns about the temptations that can arise when buying and selling are elevated above eternal verities like faith, hope and love (Mt. 6:24; 1 Tim. 6:9; 1 Cor. 13:13). A person’s true wealth is his family (Ps 127:4-5), and it is the wealth of family relationships that must be protected from the pervasive consumerism all around us.
- Industrialization and Marriage
- The Cost of a Permissive Society
- Your Lifestyle is Determined for You
- Series on Attention
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