Whack Friday and the difference between classism and taste.

Phoebe asks to what extent the distaste for Whack Friday is really a classist distaste for mass-produced goods and the people who like them. In relevant part (liberally edited to focus on the bits I want to talk about):

How much of the anti-consumerist indignation … is coming from people who themselves enjoy shopping, but who are aesthetically put off by Walmart, flat-screens, and big crowds of the less-than-chic? Where does consumerism end and Sartorialism begin? … How much is a visceral distaste for mass-produced items and those who revel in getting them half price … and how much is a not-at-all-classist and fully understandable reaction to the fact that a man died so that people could get their discounts.

I have a couple thoughts on that.

First, there’s a difference between having a distaste for mass-produced goods, big-screen TVs,* and such and having a distaste for the people who like them. Likewise, there’s a difference between having a distaste for Walmart and having a distaste for the people who shop there. Walmart sells crap. Most of the things Walmart sells are not worth having. And surely while it’s bad that people are rioting for any material goods, it’s worse to riot for material goods that aren’t even worth having. It’s a disease of our society that it trains people — of all classes — to be obsessed with shit like the latest toy (I was going to say the latest power rangers toy, but that would seriously date me — and I have no fucking idea what toys came after the power rangers) (In addition to the wal-mart thing, there was a shootout in a Toys ‘R Us in California, which the corporate hacks are of course trying to spin as a result of a preexisting beef between the customers rather than another incident of consumer psychosis.) or the big-screen TV rather than with things that might actually matter in life. And it’s worse when those obsessions are not only for goods, but for objectively inferior goods. It’s worse because it’s bad that people desire bad things, and it’s worse because it’s bad that there are people whose economic condition is such that they need to riot to get at the cheap fucking garbage that Walmart sells.

But why should any of those claims entail the claim that the people who have those tastes or participate in those riots are somehow inferior? Here’s an analogy. I have very close relationships with a number of people whose taste in music is very different from mine. Someone’s liking country music does not bring it about that I’m any less able to like or even love that person, even though I think that they like something which is objectively bad. And even when I say that country music is crap, or when I make personal or political decisions based on the fact that country music is crap (if country music festivals caused riots, I’d so be on board with banning them… ok, not really, because I like free speech, but it would be briefly tempting) it doesn’t mean I have some kind of objectionable attitude toward the people who like it. Mutatis mutandis for the sort of shit that Walmart sells.

Second, what the hell is up with all merchants having coordinated sale days anyway? People, the whole notion of doing fundamentally individual activities like shopping en masse is stupid. There are too many people in the world. Wouldn’t it be much more efficient if some stores had a sale on Whack Friday, others on Whack Saturday, and still others on Whack Sunday?

I have the same problem with holiday weekends. I don’t think they should exist: I think people should just be given holiday days from work, school, etc. to use as they wish (though of course some institutions would have to coordinate — it wouldn’t do to have half the people on an assembly line off on one day and others off on others, or to have professors and their students off on different days — but those institutions still would not need to coordinate with other institutions). What a stupid notion! Time off is practically worthless when you can’t go anywhere or do anything because a) most of the entertainments are closed, and b) those that aren’t, like beaches, as well as the roads to get to them, are clogged so damn full of people that anyone who actually wants to do anything fun on a holiday weekend has to spend a miserable time slogging through traffic to do so! If people had their holiday weekends on different days, this problem wouldn’t arise! (It also wouldn’t force us to jam things like Christmas down the throats of non-Christians.)

(Edit: I mean, have you seen these pictures? Why on earth do we inflict this shit on our fellow humans?! The only time I ever want to see that many people crammed into one place is when the Revolution comes.)

In the words of the great Jose Ortega y Gasset:

“This fact is quite simple to enunciate, though not so to analyse. I shall call it the fact of agglomeration, of ‘plenitude.’ Towns are full of people, houses full of tenants, hotels full of guests, trains full of travelers, cafes full of customers, parks full of promenaders, consulting-rooms of famous doctors full of patients, theatres full of spectators, and beaches full of bathers. What previously was, in general, no problem, now begins to be an everyday one, namely, to find room.”

(In totally unrelated news, another of my favorite bloggers, the brilliant Richard, and I are going back and forth on his blog on whether a consequentialist must privilege the evaluation of acts, or can make separate claims about the evaluation of dispositions and such.)

* It has recently come to my attention, however, that there is a use for big-screen TVs that even I can endorse. Apparently, “want to come over and watch X” is the de rigueur way to casually invite someone who one hopes to seduce to one’s place so that the seduction can take place. I’m quite certain that everyone in the world except me knew that already, but I’ve no idea how you all knew it. I suspect there’s an e-mail message that just goes out to people with better game than I have, i.e., almost everyone. Or perhaps I’ve just never bothered to find that out because I’ve always been one of those people with enough chutzpah or sheer unmitigated gall to invite myself over to the place of the object of my lust. (Usually, my apartment’s too messy for seduction purposes anyway. Y’all have no idea how many times I’ve done frantic last-minute superficial cleanups as I’ve realized !! ohmigod !! !! an actual !! flesh and blood !! girl !! is coming !! over !! to this pigsty !! shitshitshit !! .**)

** Well, Ben knows, because Ben saw a variant of that before my impromptu Halloween party this year. And he can endorse my miraculous last-minute apartment cleaning powers. But he won’t, because he’s more of a besmirching kind of a guy than an endorsing kind of a guy.***

*** This, kids, is called “reverse psychology.” It won’t work.****

**** Double-reverse psychology! Fear my dark powers as a Machiavellian manipulator of the human spirit! Sometime soon, Ben’s fingers will be hovering twitchily over the keyboard, deciding whether to prove me wrong as a cleaner but right as a predictor, or wrong as a predictor but right as a cleaner.****

***** I predict he’ll solve the problem by not writing anything at all.******

****** And now let’s see him get out of THAT knot. Ben’s very cyberspace soul is mine. All mine.


10 Responses to “Whack Friday and the difference between classism and taste.”

  1. Mike Says:

    First, there’s a difference between having a distaste for mass-produced goods, big-screen TVs,* and such and having a distaste for the people who like them

    Is that like saying some of your best friends are shoppers?

  2. Paul Gowder Says:

    I was thinking more along the lines of “hate the sin, love the sinner.” But, you know, tom-a-toe, tom-ah-toe.

    Anyway, is there anything wrong with that? (It seems to me that “some of my best friends are X” is, in fact, a plausible defense against anti-X-ism.)

  3. Mike Says:

    I was just busting your balls.

    In general, I’m not keen on consumerism – even if people are purchasing the “right” brands. It’s a form of thought control….. Why should I allow someone else tell me what brands are OK? When I buy the “right” brands, I’m surrendering my mind to the collective.

    Of course, I’m a live-and-let-live guy. So if others want to remain plugged into the Matrix, that’s fine by me. I’ll even be friends with them and help them shop.

    I only get annoyed when consumers start acting all superior: “Well, I buy [insert 'right' brand], which makes me better than those slobs at Wal-Mart.” Nah, both groups have bought into the system. It’s just that each is subject to the rules of his or her social class.

    Since taste is subjective, who the fuck is anyone to say that someone else has bad taste in consumer goods?

  4. Paul Gowder Says:

    [Kantian moment] but taste is subjective universal, Mike. [/Kantian moment]

    Actually, I don’t think taste is subjective at all — some things are just objectively better. For just about any purpose (with the exception of avoiding wrinkles), for example, cotton is better than polyester. Products that don’t fall apart are objectively better than those that do so on little provocation, like the much of the stuff walmart sells. Just about any automobile is objectively better than a 90’s hyundai. Jean Metzinger is an objectively better painter than I am.

  5. Phoebe Says:

    I know I’m supposed to cite Pierre Bourdieu here– classism IS ‘taste.’ To say that opera tickets are ‘better’ than flat-screen TVs is to say that being upper-class is morally better than being lower-class. I’m not 100% with Bourdieu, but he does have a point.

    Basically, on a personal level, I do not see a moral difference between my interest in buying a $40 skirt from Uniqlo, used books at $2 a piece, and the occasional Sephora lipstick, and someone else’s desire to put the same amount, give or take, into purchasing electronics I wouldn’t know what to do with. While there’s a valid critique of Black Friday to be made, much (not all) of the one that’s out there is, people who have nothing against the Barneys Warehouse Sale shudder when they see pictures of the Walmart-going hordes.

  6. Paul Gowder Says:

    I think that position requires 100% subjectivity of taste, though. And is that plausible? Do you really think the 2$ books are best for you and only for you, and you wouldn’t endorse them for anyone else even a little except insofar as that someone else resembles you (and resembles you in some more specific fashion than “being a rational agent” or “being human”)?

    One way this is implausible is that we have evaluative stances on our own desires. I may think I ought to like tom clancy less (would that even be possible?) and tom friedman (haha) more. But there’s pressure there for the claim that it’s because the latter is just better – and does that commit one to classism?

    I confess, I think I’m resisting you so vigorously in part because I’m driven by a little bit of distaste at those mob scene pictures too – but hope it’s because they are mob scene pictures, not because of who comprise the mob, and hope that I’d be driven by just as much distaste were it a picture of a mob scene swamping a Saville Row tailor.

  7. Matt Says:

    I’m not much of a virtue ethics fan and I think that much of the virtue ethics critique of “modern moral philosophy” is bad, but there is _something_ to an Aristotelian approach that looks at what sorts of things are good for people and what sorts of lives lead to “flourishing”. I tend to think that lots of lives can be flourishing ones. But, an advantage of this sort of point of view is that it allows you to say that certain choices are better or worse for people without saying that they are, as such, _morally_ better or worse, since morality, in the modern sense, doesn’t really come in to the question from the perspective of flourishing. So, I might think that Opera is better than video games in that I might think that opera leads to flourishing while video games do not (I’m not claiming this as true) without this at all implying that those who choose to play video games are “morally worse” than those who go in for opera. To bring it back to the point, getting wrapped up in insta-traditions, herd behavior, and mass consumerism is, I think, contrary to flourishing.

  8. ben wolfson Says:

    ***** I predict he’ll solve the problem by not writing anything at all.******

    I didn’t even know you had me in a knot until just now.

  9. Phoebe Says:

    I’ll join the, er, crowd of folks who hate crowds. And Midtown. And I have no idea what makes anyone want a flat-screen TV.

    But… I’m not sure I feel comfortable declaring which are and which are not the “things that might actually matter in life.” I find it interesting, Paul, that you bring up my $2 book purchases and not the more frivolous–’worse’–ones. If I thought people like me should do as I do, I’d suggest they go to Uniqlo and a PhD program–seems they already do just that. I guess I don’t see myself–and by extension ‘people like me’ as somehow more books than fashion, more serious than frivolous. Nor do I assume that a person’s presence in one of those Black Friday photos reveals a lack of seriousness on the other 364. I couldn’t, because I like nineteenth-century French newspapers and half-off days at Old Navy.

    Of course, a way around all of this would be to say, there’s nothing wrong with classism, assuming the possibility of social mobility. There can be an objective Better and Worse when it comes to taste, so long as an individual can, upon adulthood or earlier, abandon the preferences of his family.

  10. Paul Gowder Says:

    We all have ends we endorse more and less strongly. I might think that my preference for chocolate cake is less worthy than my preference for Blake, and you might think your preference for $2 books is better than your preference for Uniqlo… do you?

    I’m going to have to basically agree with Matt here.

    I’m also pretty comfortable with agreeing with the last paragraph of Phoebe’s comment — it might be a little bit of a strong claim to say that people have unconditioned ability to abandon the preferences with which they were raised, but there’s surely something to the idea… it’s pretty unattractive to say that someone who was raised in a consumerist family can’t help always wanting the big screen tv.

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