Last weekend was the much-touted Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Suck An Egg Sunday (okay, I don’t know what Sunday is), and Cyber Monday. A day for everything, traditionally the biggest holiday shopping weekend of the year. And every time it happens, sure enough there are those who decry the materialism at hand, the rampant sacrifice of quality for bargains, the sheer grotesquery of people waiting for big box stores to open, the whole nine.
I’ll be honest, there’s a lot about the entire thing that I just don’t like. From the cynicism behind the sales, to the fact that each year the stores seem to sneak open a couple hours earlier to the point that now they’ve got people working on Thanksgiving itself (many stores this year were open for more than 24 hours straight), and I don’t think anyone really wants to see somebody get trampled en route to picking up the latest Elmo doll or an Xbox or whatever it might be—unless perhaps you have a particularly apocalyptic sense of the absurd to go with your cocktail of cruel sociopathy, and if that’s the case, well then by all means—but the thing about it is that I don’t think I’ve seen any single person who’s qualified to make a comment about it do so.
Yeah, it’s an ugly picture of an ugly part of our culture. But as you look at your television and see the overhead security camera shot of the line of people waiting to get into WalMart or Best Buy, maybe you’re watching later or something, you’re at home, comfortable, presumably warm, not rushed, feeling automatically superior to the crowded masses. You don’t even see their faces. You don’t know these people or what their situation might be. That guy working—maybe he just got out of jail and seasonal employment was all he could land as he tries to get his feet under him. That woman rushing to the pile of half-off whatever it is—maybe she’s just trying to save a buck, or maybe she actually needs that buck for something else, like keeping the lights on. Maybe she knows she can’t get her kids everything they want, but she can do this thing, unpleasant and gruesome as it may be, to try and provide a happy, comfortable existence. Isn’t that worth it?
Instead of passing judgment on these people—who, chances are, are well aware of how unpleasant what they’re doing is; it’s not like anyone enjoys being cramped in with strangers waiting for a retailer to open—wouldn’t it be more productive or at very least miles less prickish to take a look at your own situation and be thankful for what you have in your life, to acknowledge whatever level of privilege in which you might exist and realize how lucky you are to have it? “Oh, you’d never see me out there at five in the morning.” Well good, then I guess you can fucking afford not to be there. Congratulations.
That’s not to say everyone who takes part in Black Friday sales is there out of some noble, “I’m providing for my family in the best way I can” crusade. Not a chance. Some people in that crowd—one imagines plenty of them—just want to get some unnecessary shit on the cheap. Maybe they don’t like spending money on kids’ toys in the first place and that takes some of the sting out. My point is that those of us who don’t take part in things like that don’t automatically have the moral high ground on those who do.
When you look at that crowd of faces on the security camera footage as the bodies begin to flood the entranceway of whichever store it is, you don’t know what the story is, which person is there for which reason. You can look at everyone and assume the worst, the lowest, the least admirable of intents, saddle them with participation in a base and dehumanizing aspect of our culture if you want. But that doesn’t seem like a way I’d want to go through life, and it doesn’t exempt you from complicity on the other end, which is no better.
Experientialism says true knowledge comes only from experience. Until you’ve been there, you don’t know.