Consumerism and Identity

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Summarizing and Explaining the Working Thesis

This essay considers the claim of James Twitchell, who in his article “Two Cheers for Materialism” (1999) stated, “in demonizing it [consumerism], in seeing ourselves as helpless and innocent victims of its overpowering force, in making it the scapegoat du jour, we reveal far more about our own eagerness to be passive in the face of complexity than about the thing itself.” (Twitchell 18-19). The author shows how people have changed the way they perceive the world being influenced by constant wish to get and spend, and how they are defeated by their own unwillingness to resist it. The name of “nation of consumers” does not sound so offensive anymore because it defines what we are really. The obsession with things is limited to neither age, nor sex, nor even status. Increasing variety of offers – brands, trade marks, models, sizes, shapes, colors, set of options, etc. – has already became the substitution of “freedom” and “democracy,” and this fact gives the USA a distinct advantage over the rest of the world. However, do we really benefit from it? Consumerism is our choice. Yet the question is if we have made the right one.

Confirming the Working Thesis (YES)

The world has changed considerably over past years, and no evidence is needed to prove it. It may seem unimportant, but the rapid development of social networks has caused a face-to-face communication breakdown and is ruining language with its slang, spoiled grammar and the intentional misspelling. The fast-food era kills culinary culture and increases the risks of heart disease, some cancers and obesity. A major technological advance gives us the whole world in one gadget, but this world is digital – it makes us forget the true joy of real life. Endless variety of goods and services demoralizes the generation, blurs the sense of taste and mainstreams art. It destroys moral values – it judges by a cover. It makes us fussy, greedy and lazy. Twitchell concludes, “Consumerism is wasteful, it is devoid of otherworldly concerns, it lives for today and celebrates the body, and it overindulges and spoils the young with impossible promises.” (Twitchell 26). The commercialism of modern culture has changed the priorities affecting old ideas of what once was, figuratively speaking, sacred, like sound mind and body (Ancient Greece and its principle of harmony may serve as an example), or literally sacred, namely turning Christmas into one more reason to get several days off and spend money (year by year it is losing its true meaning and spiritual connection with Christianity). The ruling epoch of the “all-mighty dollar”, as it was called by Washington Irving, got so far that American families take debt for granted. Twitchell supports this pessimistic conclusion with an even more depressing scheme: “easy credit=overbuying=disappointment=increased anxiety” (Twitchell 21). The Internet is full of quotations (which actually were never said by people they are claimed to belong to), but one of them has a strong sense, “We spend money we don't have, to buy things we don't need, to make impressions that don't last on people we don't care about.” Is it the truth we are afraid to admit?

Contradicting the Working Thesis (NO)

The other side of the coin is the matter of time. It is natural that the world around us develops, we go further, and the way we perceive life changes over time. This article was written about 15 years ago and, most probably, Twitchell could not even predict how great the changes may be. Modern people cannot live the way they did decades ago. For instance, a smartphone nowadays has more computing power than NASA had when it sent Neil Armstrong to the Moon. True, it is not a common achievement of the entire mankind. There is always a minority, a small percentage of people who make a breakthrough, set the pace and change the direction of the flow people go with. They make an offer and we accept it. We do not call it being passive. We call it keeping up with the times.

Qualifying the Working Thesis (IT DEPENDS)

According to Twitchell, we are defenseless against consumerism and we approve this fact. We do not try to resist the negative effect of commercialism and perceive it as something common. It looks like we are slaves of commerce and trade. Nevertheless, is the situation so disappointing? Doubtfully. Although the author wanted to emphasize how bad the situation is and how we need to prevent it urgently, rational analysis shows that such words as “demonizing”, “victim” and “scapegoat” sound rather dramatic and rant-alike. In fact, people are not as passive as it may seem. The extent to which this statement is valid rests upon person’s willingness to act and possibility to choose wisely. A word “consumer” should not sound like a verdict. Consumerism presupposes active participation and awareness – if it is shopping or TV-watching – since a person has the control “making up a shopping basket” (Twitchell 23). For example, you want to buy a car. You do not yield blindly to temptation just because you want a vehicle. A reasonable choice is based on certain criteria. A convertible will look ridiculous in a foggy and rainy location. A Smart will create wrong impression if you are a CEO of an international company. A Pick-up will be the best choice if you often transport things. You think critically, decide on priorities and weigh all the benefits. You may be influenced by commercials or other people but eventually it is your responsibility. Actually, Twitchell himself states that “most consumption, whether it is of entertainment or in the grocery store, is active. We are engaged.” (Twitchell 23).

On the other hand, the argument makes sense and is logical whereas we may see it on practice. Trying to put all the blame on consumerism as such, we just want to hide the truth – we love things and we do not want to face the fact the overuse is a problem. By means of these lines, Twitchell details that we are trapped, “We live through things. We create ourselves through things. And we change ourselves by changing our things.” (Twitchell 18). We do not want to change anything – that is a bitter truth. People are creatures of habit. They will complain when something goes differently missing “good old times,” but doing absolutely nothing because of own laziness. They will open the mouth widely to get more inside. To demonstrate what is meant, let us analyze the following example. Harmfulness of plastic was proved long ago and people still try to recycle it, substitute for other materials or avoid its usage at all, but when it comes to shopping we accept bottled water without the slightest feeling of guilt and regret. Why even bother?

Conclusion

To conclude, people realize that they became captured by their own desire to consume, but they leave things unchanged consciously. At the same time, there is nothing bad in having large variety of goods and services and people try to make the best out of it: this is a trend of modern times. To some extent, whether we are passive or active depends on our wisdom and ability to make a justified choice, to be temperate and to know a limit. When you are complaining about how spoiled today’s kids are, how mercantile business is and how mean the world is becoming, remind yourself that you are participating in this process. People themselves created consumerism. They encourage it. They look for justifications and excuses. They blame the very phenomenon but where it starts is you. A quotation from the movie Apocalypto seems to be suitable like never before, “I saw a hole in the Man, deep like a hunger he will never fill. It is what makes him sad and what makes him want. He will go on taking and taking, until one day the World will say, 'I am no more and I have nothing left to give.'” Therefore, let us become more aware and try to recover from this fever of getting and spending.

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