Friday, April 5, 2013

Public Discourse and Consumerism

What products we choose to use can be a a form of public discourse. What a person wears, what food and drinks they purchase, and  their choice of car can publically show what they find important in their lives. For example, a person wearing TOMS shoes might show that the wearer chose a shoe company that gives back to the world. However, companies also use public discourse to promote their products and make consumers feel good about buying their products, and they ultimately choose what image their consumer projects.

In this white board video (by the same group that produced the education video we watched in class) philosopher Slavoj Zizek discusses cultural consumerism and how companies like Starbucks and TOMS use public discourse to convince customers that consumerism can help the environment and other causes. I know it's a long video, but I really suggest watching it, it's quite fascinating.

So what do you think? Do you agree with Zizek's view of "cultural consumerism," or are Starbuck's and TOMS really helping the world?


  1. Addressing the oart of the video that talks about how helping those in need is really just prolonging the problem, and that we should, instead, be reconstructing the system to lessen it: we actually talked about this in Philosophy Club (It's fun, you should all come Thursday nights in NQ 142) a couple weeks ago. The presentation was on ethics and charity, the overarching question being might we as well stab a starving person in the heart as not donate everything we have to charity, since the outcome is essentially the same? Anyways, half our discussion ended up being about this concept of letting people starve in the meantime while we change the structure of society to ensure that the problems of starvation are eliminated or lessened significantly and whether that was more admirable than simply lessening the problem a little for a short while. After all, by sending just a little of the, say, wheat that we buy from other countries, we are just giving back a little of what we have stolen from their mouths in the first place. Shouldn't we, instead, figure out how to grow more here so that we never take too much and the problem does not exist in the first place?

    That being said, I cannot decide if Starbucks and TOMS are helping the world, but just not enough, or if they are actually hurting it by perpetuating a flawed system. Perhaps as an individual company they are helping, but as part of a whole they are hurting. I believe that would be my answer.

  2. The premise of this video is something I never really put much into. I never really dived into that kind of idea. It's interesting. Cashing in on charity is the way consumerism works. You could honestly be a corrupt company underneath a perfectly charitable organization that gives back as much as it seems to take in. Obviously that is quite a stretch, but it also is completely plausible based on this video. Charity is what seems to fuel Americans to buy certain products.

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  4. I completely agree with Zizek. We live in a consumer culture and businesses like Starbucks and TOMS shoes have found a way to make us feel better about our habits. If people honestly believe that they are helping the world by participating in "charitable consumerism," then they are going to perpetuate a slacktivist society.

    Zizek is very eloquent in his argument. I like that he recognizes that charity isn't a bad thing, but it doesn't actually solve anything. Unfortunately, public discourse on this topic isn't in the spotlight because it's probably not a very profitable venture.

  5. I think Zizek brings up a great point. What draws us to invest in certain things or opportunities is asking the subconscious question: what do I get out of it? If we look at our society we'd like to pat ourselves on the back and say we each that that good, charitable side. In rare cases, some of us are or perform completely selfless deeds. But for the most part we do things because we get something out of it. Holding the door open gets us a thank you. Helping out in a soup kitchen makes us feel all warm inside. Someone has realized they can get some cash out of it too. I don't think it's a bad thing. People do it all the time, the pay out is just different. A business is business and has to make a profit. It can't all be moral at times. Is it sneaky? Heck yes. Does business affairs play fair though? Hardly.

  6. It's annoying to the consumer. Consumers' just want products that they can use and consume. I don't think they necessarily want to buy products to help charity. Those who actually want to donate to charity will find other ways to do that, and help the causes they want to help. Starbucks and TOMS are just sugar-coating their products with marketing strategies like these.

  7. I don't think Zizek made his case that "charity degrades and demoralizes" at all. Sure, humanitarian aid (charity) itself cannot solve the issues of poverty, hunger, disease, etc., but it is an essential piece to the puzzle. The goals of humanitarian aid are short-term in nature: saving lives, alleviating suffering, and maintaining human dignity for those in immediate need. However, when humanitarian aid is coupled with developmental aid (as it often is), real and lasting results can be achieved--something that Zizek entirely overlooks. Developmental aid seeks to find the reasons behind the socio-economic crises countries face, and then work to solve them while helping countries develop in the long run. Developmental aid cannot function without humanitarian aid, however, as countries can only progress if both immediate and long term suffering is addressed. For these reasons, Zizek's notion that charity and/or charitable consumerism could be perpetuating the issue is flawed. They may instead serve as a piece of the puzzle in alleviating global humanitarian issues.

    Hell, even good ol' fashion private enterprise driven consumerism (even without the charitable twist of companies like TOMS) has its role in global development, something else Zizek fails to realize. When the United States consumes goods sold to us by developing nations, we inherently stimulate those countries' GDPs, labor markets, etc. In this way, consumerism too can serve as a piece to in alleviating global humanitarian issues.

    So all in all, I think it's easy to singularly criticize charity, private enterprise, and/or consumerism as Zizek did because none of them alone can effectively ease humanitarian issues. But when considered as pieces to a puzzle working in cohesion, each one plays its part in making a significant difference.

  8. Wow that video was entertaining and eye-opening. I think that as a society if we have the opportunity to make ourselves feel like we are helping others it makes us want to invest in that particular product. I definitely agree with what some of the others have said, in that it is really simply a good way for companies to get more money from an audience who may not have chosen their product to begin with.

    I do still find charitable products a good idea, and I really think that businesses do it with good intentions, while still being able to benefit themselves. It definitely doesn't really solve the issues of poverty though, which is an area of discussion I don't think people usually note.

    I still think that businesses using charity is a good way to cater to those individuals who feel like they can do something good for others, while they would be those who don't go out of their way to look for foundations or just ways to invest in other organizations. Despite the video's argument (and I know he wasn't saying he was against charity completely) I still feel that there is a really good opportunity to help aliviate people's suffering by having businesses offer charitable products.

  9. This video kicks ass. Seriously.

    Zizek makes a really great argument about the purpose and intent of charity. It reminds me a lot of the discussion we had in class about the advent of the telegraph, and the influx of "useless" information from around the country. We have the info, but do we really need it? Similarly, we give the charity, but does it ultimately solve the problem? Both seem like taking shots in the dark.

    The biggest thing about Zizek's argument that struck me, was how applicable what he was saying was to things like facebook posts for charity (Like this, and I'll donate a dollar; Like this if you want X to happen). "Liking" a facebook post about starving children in another country does nothing to help them.

    "If you operate on the child, they will live a little bit better, but in the same situation that produced them."