Gift Warped

No that isn’t a typo in the title to this piece.  I love giving gifts, but what I am seriously not fond of is giving gifts because it is expected, a pastime that we  pursue with relentless obsession during the month of December.

As Genevieve Vaughan writes in For-Giving:  A Feminist Criticism of Exchange,

We have made giftgiving,  which is the source of life and joy, a slave to the artificial masculated ego and its  expressions at the economic, political, and ideological levels. This drains the gifts of  humanity into the coffers of the few, whose priapic excesses are kept from the needs and  transformed into phallic armaments, deadly ‘marks,’ by which one group can demonstrate  its ‘superiority’ over another,  which is forced to give way. (p. 118)

The connection between standing in line in the pre-dawn hours outside of Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving and the birth of Jesus is quite clearly non-existent, although the connection with the GNP is quite strong.  The degree to which the reason for the season has been lost in the traffic jam at the mall was illustrated quite nicely in the local newspaper where I was visiting over the Thanksgiving weekend which ran two stories side by side at the top of the first section, the first explaining how “Black Friday” is an important barometer of the economy and right next to it a story about cuts in state social services.

There are many good reasons to give, perhaps the best being to satisfy a need.  My father used to tell a story of giving his very nice winter coat to a perfect stranger in need during the Depression.  His Mother was not too thrilled by that, but what he did was gifting in its finest form.

On Facebook, JP Morgan Chase has set up the Chase Community Giving Program that allows Facebook users to vote on how they will give away $5 million to various charities.  Which sounds like a good thing, but let’s face it, $5 million is a pittance for the huge banking company that is heavily involved in financing for such detrimental things as mountaintop removal and has engaged in lending practices with credit cards and mortgages that have left a lot to be desired for its customers and the communities in which it lends and has involved a great deal more than $5 million.  So while they exchange their big bad corporation mantle for the generous corporate citizen mantle with programs such as these, it is hardly the same as the altruistic gift my father made as a  youngster.

Cause branding is a popular concept for many companies.  Breast cancer has become highly profitable for any company that can figure out how to take whatever it is that they manufacture and make a pepto pink version of it from which they will donate some exceedingly small percentage to finding a cure while they still profit handsomely from the sale of whatever doodad they are hawking.  But hey, they look good, you got a beautiful new pink thingy and can feel virtuous about buying it because it is for a good cause.  Of course, if you’d written a check for the same amount to the charity that  benefits from your purchase, it would be much more useful, but you wouldn’t have anything to show for your virtuousness and these days, that is a hard sell.  We want something in exchange for what  we give.  Companies want recognition, not to mention profit, for their  community support.  Bottom line is we are much more likely to give if we get something in return.  Even charities feel the need to give you something for your generosity–think raffles, public television premiums, etc.

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Nine years ago when I suffered a serious illness that put me out of commission for several months, I learned that while giving  might  be easy, receiving was a much, much harder thing to do.  I was a single mom with 2 young children and I was flat on my back in a hospital bed, a position from which you can definitely not drive carpool.  All of a sudden things that I somehow managed to juggle on my own required the help of others and much as I’ve never been good at asking for that help, it was clear I had no choice.  But what I found out over and over again was that all I needed to do was  to say what was needed and there would be someone who would help.  They didn’t expect anything in return, that  was never the point, much as a mother tends to a baby’s needs simply because there is a need, not in exchange for something given in return.  They gave their time and help according to what Vaughan calls the gift paradigm which she explains this way:

The gift paradigm emphasizes the importance of giving to satisfy needs. It is need-oriented rather than profit-oriented. Free giftgiving to needs–what in mothering we  would call nurturing or caring work–is often not counted and may remain invisible in our  society or seem uninformative because it is qualitatively rather than quantitatively based.  However, giving to needs creates bonds between givers and receivers. Recognizing  someone’s need, and acting to satisfy it, convinces the giver of the existence of the other, while receiving something from someone else that satisfies a need proves the existence of  the other to the receiver. (p.30)

Quite a far cry from the dominant form of gifting in our society today, which Vaughan calls exchange.  While I’ve used the commercialized giving that epitomizes December as a jumping off point, the notion of exchange and gifting go well beyond that to describe economic systems as a whole:

Opposed to giftgiving is exchange, which is giving in order to receive. Here calculation  and measurement are necessary, and an equation must be established between the  products.
In exchange there is a logical movement which is ego-oriented rather than other-oriented.  The giver uses the satisfaction of the other’s need as a means to the satisfaction of her  own need. Ironically, what we call ‘economics’ is based on exchange, while giftgiving is  relegated to the home–though the word ‘economics’ itself originally meant ‘care of the  household.’ In capitalism, the exchange paradigm reigns unquestioned and is the mainstay  of patriarchal reality. (pp.30-31)

As the  newspaper stories I mentioned above sadly illustrate, our current mode of gifting is indeed a measure of the economy, and it is precisely the amount we spend and charge that indicates the non-viability of the system when at the same time services for those in need are being cut. Vaughan’s work in demonstrating that there are viable and far healthier alternatives to our current economic system has, to say the least, been marginalized and is familiar for the most part only in limited circles of feminist critique.  However, as we face multiple crises–the economy, healthcare, climate change, war, it would be extremely useful to go outside the usual box in all its fancy wrapping to utilize her  wisdom in understanding and healing our world systems.

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