Tuesday, April 05, 2005

A Moral Battle Worth Fighting: Reflections on Juliet Schor's Latest Book

I just finished reading Juliet Schor's latest book, Born To Buy: The Commercialized Child and the New Consumer Culture (2004). Like Schor's previous works, including The Overworked American and The Overspent American, Born To Buy is a readable and thought provoking look at recent changes in American culture and life. In this case, the moral clarion call is especially compelling.

Schor basically argues that the consumer culture shaped by commercial advertising has degraded the lives of children, leading to serious declines in quality of life and making parenting more difficult. She looks at television advertising, commercial penetration into schools and other public spaces, and the "new intrusive research"--much of it drawing on ethnographic methods--prying into the inner worlds of children to figure out how to get them to buy more stuff.

I think this is a good example of an issue that can bring together concerned Christians (and others) across the lines of political ideology. We all recoil against the commercialization of childhood. Materialism and the pursuit of wealth are corroding our society, and this is especially heartbreaking when we can see it happening to children. We need to make it easier for parents to be good parents by saying "no": keeping advertising out of schools (especially Chris Whittle's demonic Channel One!), banning television ads to children, etc.

One of the more interesting points made by Schor through her survey data was that even in middle-class, suburban settings, parental attempts to resist their children's entreaties to have more stuff only resulted in increasing child-parent tensions and disaffection, not in changing outcomes much in the end. (Although getting rid of television sets seems to be more promising!) So, yes, parental responsibility has something to do with it, but we must as a society take some community responsibility for protecting children against advertisers intruding into their lives so much and shaping their preferences for bad food, violent toys, and other harmful things they are manipulated into coveting.

An interesting angle that Schor doesn't address is the global context of all this, which has at least two different aspects. First of all, many people around the world, including children, are being sold on the idea that American-style consumer goods will bring them happiness, which is in contradiction to studies that link life fulfillment and happiness not with wanting more stuff, but with having less materialistic attitudes. Second, all this harmful materialistic consumption is a huge part of the environmental resource problems the world is facing nowadays. Those of us in the U.S. cannot continue to consume so much and expect the rest of the world to consume less, yet we were promoting these very destructive attitudes with a vengeance to our children. Isn't it time for us to join a moral battle worth fighting, for our society's children? (And for the world as a whole?)

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