Thursday, November 24, 2011

Spiritual Materialism, Teaching, and Working at a Company that Makes Televisions

I, like so many others in the American Buddhist convert community, don't particularly look forward to the Christmas season.  As I was dining with my son yesterday at a Chinese restaurant (that will be open on Thanksgiving), I noted that Christmas music was already playing in this most un-Christmasy of places.    It is like North Korean propaganda - with sleigh bells.  For a month every year the United States turns into Christmasland; it's true.  And the whole damn country's transformed into this Republic of Shopping.

And it's also where retailers make 40% (or more)  of their revenue for the year. It's partly what helps fund my livelihood, and partly what helps fund Barbara's livelihood. (That is, the NY Times Corporation, last I checked, owns, which in turn enables Barbara to blog there.  And indeed the NY Times does depend on advertising revenue at Christmastime for its revenue.)

As are often such confluences, I read Nathan's post yesterday, after working with one of the newer Wing Chun students, and without going to to much detail about that, suffice it to say that I, a guy who's managed a team of 6 or so for a number of years, walked away with tremendous respect for the way sifu is able to deal with a wide variety of personalities. 

So, like it or not, I feel compelled, within the narrow confines of this cyberspace, to put in a word for, uh, the Christmas season, as a guy in my position, and as a guy who understands that it's hard to deliver criticism sometimes that positively must be delivered to an audience not particularly willing or interested (or even aware that they need) to hear it.  But this is one of those things - I've had a few lately - where a "noble silence" is but spiritual materialism.

So here goes. Nathan writes:

The way I see it, one of the mechanisms of a consumerist culture is to instill inadequacy in people so that they will want more, and buy more. And I think over the years, this inadequacy runs so deep in many people that they feel compelled to give others something of monetary value - often large monetary value - in order to feel ok about the relationship. You want to have a happy spouse - you better give her an expensive ring. You want to have happy children, you better buy them the latest video game machine. You want to keep your friends around, you better buy them some fishing gear, or a new dress, or something worth something.

That is likely true of a number of people who do this -and I know a few - but they don't know that they're doing this, and were you to tell them, well, words related to "sanctimony" might come to mind. And - to go a little further, people I know, people very near and dear to me - like to shop, not because they're greedy materialists any more than the next person, but because they like being part of an event.  And that's where they are, and the teaching you can give them is by being the teaching. 

So far, I'm sure Nathan might agree with what I'm writing here. But let me continue:

What I see in the folks buying cheap flat screen TVs, ugly sweaters, ties, useless plastic nick-nacs is a failure to experience love. They love their friends, family, and lovers, but what they are mostly expressing is a need to keep the relationships, to be a "good person" who gives to their loved ones. Sometimes, there is guilt there. Sometimes, there is a sense of duty there. Sometimes, there's a hope that whatever they give will appease their loved one for awhile. But all of it goes back to staving off that feeling of inadequacy, of not "being good enough," for awhile.

Those who actually allow themselves to experience love know how to respond to their loved ones. They override what the dominant culture is telling them to do, and listen for the opportunity to give wise gifts, and then do so. And if they give during this time of year, they do so having reflected upon their loved one first

 Nathan, I submit, it talking from where he is.  But where he is, he's frankly not aware of the motives behind those who make the flat screen TVs, sweaters, fashion products, etc., nor of the people who sell them and buy them.   That's the plain, hard cold truth.  I say this because Nathan goes on to say:

...Releasing judgment of the individuals in your life is vital. That's a core part of a spiritual path in my opinion. However, I also believe that those of us who see the deep damage being done by excessive consumption - the economic yo-yoing, the human exploitation, and environmental destruction behind those TVs, Old Navy shirts, and whatnot - must learn how to express ourselves better with those who don't see it. We must be brave enough to share what we have learned, and share our wishes for the world, with our family, friends, and lovers, even if it causes confusion and upset in the short term...

As a guy who's worked quite a few years where I do, let me provide some information, to share what I've learned, so to speak.  First of all, pretty much any major electronics company - I'd say including Foxconn, though I don't have hard data on that company, admittedly, only my own experience - any major electronics company is deeply concerned about environmental and labor issues.  They have to be, because, even if they're greedy capitalists on the take running the outfits (and by and large they are capitalists, but they're more like "us" than not), even if they're only interested in the profit motive, they do see expensive litigation as a possible side-effect of not making environmentally friendly devices and making sure that the labor conditions are as beneficent as they can be given their corporation's fiduciary commitments to their stockholders.

As I noted earlier I recently bought an iPhone 4s.  What some might not realize is that the packaging of the 4s is even more recyclable than the 3Gs I had before it, which in turn uses probably 100X less plastic than the earlier iPhones.  My company's products are designed to be recyclable - yes, the electronics themselves are designed to be recyclable. I can't think of a company at all today in the business that uses lead solder in its devices - companies like mine are always on the lookout for leaving a smaller environmental footprint, unless there's unscrupulous or ignorant rogue employees in places (and yeah, I'll concede that point).  But companies sure as hell have huge economic incentives to be more "green" and they're not simply putting in lip service here.

Regarding clothes, I'm afraid they wear out, and most folks do their yearly shopping for their clothes this time of year (except of course for summer clothes).  Clothes that don't wear out so easily must be manufactured to do so, and cost 3X -and more - to the stratosphere on up if you care for greater reliabilty.

I say this as a guy in the top 10% of incomes - I'm the 99% too, believe me - that the economic ecosystem in which we currently function is designed this way, and it is simply imponderable to me how, without major disruption and economic dislocation how anything but a gradual reform of the way in which we make, use and acquire things can happen. And folks in that business are doing their bit in this regard, perhaps not as fast as many would like, but it's there as surely as there are Zen Buddhists in the Marines (sorry Jordan for the tangential reference).  If you think the folks at high levels in Apple still don't wince at the scandal of Foxconn,  you might consider how you are like the Koch brothers.  (But please click through the last link; I'd hate to out of my own distorted self-righteousness deprive you of the pleasure of Matt Taibbi on a tear.  But Taibbi actually gets the conundrum of Jobs and Apple and Foxconn better than a few.)  I agree with folks like Naomi Klein that the basis on which society functions must change, and the endless expansion of capitalism must end.  And I vote and contribute money for that. The capitalist enterprise finances in part, its reform.  It's why I'm proud to be a contributor to the technology in an age where the monopoly of information and its dissemination has been smashed to pieces. Christmas shopping season helped make that possible.

So have a good Thanksgiving, however you choose to do what you do today, and in this season.  But remember the folks working and shopping at Wal-Mart (yeah, I avoid going there) are humans like you and you've got meet them where they are, and if there's any teaching you have to offer, make sure it's in your marrow first, and only offer it through your being.

That's all.


Nathan said...

None of what I said in that post is easily spoken about with those in my family/friends circle who are "into shopping" and consumerism.

I write much more directly than I would talk in many situations because I feel that writing directly offers what I think, but in a way that can be digested over time.

I'll see my family this afternoon, and certainly will hear about Black Friday deals from a few folks. Maybe I'll drop a few comments in the hopper, and maybe not. In person, it's all about reading where someone is at.

And you're right that some of these companies are making the effort to be more "green." Some aren't, but some are. It's a process we're in the middle of I think.

Mumon K said...

You're right that there exist companies that aren't motivated to do the right thing, and don't.

But the large companies, by and large, crave ISO 14001 (I think that's the number - its the certification that involves definite environmental "green" policies be executed) certification because there's monetary value in it for them not only through tax incentives, but also in terms of relationships to suppliers and vendors who demand this type of thing precisely to avoid "Foxconn embarrassment," litigation, etc.

You cannot imagine how economically damaging litigation is for a large company. It's, to paraphrase what Joe Biden would say, a big friggin' deal. That's why, even relatively unscrupulous managers I've known will avoid certain legal quagmires like the plague.

Now if we could only extend such a mentality to the folks who write trade agreements, run mines, etc.

Anyway, take good care.

Brikoleur said...

What really burns me up is that there would be perfectly workable technical solutions to most of the really ugly imbalances and externalities in this system, if only there was the political will to do so. That would give us some breathing space, at least, to change the culture at a deeper and more durable level.

The widening income disparities can be sorted out by progressive taxation and government spending that evens out things. Environmental externalities—pollution, nonsustainable use of natural resources,etc.—can be sorted out by putting a price tag on them that's high enough to get companies to behave sustainably. Combine this with an economic policy that makes sure the poor don't get stuck with the price tag, and there's no reason it couldn't work.

And predatory exploitation of third-world labor and lax environmental regulation etc. can be sorted out by laws as well: just fine the bejeezus out of a company if it turns out that it's subcontracting from a company that doesn't play by the rules.

It would take somethink like Franklin D. Roosevelt's vision for the USA, and ultimately at the global level.

But this shit we're currently wading through is not impossible to address. Our polities just seem hopelessly broken; you Americans can't govern your way out of a paper bag, and us Europeans can't sort out a simple currency crisis. (Shit or get off the can already, dammit!)

Seems only the Chinese are any good at governance these days, and I don't like their model of a closed society.

Frustrates the hell out of me.

Mumon K said...

I think you're absolutely right on point there - and - call me conspiratorial - I think a lot of the folks manipulating the levers of power know this and figure it's their last chance for a bite at the apple before things get really bad.

That is, they know about the depletion and contamination of resources, climate change, labor exploitation, etc. but they think - playing the game to the end - that the only way they can "win" in this insanity is to try to get as much as possible, consequences be damned.

I've been to China a number of times, and while I've generally seen that a lot of what's produced in the media, in our realm in the US is nonsensical about China, the pollution is really inescapable, and I think underscores my point above. Though the pollution's improved in recent years.

Thing is, you're right. I'd have offered exactly the same solution. Nathan and people to the left of him would say at least try that sort of thing before going to more drastic measures.

The fact that the game has an obvious solution benefiting the greatest number with the greatest good indicates that there are those with a positional advantage in the game who aren't playing it towards this objective.

Anonymous said...

It is hard to reconcile the Buddha's teachings with the level of atavistic capitalism on display in modern day America, and the rest of the world. I think too much western Buddhist energy is directed at rationalizing self based behavior and reframing the teachings to suit it. The Buddha was a homeless who lived in the woods and depended on charity. A Buddha values truth, not the bottom line or the threat of litigation, and he or she does not fear death. That is what, in my mind, a Buddhist strives for. If craving and the ego are the source of suffering then all forces which strive to invoke fear, greed and craving can cause only suffering. We all live in this system. It is difficult.