The potlatch spirit

Just in the past week, I’ve noticed a significant increase in nasty driving during the evening commute. More drivers are abruptly changing lanes, often multiple times, and speeding into tight gaps. The time they gain from this is negligible, and they contribute to traffic congestion, as I discussed in an earlier post. I think this is a result of the start of the Season of Good Will.

People are trained to talk about “commercialism” when they discuss this sort of behavior, but that explains nothing. Commuters are traveling to businesses to make money, and that’s as commercial as anything gets. The problem with the shoppers isn’t that they’re buying things, but the reason they buy the way they do.

Some North American tribes had a custom called potlatch, in which people with high status would go wild giving gifts to raise or maintain their rank. In popular legend, this sometimes led to gift-giving feuds in which the loser would go broke. Christmas has become a nationwide potlatch, in which people buy expensive gifts out of obligation rather than good will. As Tom Lehrer put it, “It doesn’t matter how sincere it / Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit. / Sentiment will not endear it, / What’s important is the price.”

When people are on a mission to spend lots of money because it’s demanded of them, they aren’t going to think well of other people. If they’re thinking of what they’ll get in return, they know a lot of it will be expensive junk they’ll have to return or stick in the closet. This isn’t commerce, it’s stupidity, and it makes them think of everyone else who’s out doing the same thing as enemies. Some of them take it out on anyone else who’s on the road.

I’ve opted out of the whole thing, and my friends know it. I neither expect nor give Christmas presents; when I give gifts, it’s to the people I want to do something for, at a time which works for us. On December 25, I celebrate Newton’s birthday. Letting the Christians have Christmas back, as long as they don’t try to impose it on the rest of us, may not be such a bad idea.

3 Responses to “The potlatch spirit”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:


    Your entire post is based on your claim that you’ve noticed a recent increase in aggressive and careless driving. The Boston area has a reputation for such driving at all times of year, so if you claim the problem has increased, you need to first provide some evidence that this is the case, before it makes sense to start suggesting explanations for it. If all you have is your own anecdotal experiences, they don’t prove anything, and I’d suggest that they can plausibly be attributed to confirmation bias.

    More generally, I’m disturbed by your ridicule of the exchange of gifts occasioned by the commercialized Christmas, and your speculations about the psychology of the people exchanging gifts. I don’t think your comments are any different in spirit from comments I’ve seen ridiculing science-fiction fandom and speculating about the psychological problems of fans.

    It is true that there are some people who exchange gifts at Christmas, and then complain loudly about how stressful the season was and about the pressure they felt to give gifts. These people deserve to be ridiculed, and have no one to blame but themselves. I can remember at least two occasions when, in some of my less tactful moments, I said to such a person: “It’s much better not to give gifts than to give them and then complain about it”.

    But for the many people who like the commercialized Christmas, enjoy exchanging gifts, and approach it as a season of good will without sarcasm, I see no sense in begrudging them their enjoyment; speculating about their psychology; or assuming that their pleasure in this is any less genuine than the pleasure you derive from fandom.

    Commercialized Christmas gift-giving is like science-fiction fandom, gun ownership, or same-sex marriage, in that it gives joy to some people and not others. All of these have been treated by some people as a cause for attacking or ridiculing those who are different from them. It would be much better for all of us to approach these as an occasion for celebrating the differences among people, and the many different ways in which people can find enjoyment in life.

  2. Gary McGath Says:

    As I made it clear in my post, the issue I was addressing isn’t “commercialism” but gift-giving out of a sense of duty. My observations, as well as the accounts of people’s stress levels during the holiday shopping season, support the conclusion that most people get very little enjoyment out of this. No one wants to be the first to stop because of the social consequences.

    • Eyal Mozes Says:

      Of the huge number of people who engage in commercialized Christmas gift exchange, there’s a very small but highly vocal minority who say that they get very little enjoyment out of it, and are doing it out of a sense of duty or out of fear of the social consequences if they stop. If your criticism was only of this small minority, I’d completely agree; it would be better for all concerned if these people were to stop complaining, stop giving gifts, and not try to impose their dislike on others.

      The reason I objected to your comments was that you did not limit your criticism to this small minority, but instead made it into a general statement about Christmas gift-exchange and people’s psychological motives for it. You are assuming that since you would not enjoy exchanging gifts on Christmas, all the people who regard it as a great source of joy must be either lying or suffering from false consciousness, because you understand their motives better than they do. You even went as far as to attribute such motives to drivers you encountered on the road that you never spoke to or knew anything about. There’s no justification at all for such comments.

      To someone who doesn’t understand the joys of fandom, it would be easy to observe the high stress-level of con-com members before or during a con, and conclude from this that con-com members get very little enjoyment from running cons, that they’re doing it out of a sense of duty or out of fear of the social consequences if they stop, and that it would be good to abolish cons. The parallel conclusions you were drawing, about commercialized Christmas gift exchange, are no more justified.

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