A few years ago, I went to New York with some friends for a wedding—and saw a sight which still gives me nightmares. Across Times Square from the Disney Store, where indulgent uncles like me buy their small fry presents, is “M&Ms World,” offering for sale every single colour of chocolatey “candy in bulk!” including the uber-scarce white M&Ms. I poked my head in the door, and was immediately pushed to the wall by what I can only describe as a sugar orgy.
“Give me the blue ones! I NEED THE BLUE ONES!” shrieked a large woman with hair of the same colour, the centre of a large jostling crowd of sugar-hungry tourists, baseball caps, and flying candy.
“White over here!” shouted another man, tossing paper bags and small children aside with a shoulder charge.
“Leave my kid alone!” said the child’s mother, her body heaving with independent gravity as she stashed orange M&Ms into her jumbo bag, and tried to stash her kid with an equally jumbo hand.
The babble, noise, heat, greed, burned sugar, and heaving sea of arms and legs came at me…and then I saw her. The cleaner, kneeling on the floor between arms, legs, and candy, trying to mop amid the din.
I have reflected often on the feeling of crazed panic I felt rising from the towers of candy, at the very idea that there might not be enough, that we might have to come home with yellow M&Ms instead of white, the genuine wickedness of a moment in which the human dignity of the cleaner was crushed in a manufactured sugar rush of flailing greed. It comes back to me every time I try to define what I mean by “consumerism.” The dictionary calls it “the increasing preoccupation with the acquisition of consumer goods,” but all I have to do is remember trying to get to The Warehouse on “Black Friday” surrounded by cheap appliances and people genuinely panicking lest their cut price kettle go home with someone else.
Less comfortably, though, the consumer mentality comes home from the Mall—and from Times Square, into my own life, and my own choices. Defining life in terms of what is convenient, consumable, buyable, obtainable, helps to grow the three habits of almost every consumer: short attention span, basic selfishness in life and relationship, and a reduction of everything to economic value. I see these things in wider society: alas, I also see them in myself.
Since the beginning of mass advertising in the 1930s, we have all got used to 30 second ads—and now, with hyperlinks and social media, there are ten or twenty places your eyes can leap to for every half minute—time has become a consumer commodity. To paraphrase T. S. Eliot, we have lost wisdom in knowledge, knowledge in information, information in sloganeering. We can see this in politics (“Make America Great Again,” “Get Brexit Done,” “Team of 5 Million” repeated ad nauseam), in the basic decline in literacy and political debate, (2 minutes!) and the rise of infotainment. But I can see it also in my own inability to focus, to still the noise, the number of things I don’t read, or half absorb—and the inability we seem to have to move slowly, to listen carefully, to struggle through some- thing that might be dull or long or important but clunky. I am, we are, so frightened of being bored that we forget the graces on the other side of boredom: truth, patience, depth, and knowledge which leads to competence. Instead, we value emotional punch, communicative slickness, and things we already agree with—which is all in good fun until, suddenly, it isn’t.