“The Commodification of Human Kindness: Its Mutilation and Mankind’s Alienation from Itself” by Daniel Sieradzki

Posted: January 5, 2014 in Vol. 4: Fall Essays 2013

doughnutKarl Marx said that a thing can have both a use-value and an exchange-value. Marx explained that a thing’s utility is its use-value, while its exchange-value is what you can get for the thing if it is a commodity (Capital 54-55). The commodification of human kindness is the perversion of kindness from a thing with inherent use-value—the uniting of humans—into a commodity with an exchange-value akin to currency. The television show Skins (U.K version) illustrates how the commodification of human kindness leads to the alienation of human beings from each other, and shows how it causes the mutilation of kindness itself. By mutilation of kindness, I mean its exchange-value supplants its use-value. Because of the seriousness of this issue, the way it is presented in Skins can have both positive and negative influences on today’s society. Skins offers four-pronged evidence for the alienating effects of the commodification of human kindness and its resulting mutilation. First, kindness comes with a perceived obligation for reciprocation. Second, kindness is used to mask the material aspect of human relationships. Third, kindness is a requirement for social participation, which is similar to the requirement of paying taxes. Finally, kindness is used as a bargaining tool for inflated returns.

Skins demonstrates the consequences of the commodification of human kindness in a particular scene in episode three of series three. The scene shows Thomas, a teenager from the Congo, meeting Pandora and Effy, two teenage girls, for the first time while they are all sitting at a bus stop in Bristol, South West England. Thomas is eating a bagful of doughnuts he recently earned by helping a shopkeeper, and Pandora is looking at him closely while he eats. She mentions that he has a lot of doughnuts, and he responds by offering her one and mentioning that he has too many. She does not offer him any of her soft drink or marijuana in return for his kindness, and she has no trouble drinking and smoking in front of him. It is important to note that Thomas has almost no money and is squatting in an apartment. The doughnuts are about all he has to his name. At the end of the scene, Pandora vomits and Thomas carries her to Effy’s home. One assumes they are becoming friends.

This scene is beneficial to society because it makes viewers aware that there is an assumed obligation to return kindness, which can overshadow its use-value and alienate recipients since they are now encumbered with a burden. According to an article in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, recipients of a favor feel obligated to return the favor, even if they did not ask for one in the first place. The article goes on to say that recipients will also feel obligated to reciprocate with a favor greater than the one bestowed to them (Regan 627-39). It is this obligation to repay kindness that generates uneasiness in viewers when they watch this particular scene in Skins. It makes viewers wonder why Pandora does not give Thomas anything to thank him for his kindness. This behavior can be understood by looking at G.W.F. Hegel’s dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic is that every idea, a thesis, will generate its opposite, an antithesis, and when combined together, they will create a higher-level idea, a synthesis (Sim and Loon 16-18). The idea in society that one has an obligation to return kindness, a thesis, is challenged by Skins presenting the idea that kindness does not need to be returned, an antithesis. This antithesis is made more eye opening by the fact that the generous Thomas has little, and Pandora smokes and drinks freely in front of him without sharing. This antithesis may make viewers aware of their own thoughts on kindness and lead them to realize that Pandora does not need to give anything back to Thomas because his kindness has a use-value—connecting with Pandora—which should not be defaced by an exchange-value. This scene may lead viewers to the idea, a synthesis, that kindness can be returned, and it is good to return it, but that return should not be an obligation. If the reciprocation of kindness is forced, recipients may actually become afraid of receiving it because they must return the favor and perhaps pay more in return, which would lead to the alienation of the recipients from the givers.

The scene also has a positive influence on society because it reveals how people exchange commodities, or gifts, to relate to each other, and this exchange sometimes masquerades as kindness when it is, in reality, commerce. Prior to this scene, Thomas was greeting people with great enthusiasm, but these greetings were largely ignored. However, when Thomas gives a doughnut to Pandora, he appears to make a friend. It seems that simply being nice is not enough and that commodities are the way people actually connect. The scene guides viewers to this point by making them feel for Thomas. He acts so kindly, yet only receives positive human interaction when he starts giving gifts in addition to his kindness. We can better understand why people are like this by considering an aspect of Karl Marx’s concept of Commodity Fetishism. Marx explains, “There it is a definite social relation between men, that assumes, in their eyes, the fantastic form of a relation between things” (Capital 105). Kindness has been manipulated to support this. The commodification of kindness has made it commonly acceptable to relate by way of gifts. This can be seen on Christmas, birthdays, and other holidays. According to the National Retail Federation, Americans spent a total of $579.8 billion dollars shopping during the 2012 holiday season (Schatz). This would normally appear too materialistic to be condoned by society. However, acceptance may be eased when the gifts are given under the pretense of kindness. This manipulation of kindness perpetuates the alienation that people might feel because they cannot connect outside the marketplace and are never sure about the sincerity of a gift.

While the scene has beneficial messages for society, it is also harmful to society because it gives the impression that people are required to give kindness to be accepted by society. When Thomas gives his doughnuts to Pandora, it sends the message that people have to give to others even if they have little means. Thomas’s bag of doughnuts was one of his very few possessions, and he needed its contents far more than Pandora. Thomas was probably just being kind, but this message of obligatory sharing is still sent. Viewers may feel that they are required to give away their belongings when others point out what nice things they have. This situation occurs when Pandora mentions that Thomas has a lot of doughnuts. People are expected to pay kindness for acceptance in society similar to how they are required to pay taxes to be citizens. Just like citizens don’t truly own their assets because of taxes, they also don’t completely own their possessions because of extracted gift giving. Karl Marx spoke about the alienation of an individual from his own labor in a capitalist society. Marx said, “… [labor becomes an] activity which is turned against him, independent of him and not belonging to him” (Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts 31). People are now alienated from their own ability to show kindness because it is too often made mandatory. This diminishes the meaning of kindness because people are no longer in control of it. An article in The Telegraph about Christmas gift giving said it best: “Across the country [United Kingdom] people are growling at the enforced obligation to waste money on tat [rubbish] they can’t afford, for people who won’t use it” (Lewis). We want to be kind, and it is good to be so, but the kindness is distorted because it is required. If kindness is forced, the recipient is also alienated because they will never know for sure if the giver was really kind or just coerced into giving.

This scene also has a negative effect on society because it demonstrates, albeit implicitly, that giving kindness alongside material objects can get the giver disproportionately high returns from the recipient. This is an idea that reinforces the exchange-value of kindness and the consequent alienation between giver and recipient. Pleasantness alone does not get Thomas any friends. He must add doughnuts. This idea of giving to get something in return mutilates kindness. There is nothing kind about trading one thing for another, for that is merely exchange. If people believe that they can get something by giving, they may conclude that giving is for their own benefit. According to an article in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, waiters who gave candy to patrons as a kind gesture, making it look like a bonus, got 21% more tips than waiters who gave no candy to patrons (Strohmetz 300-307). Bosses could use this idea to keep employees working in conditions they hate. If bosses give employees praise, they might work harder to repay the supposed kindness. This distortion of kindness to elicit increased returns perpetuates capitalism and the alienation of the people exploited by it.

The chosen scene in Skins demonstrates society’s struggle with the commodification of kindness. The scene may have a positive effect on society by suggesting that kindness need not be returned with commodities, but can be accepted for what it is, a pure act of generosity. On the other hand, the show is a pop culture artifact that came out of a capitalist culture. This may be why it hints at the concept of giving to get in return. This idea keeps the wheels of capitalism turning because people need to buy to interact with each other in ways that just alienate them further. From all of this, it appears that kindness has not been completely mutilated. It appears that two changes could save kindness and end the alienation from its misuse. First, the recipients of kindness must not feel obligated to return anything to the givers, but only give back out of their own kindness if they so choose. Second, the givers must not feel forced to give kindness. This scene in Skins provides guidance for the first needed change, but viewers must achieve the second required change in spite of Skins. Skins is a product of pop culture. However, viewers are only influenced by pop culture, not products of it, and can compensate for the misleading parts of the scene. Viewers can then use the scene as a tool to revitalize kindness, restore its inherent use-value, and relinquish its obligations.

 

Works Cited

Lewis, Martin. “Martin Lewis: It’s Time to Ban Christmas Presents.” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 20 Nov. 2012. Web. 18 Sept. 2013.

Marx, Karl, Samuel Moore, Edward B. Aveling, and Friedrich Engels. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. London: Electric Book Co, 2001. Internet resource.

Marx, Karl. Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. New York: International Publishers, 1964. Print.

Regan, Dennis T. “Effects of a Favor and Liking on Compliance.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 7.6 (1971): 627-39. Print.

Schatz, Stephen E. “Holiday Retail Sales Up 3.0 Percent To $579.8 Billion.” NRF. National Retail Federation, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2013.

Sim, Stuart, and Loon B. Van. Introducing Critical Theory. London: Icon, 2009. 16-18. Print.

Strohmetz, David B, Bruce Rind, Reed Fisher, and Michael Lynn. “Sweetening the Till: the Use of Candy to Increase Restaurant Tipping.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology. 32.2 (2002): 300-307. Print.

 

Written for Dr. David N. Odhiambo’s ENG 200: Composition II

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