Crass consumerism or love?

Published February 14, 2024
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy

THERE was a time when Valentine’s Day and its attendant celebration of love and sweethearts was an event when everyone who was single had to suffer. This is no longer the case.

Over the past few years, even those who are not single have started to opt out of the celebration. The reasons are numerous, and they include everything from the opposition to the celebration of coupledom in an age where being single is increasingly being viewed as acceptable, to a protest against the consumerist nature of the holiday when the prices of flowers and chocolates skyrocket to double, even triple the usual amount.

Others dislike what they call the manipulative nature of the event, which they allege is supposed to make single people feel like there is something wrong with them because they are not all cosily coupled up. There is some truth to all of it.

One of the consequences of increasing urbanisation and the high cost of living has been that the world is home to more single people than perhaps ever before. Migration to new cities makes it harder to meet members of the opposite sex because city life invariably lacks the kind of social and familial connections that exist in one’s native town.

In many parts of the Global South, people have to migrate not only to faraway cities within their country but even to places like the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia to have any employment at all. In the process, they are cut off from their social circles. Even for those who remain at home, the process of meeting and marrying involves having a sufficient income which is becoming an increasingly elusive prospect for so many in these inflationary times.

At the other end of the world, the show goes on, sometimes in a facetious manner. Take, for example, the small matter of exes. The bad feelings towards those who have broken one’s heart seem to persist for far longer than one would think. So prevalent is this aggrieved sentiment that fundraisers at San Antonio Zoo in Texas have managed to capitalise on it. For a certain amount of money, you can have a vegetable, insect, or rodent named after your ex and have it fed to a zoo animal.

The fundraiser has been incredibly popular, and many people signed on online, feeling quite delighted at having a rat named after a former boyfriend or husband and then having the rodent fed to a reptile, thus meting out a punishment that their former beau or spouse would never suffer in real life. For those who choose it, a digital card can be bought that lets the reviled ex know that a rat or a cricket with their name was fed to an animal on Feb 14.

The commercialisation doesn’t stop there and is all-encompassing when it comes ‘situationships’, the term for relationships that are not quite clear in the minds of individuals who might be romantically involved but don’t know where they stand. A popular candy that is heart-shaped and has traditionally had love messages like ‘be my sweetheart’ or ‘love you’ has now entered the situationship game.

This year, a new edition of the candy has been introduced which is also heart-shaped and has messages on it, except that the words are blurry and unreadable, reflecting the essence of situationships. They may be a joke, but they point to the fact that in such entanglements it is impossible to gauge how the other party feels.

For a certain amount of money, you can have a vegetable, insect, or rodent named after your ex and have it fed to a zoo animal.

However, these indulgences aside, there is a growing number of people for whom the ever-increasing gap between the wealthy and the rest is enough reason to reject Valentine’s Day; they have many qualms about celebrating a day which has to do with consumerism, commercialisation and the love of display on a grand scale.

The proliferation of social media means that whatever is received is paraded on various platforms, fuelling the same kind of perverse consumerism that makes corporations rich and everyone else poor. Love, the existence of it, the lack of it, the profusion of it, is thus translated neatly into the amount of money that was spent or not spent or whatever expectations were met or not met.

Crass consumerism, commercialisation and exhibitionism make for a vile spectacle. Long, effusive messages attesting to how much a person loves their spouse are plastered on social media as if the person themselves (who is likely sitting right next to the individual posting them) cannot be told in person and must find out via Instagram or Facebook. Being told directly would be missing the point of exhibitionism.

If the traffic in presents were not enough, this cheapening of intimate and special feelings whose exchange should be private is a sad development. Things need not be this way. Relationships can be celebrated in many forms — between couples, siblings, friends, etc. There has been an expansion of the concept to include these with new cards expressing the change but perhaps these are not as readily available as the usual red balloons, roses and mushy messages shared with the world.

We live in frightening and desperate times. Truly awful conditions prevail across the world, from the thousands of children dying in Gaza as Israel continues its manic genocidal campaign, to the two million people at risk of starvation in Sudan.

We can see it in Pakistan as well, where anger is growing as even the basic necessities are no longer affordable, and where families continue to make the difficult ‘choice’ of sending their child to school or work. Trying for less ostentation won’t harm us. Exhibitionism, even when in love, when so many are suffering all around, is nothing short of grotesque.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, February 14th, 2024

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