Giving is better than receiving
19 November 2001
I've been given socks, music, electronic games (hand-held and otherwise), novelty gifts of various prices and levels of humour. It's all very kind and everything, and gifts are gifts afterall and you shouldn't look in horses' mouths and all that (least of all they have bad breath), but the vast majority of presents I've been given are fucking cock slop.
Not an original observation I know. But bare with me, for I am to propose a way of ending those days of having to dispatch well meaning relatives in violent Inappropriate Gift Rage.
A pair of socks. Dull. Gold cufflinks. Blank videos. A novelty book of cartoons about golf/computers/sex. Peach-and-chive soap in a wicker basket crafted in the Amazon. Cock slop of the highest order. Bad gifts.
A handmade card from your best friend. Good gift. Your favourite book from when you were young. Good gift. The last sixpence of a starving tramp. Good gift.
What's the difference? Bad gifts are mass-produced, bought without a thought. Good gifts involve some kind of emotional investment by the giver. You know they've really tried. That tramp will probably die tonight, but at least you know he cares.
It probably took your best friend hours to make that card. And that book -- how did they remember? How did they find out? You're impressed, right? What's more, all these good gifts are cheap. Money is a red herring. More proof: People wouldn't have been impressed if Christ wasn't God's only son. You wouldn't have a two-thousand year religion if there were a stack more Jesuses gathering dust on the top of a wardrobe somewhere.
So why does Mrs Bins from over the road insist on giving you thermal underwear (bad gift) every year? Let's sidetrack a little and figure out why people give presents. The problem has two stages.
Stage one There's an alternative economy going on here. Gifts are a way of indebting someone to you. Gifts can be used as very subtle weapons. Think of the white elephant. Or if I bought you lunch every day, one day you'd feel so embarrassed you'd buy me lunch back, even if you couldn't afford it.
It's a very advanced form of war really. By giving you something I'm trying to make you concede to me, but when you do you're still strong and useful in a way you wouldn't be if we'd been hitting each other over the head with big sticks. But it's resource consuming all the same, so society has evolved to constrain gift buying to only certain periods of the year, much like birds have energy-expensive breeding seasons that only last a few weeks.
Bloodthirsty Mrs Bins probably doesn't realise she's engaging you in savage battle every year, but that's okay because she's already won: You cheerfully mow her lawn and put up shelves for her once in a while.
For friends and family this kind of exchange is a good way to bond. And bonding with these people is a good way of ensuring that they do sensible things with their genes and memes (which, after all, you share).
So far, so good. Gifts as community superglue. In which case, shouldn't you value your gifts just as high as you value the giver (or higher even, if the war is really raging out of control)? Well yes. But:
Stage two. Something's gone wrong. The thing is that the receiver is supposed to get genuine value in the gift economy. And value for me doesn't necessarily equate to value for you. Value is a relative thing, which leads us to the two (and only two) categories of good gifts: Either you've really suffered for it, in which case I'm impressed. Or you've found something cheap, but that really means something to me. Good gift.
But money's got in the way. And what money tells us is that the value is the same on both sides of the transaction. Bollocks it is. Just the act of you lending me some cash means it has less value for you than for me. Money tells us that value can be measured by price and that price is objective, because it's the same whoever's buying, and because it's linear to add up. Bollocks again.
The problem is that money is a very powerful metaphor that's with the Western world from birth onwards. And so people get a little confused and they think that a 9.99 gift is worth 9.99 no matter who it goes to. Or that a gold watch is worth more than a handmade card.
So you end up with shite. Presents that don't mean anything, aren't worth anything, took five minutes to buy, but cost absolutely loads. Cock slop and forced grins all round.
And the solution? Ah, well. It's a new gift line I'm selling. It's targetted at people who don't know what to buy. Now obviously I can't tell what the person they're giving to really values, so I'm taking the other tack: Although the gift will essentially have no value there's going to be a great deal of suffering wrapped up in it. So that's that side of the transaction sorted. And I'm going to charge the giver an enormous amount of money to buy it, so that's the other side. Everyone's happy.
First in the lineup are homeopathic medicines made from the tears of gypsy orphans, toothpicks made from fragments of the one True Cross, and a gilt-framed tramp's lung. I'm on to a winner.