For the record, I hate Black Friday. Not exactly a novel position for a blogger/writer to take, but I feel like I should make it known.
It’s not the headlines of people being trampled to death or the awful videos of the stampedes into WalMart. Well, okay, it is that, but it is not just that. It’s also the creepy, base, lowest-common-denominator spirit of the thing; the paternalistic cash grab of big retailers deigning to bless the commoners with deals in order to get them to buy more than they can afford. It’s the animalistic land grab of stuff, the vapid commercialization of a season which, at its core, should be about the exact opposite. I’m all for commerce and am a dyed in the wool capitalist, but something about Black Friday sends shivers down my spine and makes my stomach churn.
That being said… I have some thoughts about why I think Black Friday has become such a phenomenon. Yes, it’s good marketing. But I can’t help but wonder if there’s a more genetic, primal reason for its predominance.
I recently gave an interview to the BBC radio show “The Why Factor” on the topic of hunting (it will air sometime in December, if you’d care to tune in). The premise of the interview was to explore the question of why people still hunt. There are grocery stores and markets nearly everywhere. The food industrial complex has made filling the family larder routine to the point of being a non-thought. So, why, then, do people still hunt?
They asked me because I wrote a book on the topic – And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (Wm. Morrow, 2012) – and I think I came up relatively high in Google search results. So I went to the local NPR station – WVXU in Cincinnati – and gave an 80 minute interview for a two minute segment. Over the course of the talk, the question of whether or not hunting satisfies a primal instinct came up no fewer than three times. I’m no paleo psychiatrist, but I do believe there’s a certain amount of genetic instinct that leads people to stalk an animal. It’s not the wanton destruction of an animal. It’s not the blood sport of it. Part of it has to do with a desire for greater connection to the food I eat. Part of it is family tradition – read the book and you’ll get more on that.
But the biggest part of hunting that I found/find satisfying is the algorithmic thinking that takes place in your brain. Unlike a nature walk with a camera, where you are a more passive participant in the outdoor experience, hunting requires you to continually run if/then scenarios. If a pheasant pops up from the left, then I will do this. If the road is on my right, then I need to do that. It’s an active mental exercise that calls upon some ancient parts of our brain tying opportunity to action to consequence in one fluid thought.
What does that have to do with Black Friday? Well, be honest, the sales are a con – read Seth Godin’s piece on the topic for more on that – and the promotions are mere bait to get you in the door. You and thousands of your friends. The satisfaction of Black Friday comes from the hunt; the transformation of a mindless, routine stroll through the big box store into an algorithmic hunt; a competition. Man against Man against Prices against Electronics. If/then thinking in the Thunderdome.
The same way hunting changes the way you think in the field, Black Friday changes the way your mind processes in the aisle. If they are sold out of the TVs, then I will buy the XBox. If they don’t have my size, then I’ll buy another one and exchange it later. Convenience is removed by scarcity. Only the most predatory survive.
In a life full convenience and thoughtless motion, maybe Black Friday harkens us back to a time when Humanity was faced with more challenges, real challenges that meant the difference between life and death; surviving and thriving; predator and prey.
Then again, maybe it’s just a callous way to sell stuff. Either way, I’m staying home.