This post was first published on November 21, 2007.
Thanksgiving has many associations — struggling Pilgrims, crowded airports, autumn leaves, heaping plates, drunken uncles, blowout sales, and so on. At its best, though, Thanksgiving is associated with, well, thanks giving. The holiday provides a moment when many otherwise harried individuals leading hectic lives decelerate just long enough to muster some gratitude for their harvest. Giving thanks — acknowledging that we, as individuals, are not the sole determinants of our own fortunes seems an admirable, humble, and even situationist practice, worthy of its own holiday.
But I’m interested here in the potential downside to the particular way in which many people go about giving thanks.
Situationist contributor John Jost and his collaborators have studied a process that they call “system justification” — loosely the motive to defend and bolster existing arrangements even when doing so seems to conflict with individual and group interests. Jost, together with Situationist contributor Aaron Kay and several other co-authors, recently summarized the basic tendency to justify the status quo this way (pdf):
Whether because of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, social class, gender, or sexual orientation, or because of policies and programs that privilege some at the expense of others, or even because of historical accidents, genetic disparities, or the fickleness of fate, certain social systems serve the interests of some stakeholders better than others. Yet historical and social scientific evidence shows that most of the time the majority of people—regardless of their own social class or position—accept and even defend the legitimacy of their social and economic systems and manage to maintain a “belief in a just world” . . . . As Kinder and Sears (1985) put it, “the deepest puzzle here is not occasional protest but pervasive tranquility.” Knowing how easy it is for people to adapt to and rationalize the way things are makes it easer to understand why the apartheid system in South Africa lasted for 46 years, the institution of slavery survived for more than 400 years in Europe and the Americas, and the Indian Caste system has been maintained for 3000 years and counting.
Manifestations of the system-justification motive pervade many of our cognitions, ideologies, and institutions. This post reflects my worry that the Thanksgiving holiday might also manifest that powerful implicit motive. No doubt, expressing gratitude is generally a healthy and appropriate practice. Indeed, my sense is that Americans too rarely acknowledge the debt they owe to other people and other influences. There ought to be more thanks giving.
Nonetheless, the norm of Thanksgiving seems to be to encourage a particular kind of gratitude — a generic thankfulness for the status quo. Indeed, when one looks at what many describe as the true meaning of the holiday, the message is generally one of announcing that current arrangements — good and bad — are precisely as they should be.
Consider the message behind the first presidential Thanksgiving proclamation. In 1789, President George Washington wrote:
“Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks—for His kind care and protection of the People of this Country . . . for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed . . . and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions . . . . To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.”
More recently, President George W. Bush offered a similar message about the meaning of the holiday:
“In the four centuries since the founders . . . first knelt on these grounds, our nation has changed in many ways. Our people have prospered, our nation has grown, our Thanksgiving traditions have evolved — after all, they didn’t have football back then. Yet the source of all our blessings remains the same: We give thanks to the Author of Life who granted our forefathers safe passage to this land, who gives every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth the gift of freedom, and who watches over our nation every day.”
The faith that we are being “watched over” and that our blessings and prosperity are the product of a gift-giving force is extraordinarily affirming. All that “is,” is as that “great and glorious Being” intended.
Fom such a perspective, giving thanks begins to look like a means of assuring ourselves that our current situation was ordained by some higher, legitimating force. To doubt the legitimacy of existing arrangements is to be ungrateful.
A cursory search of the internet for the “meaning of Thanksgiving” reveals many similar recent messages. For instance, one blogger writes, in a post entitled “Teaching Children the Meaning of Thanksgiving,” that:
your goal should be to move the spirit of Thanksgiving from a one-day event to a basic life attitude. . . . This means being thankful no matter what our situation in life. Thankfulness means that we are aware of both our blessings and disappointments but that we focus on the blessings. . . . Are you thankful for your job even when you feel overworked and underpaid?”
Another piece, entitled “The Real Meaning of Thanksgiving” includes this lesson regarding the main source of the Pilgrim’s success: “It was their devotion to God and His laws. And that’s what Thanksgiving is really all about. The Pilgrims recognized that everything we have is a gift from God – even our sorrows. Their Thanksgiving tradition was established to honor God and thank Him for His blessings and His grace.”
If we are supposed to be thankful for our jobs even when we are “overworked and underpaid,” should we also be thankful for unfairness or injustice? And if we are to be grateful for our sorrows, should we then be indifferent toward their earthly causes?
A third article, “The Productive Meaning of Thanksgiving” offers these “us”-affirming, guilt-reducing assurances: “The deeper meaning is that we have the capacity to produce such wealth and that we live in a country that affords us our right to exercise the virtue of productivity and to reap its rewards. So let’s celebrate wealth and the power in us to produce it; let’s welcome this most wonderful time of the year and partake without guilt of the bounty we each have earned.”
That advice seems to mollify any sense of injustice by giving something to everyone. Those with bountiful harvests get to enjoy their riches guiltlessly. Those with meager harvests can be grateful for the fact that they live in a country where they might someday enjoy richer returns from their individual efforts.
Yet another post, “The Meaning for Thanksgiving,” admonishes readers to be grateful, because they could, after all, be much worse off:
[M]aybe you are unsatisfied with your home or job? Would you be willing to trade either with someone who has no hope of getting a job or is homeless? Could you consider going to Africa or the Middle East and trade places with someone that would desperately love to have even a meager home and a low wage paying job where they could send their children to school without the worry of being bombed, raped, kidnapped or killed on a daily basis?
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No matter how bad you think you have it, there are people who would love to trade places with you in an instant. You can choose to be miserable and pine for something better. You could choose to trade places with someone else for all the money they could give you. You could waste your gift of life, but that would be the worst mistake to make. Or you can rethink about what makes your life great and at least be happy for what you have then be patient about what you want to come to you in the future.
If your inclination on Thanksgiving is to give thanks, I do not mean to discourage you. My only suggestion is that you give thanks, not for the status quo, but for all of the ways in which your (our) own advantages and privileges are the consequence of situation, and not simply your individual (our national) disposition. Further, I’d encourage you to give thanks to all those who have gone before you who have doubted the status quo and who have identified injustice and impatiently fought against it.