Cultural Coercion

It was in the first scene of the first film directed by Quentin Tarantino in which Steve Buscemi famously explained why he will never tip a waitress.

“I don’t believe in it,” Buscemi, aka Mr. Pink, proclaims to his fellow “reservoir dogs” around a coffee shop table.  Challenged on this—how cheap can one possibly be?—he clarifies, “I don’t tip because society says I have to.  I’ll tip if somebody really deserves it—if they really put forth the effort.  But this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds.”

It’s not paying the extra 15 percent itself that so peeves Mr. Pink, you see, but rather the notion that he is somehow obligated to do so.  That American society—without ever asking his opinion—deemed the wait staff at a diner or restaurant “tip-worthy” while not extending such an honor to, say, a cashier at McDonald’s.

Why should Mr. Pink be pressured into going along with this seemingly arbitrary social custom?  Who is everyone else to so push him around?

That brings us to St. Valentine’s Day.

The popular assumption is that the holiday we celebrate every February 14 is the creation of the American greeting card industry.  While the history of the festival is a bit more interesting and complicated than that—at minimum, the relevant chronology stretches back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules, written in 1382—in the holiday’s present form, this view is essentially correct.

Or at least the jaded sentiment behind it is.

What is Valentine’s Day if not the American culture telling you when you are required to express your love for your boyfriend or girlfriend, whether you want to or not?

Never mind that every relationship is different and operates on its own timetable, at its own pace.  The fourteenth of February—that’s the day you must formally observe that what you and your sweetheart have is special!

As a person who is presently single, I can speak with relative objectivity about our national day of celebrating couples.  I recognize, however, that many of my friends and acquaintances are not so lucky.

Conventional wisdom says that most men secretly hate Valentine’s Day, with the remaining men hating it openly.  In recent years there has been a mild shift, with many women now hating it as well, but it remains a particularly male bugaboo.

And why shouldn’t it be?  Men are enjoined to produce trinkets for their womenfolk, and should they fail to do so, the girlfriends are entitled to inflict bottomless torment upon them.

Yes, there are some couples who agree to forgo the usual traditions of dinner, chocolate and roses and do Valentine’s in their own way, but even this is a tacit acknowledgment that the holiday is a thundering cultural force that cannot be ignored.

That is what makes the whole business so unnerving and so fascinating.

Like many other markers on the American cultural calendar—the entire Christmas season springs to mind—St. Valentine’s Day is an attempt to collectivize an otherwise profoundly personal concept.

We are faced, then, with two great American values in conflict.  Individualism vs. community.  The private vs. the public.  The specific vs. the universal.

Like Christmas, Valentine’s Day is a sterling expression of commercialism run amok.  But one cannot help seeing something more sinister at work:  Popular culture telling us the true and proper meaning of love, as if such a concept could possibly be universalized.

We can draw some measure of comfort that most of us have long ceased to take St. Valentine’s Day all that seriously.  My consternation and annoyance remains, however, at the fact that all of us are compelled to take it at all.  That for the duly shackled-up, this day, for all its overt silliness, is one that must be regarded with a revered deference, overlooked at one’s extreme peril.

How terribly unfair this all is.  One should not be made to feel obligated to follow a minor social custom with any major effort.  You are free to do so of your own accord, of course, if that’s your thing and you can suit it to you and your significant other’s own purposes.

But celebrating Valentine’s Day automatically?  For the birds.

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One thought on “Cultural Coercion

  1. I couldn’t agree more. The commercialisation of Valentine’s Day seems to get more intense and in-your-face every year, and its effect can be so manipulative – as if a day formulated by greeting card companies should be a benchmark for the relationship between two people. It’s part of a culture that increasingly demands ‘perfection’ in every area of your life; the pressures of this unrealistic and impossible standard give people reasons to feel unsatisfied with themselves and others in ways that are really unimportant. It also monotonises love to that of romantic love; there are so many other types that don’t have their own “day” and why should they – there are countless opportunities on any given day to display your affection for the most special people in your life.

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