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The gift of secondhand

By Emrys Westacott

8:00 AM EST, December 25, 2012

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Would you give a friend or family member an item of used clothing as a Christmas gift? I put this question to two of my colleagues. They both saw it as a no-brainer.

"Sure," said one. "My mom and I do it all the time."

"No way," said the other. "That's really tacky."

Aha, I thought. Here's work for an ethicist with psychoanalytic tendencies.

So, is there anything wrong with secondhand gifts? The question is timely, given the state of the economy. And the argument for giving used items as gifts is obvious. You save money and maybe give a better present than you could otherwise afford.

So why would anyone insist that only what is brand new is fit to be gift-wrapped? To probe this question, we need to ask why we give gifts to friends and family at all.

We all know the official answer: Gifts are symbolic expressions of affection. This may be true, but it's only part of the story. After all, why do we feel the need to make these symbolic gestures?

To a large extent, the answer is simply that our culture has certain institutionalized rituals, and we go along with these because we enjoy them, because it's expected or because not doing so would be awkward or hurtful to someone.

But that official meaning of gift giving remains important. We want to express affection. And though it's crass to equate the monetary value of a gift with the depth of the sentiment it supposedly conveys, we still subtly connect a gift's symbolic value with the level of sacrifice it represents.

All things being equal, more-expensive gifts involve a greater sacrifice, and this is appreciated. That's one reason why the giving of homemade gifts — jars of jam or knitted scarves, for example — is widespread. They're relatively safe gifts because, regardless of whether you like jam or need a scarf, you can't gainsay the fact that the maker sacrificed time.

We may not crudely measure affection by the price of the present, but we don't like the idea of the giver looking to skimp while choosing a gift. Love is supposed to be unstinting. Seeking ways to cut costs while symbolically expressing affection seems tacky.

Still, few object to giving or receiving stuff bought at deep discount during a sale. Indeed, many of those camped out for the Thanksgiving sales are looking to do their Christmas shopping at a discount. So the deeper objection to used gifts is not to their cheapness but to their secondhand status.

Perhaps there is a hint here of a preference for the pure, the unsullied — dare one say it, for the virginal. More powerful, though, is anxiety about appearing poor. Used gifts may still function as symbols, but their meaning as tokens of love can be eclipsed by their significance as indicators of the giver's standing. Used gifts have at times signified an inability to buy new. As such, they can carry an aura of shame.

But as times change, so do the semiotics of gift giving. Today, gifts are used to signify not just social standing but also the giver's philosophical outlook and moral qualities. This is most obvious in the case of donations to worthy causes given as presents. But used items too may make a statement — perhaps, about the giver's savviness or anti-consumerist values.

Of course, economists tell us we should hope that people hit the malls because this will give our struggling economy a shot in the arm. But the overall effect on the domestic economy of our buying new is unclear given how much of what we buy is made abroad.

And there is an alternative perspective, one informed by the thought that neither we the people nor the nation need so much more new stuff, and that the path to happiness may not lie in ever-increasing amounts of making, getting and spending. There is, after all, enough unwanted stuff already out there — used but unused. And it might be better for both our wallets and the planet if more of it went into Christmas stockings rather than landfills.

Emrys Westacott is a professor of philosophy at Alfred University in Western New York. His most recent book is "The Virtues of Our Vices." This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.

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