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Gifts, gifts, gifts

Dr Tamara Besednjak Valič (Photo: Tamino Petelinsek / STA)

By: Dr. Tamara Besednjak Valič

The famous anthropologist Marcel Mauss studied the cultural dynamics accompanying the gift-giving ceremony in his work entitled Essay on the Gift. Part of these rituals were gifts, usually different types of necklaces, which the inhabitants of the different islands ritually exchanged. The exchange took place in such a way that a group of people from one tribe took a boat to the neighbouring island and handed over gifts to the other tribe. The tribe that received the gifts soon after returned the favour in the same amount as they had received. If the gift was too large and the receiver was unable to return it, this established an unequal relationship between the receiver and the giver.

We think differently about gift giving and the spirit of giving in today’s capitalist society. For those of us who spent part of our childhood in socialism, the goal of gifting remains in the subconscious in the way that you endow a person with something that he lacks. Gift giving does not take place for the purpose of establishing social relations, but gift giving is used to fulfil needs (maybe false ones) for material goods. There is nothing wrong with that, you will say, unless you have concerns about modesty, sustainability, and the like in a late-capitalist society.

But it becomes wrong if you start thinking about endowment as a mechanism that the state should implement all over the place. And here comes to mind the current topic of the past few days. It is an initiative where the state should provide menstrual aids in public educational institutions. Putting aside for a moment the arguments of poverty alleviation and ways to address the issue of poverty among young women, there is an interesting phenomenon that is noticeable in this request. We can see that some NGO expects and demands donations from the state. It requires the endowment of a certain social group. Here, it will be clearly visible that it is a request that places a certain social group in an unequal relationship with the donor. Here, however, it quickly seems that it may just be a request made with the purpose of justifying all further requests that will further increase this unequal relationship. That further demands will come is clear from the slogan “Let’s fight further!”.

For the above reason, I think the idea of digital vouchers for people over 55, conditional on participation in training, is excellent. “Do you want the country to give you something? Great, give yourself something, get educated,” is the message of this project. In terms of communication, the idea is wonderfully conceived. Of course, it will be interesting to monitor the number of people who will respond to this invitation. The fact that the first phase has a limited number of places is just an additional stimulus from this point of view. “You want something from the country, great, show interest and something will happen, if you do not hurry, you might not get a place.” A situation with a strong message.

When giving a gift, dependence is always established. When you receive a gift, you are “in debt” to give back. That is why we know the mechanism of gift refusal, when someone does not want to enter into a relationship with the gift giver. Each person must be able to refuse the gift and not enter into the relationship. Knowing the situation and the topic, many Slovenians in the 55+ age group will most likely do this. However, not all students who received digital vouchers had the option of refusal. They received them automatically, and no conditions were placed in return. Nothing was demanded in return for the gift received, except for a moral debt. Thus, they used the funds themselves to a large extent to quickly satisfy an urgent consumer need dictated by their peers. They bought headphones. As a sociologist, I find the situation completely understandable, and it is interesting to observe the reactions of astonishment.

So, what to do? Probably to speak publicly about the attitude towards the state and what to demand from the state. In the coming years, we will be paying more income tax than we would otherwise, and it may be good to speak clearly and loudly about what we expect from the state. To begin with, healthcare, where the number of specialist referrals per year will not be limited. And then maybe public education, where parents will not pay hundreds of euros for school supplies. And so on…

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