Nearly six months ago now, a few friends from the Glasgow city chapter and I were out on the streets in the city centre to do a little culture-jamming in the form of a Yuletide anti-consumerism campaign. As usual, with not much time set aside for planning and gathering resources for anything special, we were doing our standard flyer-distribution and chatting that we had done for the last two years, albeit with a couple of new flyers that I designed with the help of some friends.
Needless to say, even though I tried to come up with ways of making a flyer less likely to be discarded, this has a very limited effect, and each year that we do it we'll get very little conversation from the busy last-minute shoppers, while most people will have bought some wasteful junk well in advance.
So I started thinking about how to possibly have more effect in reducing the year-end boom in consumption, and I remembered something that I first read several years ago in a book by Terry Pratchett.
The book was called Hogfather, and was part of his 'Discworld' series of satirical books that poke fun at many facets of various cultures around this world through history, especially western popular culture, within a comedy-fantasy setting. In this particular book, parodying the modern consumerist Christmas, which was more recently given a TV adaptation, an assassin is hired to eliminate the 'Hogfather' - a character equivalent to Santa Claus.
What sprung to my mind was a memorable insight made near the end of the book by a recurring character, the personification of Death (in bold):
" 'All right,' said Susan 'I'm not stupid. You're saying humans need ... fantasies to make life bearable.'
Really? As if it was some kind of pink pill? No. Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape.
'Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little-'
Yes. As practice. You have to start out learning to believe the little lies.
'So we can believe the big ones?'
Yes. Justice. Mercy. Duty. That sort of thing. "
Bits like this excerpt that put beliefs and societal conventions into question are why I think more young people ought to read Pratchett's books, and this one touches on a point that I'd like to make.
It's one thing to tell children fairy tales along with an understanding that they are just literary fiction, but when parents tell fantastic lies to their children and sincerely act around the kids as if they were true, when those parents know otherwise, they are unknowingly breaking their children into a habit of responding with apathy when confronted with the realisation that they have been lied to by someone holding authority over them. Not only do learning 'little lies' make it easier to believe the 'big ones', but the modern 'Santa Claus' story is particularly corrosive of young people's personalities due to its implied lesson that if you are good this year (by your parents' subjective definition of 'good'), then you will be rewarded, otherwise you won't.
Plenty of psychological research has now shown that the carrot-and-stick approach to teaching someone how to behave in your society, or even just the 'carrot' on its own, produces far more negative effects on people's behaviour in the long run than its dubious short-term benefits. Rewarding 'good' behaviour leads people to do things 'for the wrong reasons', i.e. being nice to someone in anticipation of being rewarded for doing so, rather than because it makes the other person happy or helps social relations. Similarly, rewarding people for learning something new or doing any kind of work that involves problem solving or creativity, causes them to lose interest in what already held an intrinsic motivation of solving a challenging problem.
Not all parents who lie to their children also physically abuse them, but when parents don't think that it's acceptable to spin such fairy-tale realities and instead teach their children to think critically, it becomes so much harder to beat a child who is capable of reasoning with you, who would simply know how to get protection elsewhere if their parents ever became psychotic (not that it would be likely to happen in such a home). One way to help the situation would be trying to reach parents about the importance of being honest with children and bringing them up to be able to find information for themselves, though there is often a lot of resistance from people to taking advice on parenting, so we can still try to improve public education institutions through dialogue, hence the TZM Education project.
You might say it's a special case, though, when a parent is under the illusion of some religious cult, since they don't think that what they are telling their children is a lie, making approaches to improve their parenting much more complicated. So it comes as no surprise that the second best predictor of whether a child will be sexually abused is "conservative religiosity, accompanied by parental belief in traditional male-female roles" (the first predictor being drug addiction in the father, which in turn, like violence, is most likely to occur in people who were themselves abused as children; a vicious cycle). On this, I can only suggest what I have heard from several speakers, which is to try and phrase suggestions in terms of some value they already hold, i.e. do some research on their scripture and pick out something positive. You could call this method manipulative, but I have seen it used very productively, for instance, by the Jordan Valley Permaculture Project to encourage farmers who follow Islam to use more sustainable methods of food production that care for the environment. And it's better to do something that works than leave it only to the domain of preachers who want to justify a religious crusade. Otherwise you can always seek help from the Richard Dawkins Foundation on dealing with religious zealotry.
My suggestion is a simple one, a form of opportunist activism inspired by that book, Hogfather, in which (trying not to spoil it too much) the aforementioned assassin tries to eliminate the 'Hogfather', by getting little kids to stop believing in him. How he tries to go about that is something I'll leave to anyone interested in reading it, but I have a less magical suggestion that almost anyone can try and fit into everyday life. It goes like this: Every time you meet a young child this year, ask them if they believe in Santa Claus; if they do, show them that he doesn't exist. That's it, take it or leave it.
Of course, how you go about it may have to be adapted. One proven teaching method you can try is the Socratic Method, i.e. you might ask why someone believes in Santa Claus. If you don't come prepared for a discussion on epistemology, you should show them how they can check for themselves (unlike when telling most older people about alternatives to a monetary system, children should still have curiosity to go look things up).
People often become stressed by confronting their erroneous beliefs, especially if they go through a period of cognitive dissonance, so asking just a few thought-provoking questions and providing evidence, and by taking as gentle an approach as possible, you can avoid them feeling as if they are being attacked.
My best friend seems to think that kids ought to be taught the origin of the character, i.e. the folk tales of Saint Nicholas, in order to give some context to what their parents told them, but this may not be relevant in many cases where even the parents don't know where the idea came from. I've also heard people say that you shouldn't be a 'killjoy' and that kids should be left believing these kinds of things because they 'need some fantasy/adventure' when they are young, or that it's 'part of being a kid', but I already pointed out that kids can fantasise all they like with the huge amount of literature in this world, but when people project erroneous beliefs onto reality it causes all kinds of problems.
Aside from all the religious violence through the last few centuries resulting from such delusions, due to the current compulsory-gift-giving culture, we now have to deal with landfills full of short-lived gifts leaching toxins like BPA, PCBs, mercury, styrene, etc., into our soil and oceans.
However you approach this, we can't afford to have so many people make-believe that they can trivially buy and throw away so much junk anymore, and we have less than six months until the next great year-end consumption spree begins. Go.