In a consumer driven society, owning things is the latest addiction or compulsive disorder. But is psychology really to blame? Hoarding is apparently the latest social problem besetting contemporary culture. We know this because it is now on television in the form of two reality shows, or what I call "schadenfreude television." We giggle or tsk tsk at the sight of individuals buried beneath mounds of garbage and in some cases, their own waste. Helped along with psychologists and "professional organizers", hoarding is pathologized; it is an addiction, an obsessive compulsive disorder, a mental illness. But is it?
Hoarding as Illness
Two new books on the topic promote this idea. Annie Leonard's The Story of Stuff (2010)and psychologists Randy Frost and Gail Steketee's Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things (2010) both approach hoarding from the perspective of addiction or obsessive compulsive disorder. These and other books represent the wide-scale "its not your fault", self-help industry that emphasizes the individualistic pulse in American society. The industry helps identify and label problems, but it is up to the individual to fix them. Despite the medical discourse, the onus is nonetheless often placed on the individual to change their behaviour; to see the error of their ways and cure themselves.
Ultimately, the message on television is that hoarders are sick, dirty and therefore morally questionable. They go against the grain of accepted behaviour and therefore are in need of correction. Otherwise, why would we want to watch them on television if not to feel better about ourselves. Are people who compulsively purge their garbage, recycle everything, live minimalistic lives, and clean everyday better people? Presumably. Would we watch a television show focusing on individuals who have a place for everything and everything in its place? Probably not.
Hoarding and the Media
While it is easy to blame hoarders for the situation they find themselves in, or to use a disease model to describe their behaviour, the media has much to answer for. We are constantly sent mixed messages: "buy, buy, buy"; "recycle, reuse"; "buy, buy, buy." Save the planet, save the economy. Under heavy media bombardment, we oscillate between guilt and desire, shame and splendour. No wonder there is confusion. True responsibility for society's unhealthy relationship to goods is the enormous pressure placed on individuals to buy things they do not need, along with the insidious message that we will not be happy or whole unless we own products. The result is misery and dysfunction which is then made into television for our entertainment and to boost our moral superiority.
Perhaps focusing on corporate media bodies rather than hapless individuals caught in their sticky web would offer a perspective other than a purely psychological one. Demanding a richer culture that emphasizes what we do rather than what we buy or own from our politicians, advertisers, and media outlets would help change our relationship to goods. Now that would be energy well spent.