Wednesday, October 22, 2008

I wrote a strongly-worded letter to my Secretary of State

I wrote this--yikes--more than a month ago. But my outrage is ever-present.


Dear Secretary of State:

Today I received in the mail your pamphlet detailing the proposed referendum. Thank you for sending this information to the citizenry; I read it with interest, and I applaud your efforts to disseminate this material to the state’s population.

One thing concerned me about the mailing, however. The pamphlet that I received was addressed to “Residential Customer, [State].”

That word—“Customer”—has left me baffled and disturbed. In what sense am I a “customer,” either of the government or of the state? What services am I purchasing? What consumer decisions am I making by being a resident (and a voter, and, more importantly, a citizen) of [State]?

Semantics matter. The vocabulary of the marketplace is permeating our culture, and we need to ask ourselves whether this is a good thing. When the language of consumerism is applied to our political and educational systems, to social and civil services, what are the consequences? What are the costs? Although our government is elected, its actions are not “market-driven.” Citizens are not customers, consuming the product that the government supplies, their grievances dealt with by a department of customer service.

Not only does this language produce inapt metaphors, but we are not all equally empowered in the economic marketplace. Using the language of “customers” or “consumers” to describe the citizenry undermines a key tenet of our democracy: the notion that even individuals with little or no “purchasing power,” or who inhabit minority groups that do not “buy” the “product” approved by the majority, deserve recognition and a voice in our society. I therefore object strongly to your application of “customer” to the voting citizens of [State].

I truly hope that you will consider revising your mode of address in future mailings. We are not your customers. We are your citizens, and we deserve to be recognized as such.

Heu Mihi, Ph.D.
Professor of English
Field College


And I don't think that it's just my increasingly curmudgeonly nature that makes me take offense at this. (I also think that this is a perfectly appropriate dropping of the "Assistant" from my title, no?)