(Yes, you’re going to have to suffer through my early Ph.D. years to get through this blog—stand warned.)
It was the early 1990s when I first began to study the work of the German sociological theorist Georg Simmel. At the time I was struck by the power of his work, by his incredible ability to articulate the subtle complexities of society – modern society in particular - and to put those complexities together in a somewhat scientific way that also rang as true and not forced.
Simmel lived and wrote at the turn of the 20th century, and much of his writing is relevant to society as it makes the transition from rural, interpersonal forms of culture to urban, impersonal ones. The key thing to know about Simmel is that he explains the money economy extraordinarily well – particularly in that in a money economy, people are bound together by rational financial ties rather than by difficult-to-quantify human relationships.
The core of Simmel’s work is his analysis of the consequences of that shift, and there is an undercurrent of sadness, of loss, as well as ambivalence that runs through the analysis.
A Sad But True Theory
Though some might say that the job of an academic is purely to describe reality rather than to judge it, Simmel doesn’t shy away from letting emotion show even as he objectively explains what is going on. And what is going on, in his view, is that the old way – what he calls “subjective culture,” which is based on unique individuals interacting with each other uniquely – is going away.
In Simmel’s view, subjective culture in modern society is being replaced by “objective culture.” This is basically what happens when people begin to participate in a society where the multifaceted-ness of the human personality is devalued. They become reduced to isolated and compartmentalized bits and pieces that can be sold at will, wherever it is needed.
Put another way, in Simmel’s view, survival in modern society depends on the individual’s ability to contribute selected parts of their unique selves to the collective whole, then interact with others on the basis of those objectively recognizable bits and pieces rather than as complete human beings.
That is why he wrote:
“(In modern culture) it becomes increasingly impossible to incorporate the total personality, which is part of the value…of the soul, into the product.” —The Philosophy of Money, pp. 466-67
When the total personality cannot be incorporated into the “product” (literally or in the interaction with others), the human being becomes spiritually bankrupt—and no matter what religion you are, that can’t be a healthy thing:
“Because of modern differentiation, the objective mind lacks this spirituality.”—Simmel, The Philosophy of Money, pp. 466-67 (continuing the previous quote)
All of the above is scarily well-descriptive of the modern (I use “modern” literally, to mean what the academics call “postmodern” as well as the “modern”) global move toward a brand-based economy, where people interact on the basis of symbols that mean the same thing to everyone.
In a brand-based economy, you can only survive if:
· You yourself are a brand
· You decorate yourself with brands
· You are affiliated with a brand
· You talk in language that is recognizable to other people who think in brand terms.
Yet from a psychological perspective, this reduction of the human personality to drilled-down bits and pieces is a shattering blow. The “nutrition” people’s psyches get from a brand-based “diet” is parallel on a food level to the nutrition they would get if all they ate were McDonald’s chicken nuggets or Burger King cheeseburgers.
Without intending to, Simmel accurately predicted the forthcoming rise of brands and their negative impact on the human personality when reliance on them is taken too far:
“The deepest problems of modern life derive from the claim of the individual to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life.”—Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”
I think it is not going too far to say that the international image of America is very much tied up with our creation of modern branding and the world’s top brands. We are the country of Coca-Cola, of McDonald’s, and of Starbucks. Even Wal-Mart, in many ways the symbol of the commodification of everything in our culture, has brand status.
Other countries, in a way, love us for this branded-ness, and want to participate in American culture specifically for that reason. However, they also hate us for bringing the brand mentality to their shores. Subtly and sometimes overtly, they accuse us of having destroyed something pure that they once had, an idyll that was the pre-brand society. Even though brands are an economic reality based on global consumer demand – and America never forced anyone to have them – we are still both the spokespeople and the scapegoats for all that is good and bad about living in a branded world.
The fact of the matter is that we live in a branded world – a global one – where not only do we all consume brands, but we must also produce them. More threateningly to our psychic health, in the end we must also become them if we are to survive. For other people, in business and increasingly in personal situations, look at us not so much as diamonds with many facets, both good and bad, but as business brands with equity and risk. Not as humans.
The Millionaire Matchmaker
Have you ever watched The Millionaire Matchmaker? It’s a TV show on the Bravo network that dehumanizes both women and men. (Yes, I watch it…even though it’s offensive it’s still an entertaining show.)
If you haven’t seen it, the” star” of the program is Patti Stanger, a matchmaker originally from New Jersey who runs The Millionaire’s Club, a “club” principally for men who literally are worth a million dollars or more. These individuals seek out Patti’s help in finding someone to settle down with and marry.
The basic premise is that rich men come to Patti for help because they’re jerks who don’t know how to treat women well. Through Patti’s intuitive knowledge of human nature, gender, and relationships, she “reforms” the men so that they are decent enough people to attract and remain with the kind of women who want to settle down and have babies.
There are many, many things to find offensive about the show. For example:
- The idea that only millionaires are worth setting up. (Don’t middle-class people, or even people who have no money at all, deserve lasting marriages?)
- The idea that men are supposed to have money, while women look pretty and are maternal (the show pays lip service to women’s careers, but Patti doesn’t choose female candidates for her male clients based on their professions.)
- Patti gets her funding from the men. So all the advice, and the advantage, is really for the men, to whom Patti is catering because she wants their business and she wants them to refer their friends. This doesn’t really help the female candidates find the support they need at all.
The show’s tilt toward male bias creates a typical setup where women are rounded up for cattle calls (“casting sessions,”) where Patti and her team look them up and down and tell them what is wrong with them, physically, that will prevent them from potentially participating in the “mixer” where Patti will bring them before the man, and he will choose one to go on a date with.
Watching the women standing there before Patti to be judged, historical images I’ve seen, of African-American slaves being shopped to potential buyers, rise to my mind unpleasantly.
The women’s sessions with Patti are clearly humiliating. No matter how happy and self-confident they are to start with, the women are invariably reprimanded by Patti for anything that deviates from her mold of perfection. Nobody (including Patti herself) can meet the Barbie-doll standard she seems to be aiming for.
Patti justifies her cruelty by shopping us the concept that she’s doing these women a favor. After all, who benefits if she makes them feel good at the expense of a real opportunity to “catch” a well-to-do man? Of course, she also tells the men off when they act badly and is sympathetic to the women as well.
However, it is the men’s money she is taking in the end. Never the women’s, unless the women are the millionairesses. (On one show, a millionairess clearly had a problem seeing men as anything but objects, so dehumanization in a money economy can and does go both ways.)
An Unforgettable, Bad Moment
I remember one episode in particular where a woman walked out of a “casting session” after Patti had gotten through with her. Her expression was literally the definition of the word “stricken” – she seriously looked as if someone had just struck her a blow to the face.
It was the kind of compelling television where you can’t turn away, and because it was at the expense of another human being, the moment was disgusting at the same time.
I hate how enjoyable this frequently disgusting show is. It’s interesting because people are interesting, especially people in relationships with one another. And Patti is made for TV. Yet the program really does reduce people, and particularly women, to objects that can be compared with other female objects and valued according to a scale of what is commonly judged to be feminine—just as Simmel predicted.
The most recent episode (March 23, 2010) was a prime example. Millionaire “Will” was clearly a severe narcissist from the start. He interviewed women rather than getting to know them, something Patti did accurately point out (“Who does he think he is, Stone Phillips?”) and chastise him for. He did other impolite things as well. But for a few minutes, things seemed like they might be OK, especially since he chose a nice-seeming type of woman to go out on a date with.
Of course, the show being what the show is, and the millionaires being who they generally are, the good times didn’t last. Will decided to humiliate his date right from the get-go—principally by bringing along, and leering at, his beautiful female “assistant.” The latter was so clearly an object to him, and even to herself, that she literally walked and talked like a robot. With no human worth except insofar as she could be a servant.
That connection, between Will and his assistant, absolutely crystallized for me what Simmel was talking about when he foresaw how people would become spiritually bankrupt as a consequence of the evolution of modern culture, and the growth of the money economy.
It also showed that in modern society, we live a very strange paradox: We treat real human beings as products, and imbue completely manufactured branded products with human personality and emotion. And this is done very frequently when it comes to women.
The enslavement of one human being by another, a shockingly pervasive crime in modern society (which is so educated and progressive that we should long have been rid of such phenomena), is not really very far from the scenario set up in The Millionaire Matchmaker. In both instances, money is king and principally women/girls are cattle to be sold for the sake of the king, victims of the highest bidder.
In the modern money-driven culture, human trafficking is supported by:
· The dehumanization of the individual—so that it’s OK to treat them as disposable assets, whether in marriage or as employees
· The tendency to look away from the suffering of others and even to blame them for their own pain (e.g. “poor people don’t work hard enough”)
· The tendency to treat people as embodiments of the brands they wear, or purchase
· Persistent sexism, racism, classism, religious persecution, and other forms of discrimination
Essentially, the only way that a crime like human trafficking can survive is if the victims of the crime are seen as less than human. And the only way that people can sustain such a dehumanized view of each other, is if there is some intermediary in the interactions between people that acts as a filter, stopping them from recognizing the humanity in one another.
That intermediary, that filter, is brands—because we tend to focus on the symbols other people wear before we have a real conversation with them. Sometimes we don’t even get to the conversation, because we think we have judged them sufficiently by identifying their brand affiliations (clothing, car, food, home décor, vacations, schools attended, companies worked for, etc.).
Unfortunately, the pervasiveness of brands has led modern consumers to dehumanize one another, to become far more insensitive to each other’s pain and suffering, than at any time in human history.
It is no wonder that the Nazis were masters of propaganda.
Gender Inequality In Particular
Despite all the gains women have made, as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, it should be remembered that the situation of women worldwide is still severely disparate in many countries. The enslavement of women and girls, who compose the vast majority of victims, represents the marketing of something that should never be sold and is a tragedy for all humankind.
When I start to think about the scale of the sale of womanhood, not to mention the participation of women in perpetuating this evil, it is literally mind-boggling. Perhaps I will write more about this in the future. But in the meantime, suffice it to say that women are enormous consumers of brands; that we often use brands to define ourselves and make ourselves feel worthwhile; and that the world is conditioned to view the worth of a woman as equivalent to the extent to which her appearance matches the ideal that we see in Hollywood, in magazines, etc.
In addition to insisting on the essential human value of all people, as women define themselves less and less through brands, we can begin to challenge and shake free from the social conditions that support human trafficking.
The Jewish Faith and Our Escape From Slavery
This week, the Jewish people remember that G-d saved us from slavery thousands of years ago, as we made our escape from Egypt. And though it’s not part of the prayer book, part of the remembrance for me is the Jewish experience of the Holocaust.
The concentration camps represent the (fortunately, temporary) transformation of my people in World War II from vibrant, brilliant human beings to dehumanized objects who were hunted, brutalized and killed, sometimes just for nothing more than fun. I think this experience of dehumanization explains the Jewish capacity for empathizing with the pain of others, and of our determination as a people to rescue other suffering human beings wherever and whenever we can.
Back to Branding – An Ethical Way Ahead
Reading all this, one might wonder how the same person who writes it can also be so infatuated with brands, if after all it is brands that very much support the dehumanization of the modern individual. I’ve talked about it elsewhere, but in a nutshell I think it comes down to my own belief, as a child, that brands could give me the social status that I sought.
Decades later, of course, I know that brands don’t really do that—that it is a person’s behavior, not their clothes, that ultimately results in the respect that others accord them.
I know too that doing the right thing, not striving for social status, is what life is about.
But those insights don’t change the fact that:
- Brands remain incredibly important as personal identifiers for much of the world, including me at times.
- Something as in-demand as brands can be leveraged on the side of social good, if we collectively pay attention to that. The key, in a nutshell, is not to repudiate brands but to “go with the flow of the river,” so to speak, and leverage them to support ethical behavior.
On a very broad level, one way that branding can turn the word more ethical is as follows. Instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and saying that all brands are bad, we can make it cool to be a good person, cool for example to buy things that have been made in an ethical way. That is only one brief suggestion and that is only the beginning.
Before we can take any such steps, I think, we modern people have to embark on a journey inside ourselves, and address the cause of the brand disease rather than just the symptoms. That journey involves coming to terms with ourselves, warts and all, and ultimately believing that we are worth far more than the market will ever say.
As Simmel (whose mother was Lutheran, but who was born to a Jewish family) hinted: We are not bits and pieces. We are integrated wholes, and our worth can’t be bought with a logo or a label.
Behaviorally, to re-discover and re-value our humanity, we have to make a commitment to take a look at who we were before every aspect of our lives was put up on the market, so to speak, for potential sale. Think about it:
- Coca-Cola put “pure refreshment” up for sale, when icewater might have tasted just as good.
- Facebook.com commercialized friendship.
- eHarmony did the same for marriage.
- Nike put the pursuit of athletic excellence up for sale.
- HGTV put domestic bliss up on the market.
- It seems like there is no end to the commercialization of womanhood, motherhood, the teenage years, and on and on and on.
- And now I read that marketers want to do geo-location tagging (or something like that), to have people willingly sell their locations at any given time. Not to mention buying attendance at rallies. Anything to pay for a piece of a person’s humanity.
Sometimes it seems like there is no area left in the world where we can escape the influence of marketing and brands, where they don’t take hold of our shoulders and start shaking them backwards and forwards until we comply.
If branding is a disease, then I am as “infected” as the next person. But I do think it’s time to put some boundaries up between the world of money and the world of ourselves as people, and to create a safety zone where people can exist in that space without being marketed to and commercialized at every turn.
I would say that a good place to start is childhood, and that children should be as protected as possible from marketing messages until they are old enough to begin to examine them critically.
“To everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Branding/marketing is one of those things. Yet it seems to me, looking around at the world we live in today, that things have gone way too far, and that if we don’t stop the overconsumption of brands, we are going to wind up consuming ourselves, and our children, alive.