Gabrielle Giffords and the Limits of Image-Building

When I heard that Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had been shot and maybe even assassinated, I froze. Same as what happened on September 11.


On the morning of 9/11, I was drinking coffee and watching the Today show on NBC. It was around 9 a.m. Nine-oh-four to be exact. Sunny day, beautiful actually. Clear and super-blue skies. Even if a little cold.


Then a plane…flying…World Trade Center. New York. I knew that building. I had been in that building a million times. It was a shiny building but it had a terrible, ghostly aura. Haunted.


The attack didn't happen slow motion, in real life. But in my memory it was that way on TV. Trying to accept that such a thing could have happened is like trying to walk through sand, impossibly slow.


The frantic dash – is everyone OK? – to account for everyone. Not knowing the scope of the terrorist attack.


Fast forward to a year later and the "Beltway sniper." Again, when I learned, my reaction was – well, to process things unbearably slowly. The shooter, and his accomplice, gunning innocent people down outside Michael's. At a gas station. At a grocery store. I couldn't believe it. I still think to myself, "What the hell?"


When the guy was running around shooting people we wanted to just stay home all the time. But we needed food. So it became routine to run to and from the car, ducking.


All the time in disbelief.  This can't be happening, right? Yet it was. It was a very bad dream that was not imaginary.


What does this have to do with branding? You would not be the first to wonder, if you are. To me it's pretty natural that brands are mixed up with life. As I reflect on one, I get to the other. And vice versa.


(Does this tendency cheapen serious things? Yes, and I apologize if it seems that way. But I don't mean to be insensitive. It's just how my mind works. Maybe it's easier to handle the really unanswerable questions when you frame them as a brand problem, I don't know.)


Anyway. There is a point here. Getting to it.


I was really upset when I learned the news about Congresswoman Giffords. It was like being on a plane when the plane is landing badly. My stomach lurched before I even knew why. I just knew that the shooting meant more than what it seemed to. And that what it meant, wasn't good.


Like everyone else, I began to follow the repetitive moment-by-moment that is typical of breaking news.  I still don't know enough, and this is not a political opinion, but I began to see what kind of true substance and worth she exemplifies. A principled individual, not perfect of course but genuinely working to help the public. Who makes friends and enemies. Who keeps going regardless.


I have come to a conclusion about why G-d made it that the Congresswoman's life was not taken, or spared, but is hanging in the balance. I think G-d, the creative spiritual force that powers our world, is trying to tell us something as we collectively wait and hope that she will pull through. For had the outcome of the shooting been one extreme or another, we might have either gotten lost in grief or too quickly sighed and said, "Whew." But no, this is a time to really think.


And it seems to me that the shooter's motives, whatever they were, don't matter. What it's coming down to, as far as I can tell, is a consciousness about the impact of our words. We are thinking about whether we want to be a nation of reason, of thinking words, or a nation of rhetoric, where we say empty and artificial things just to pump people up. Just to market our message. Just to build a brand, if you will.


Unfortunately, as sick as that sounds, we are actually caught in a system where the individual is pushed to do exactly that. No matter how good their intentions, everyone, including public servants, is virtually coerced, if they want to be successful, into marketing themselves just like products are marketed – as brands. Because brands are the language of public discourse, and brands are what the public understands.


The result, sadly, is that serious and complex issues are reduced to simple slogans. Every word is shaped to convey a "key message," a personal brand, an agency brand, a corporate-sounding concept, to build a "brand personality," around "core values," on and on ad nauseam.


This is a system that we have built. Nobody forced it on us. But maybe it's time to consider the limits. For it's one thing to be conscious of our image. It's one thing to learn how to communicate effectively and compete in the marketplace of ideas and power. It's another to let branding take the place of actual thinking, to let it destroy our civility, to let it undermine the values that we as a big community really believe in. Like diversity, tolerance, spirited debate, and simple ordinary human decency. Treating other people the way we would want to be treated ourselves.


I don't know much about Gabrielle Giffords. But I am thinking of her right now, and I pray that she recovers fully and that G-d infuses in her the strength to continue her public service as before. But more importantly I pray that we use this opportunity to begin our own healing process. From baseless hatred and extremism. But also, more importantly, from the imbalanced extent to which our real selves are intertwined with our public images. From a world where there is no privacy left, no life except where it's recorded on Facebook, no room to really reflect unless you decide to go "off the grid."


Of course we'll all continue to do what we do. I'm drinking Starbucks right now even as I say (I'm sick of saying) how much I dislike their new logo and what I think it represents. I'm not going to stop being aware that nobody lives in a vacuum, that "you have a brand whether you like it or not" (as they say at The Brand Consultancy). I'll still read about branding and write about it too. But somewhere in my mind, at the end of the day, I'm going to reserve a space that hasn't been inhabited by the world of images. Where I am surrounded by trees, and wildflowers and grass. Where I look up at the clear blue sky. And where I can't even imagine a coffee shop for miles around.