Weak Identities, UU sectarianism, and Branding.

This article in Vox is about Buzzfeed, the popular internet content provider. It appears that one of
Jonah Perreti of Buzzfeed
the founders of Buzzfeed, Jonah Perreti has a background in Marxist critical theory. He, in a paper from long ago, advanced a thesis that capitalism seeks to influence people in the direction of having a weak identity -- a weak sense of self. A person with a weak sense of self is easily manipulable; identities can be proposed to the person which then they can create through consumption. You buy something to feel like you are somebody. Once I buy some skinny jeans, a fedora and some big honking wingtips, I can be a hipster of some sort.

Of course, the onrushing flow of products and sales means that someone will soon be suggesting another identity to me, which I can attain by buying something else: the shrubs and the lawn care tools that will make me a manly suburban homeowner, loading up his stuff at the local nursery. There is no conspiracy, just competitors creating and superimposing one identity hunger over another, each with its own shopping list. After awhile, I don't know who I am anymore, just an empty vessel through which popular culture flows, driving me back and forth to the mall.

Of course, the process is at work everywhere. The endless rush of emotionally potent news dissolves a person's sense of a long term narrative of themselves and their stake in the political and economic life of the nation. Today, I am upset about the VA hospital in Phoenix; the other day it was a gay football player, and before that the racist owner of an NBA team. Gone is my sense of myself as a social being, someone of a particular class, a particular point of view, engaged in a long term effort to shape the social order. There is no conspiracy, just a relentless competition for eyeballs. After awhile, I don't know who I am anymore, just an empty vessel through which flows the constant, apolitical stream of outrage, sentimentality and personal gossip of public life today.

This fits with a pet theory of mine, which is that weak identities, not excessive individualism, is the barrier to religious community. We are becoming people who are poorly differentiated. The whole system works against making long term commitments because the system works to erode people's capability to make them.

So, when I listened to Terasa Cooley's presentation on the UUA's branding process, I was intrigued by the proposition that an essential piece that we needed to communicate was who we are -- not as who we UU's are -- but how throwing in with us was an essential step in being who you were becoming. It's not our hero's journey; it is theirs.

(The three things that we need to communicate more clearly, which the UUA staff is trying to get their arms around are "who are we?"  -- "what do we do?" and "why does it matter?" Someone had to ask where "our theology" fit into this. Anything that is not part of who we are, what we do and why it matters and yet still calls itself "theology" is a problem. )

So what we are doing is forming identities. But everyone is in the business of creating new identities for people. Consider the question: "are you an Apple person, or a Windows person?"

We are asking people to become something new by asking them to become a Unitarian Universalist. It needs to be clear that the new thing is not Unitarian Universalism itself. UUism is a means to an end. But what end?

I think the 1980's separation of spirituality from society limits our imaginations at this point. We are trying to be spiritually grounded, historically authentic, and socially embedded. Our history and theology will lead us to a certain social role, if we are true to them.

Words fail at a certain point. Who are we? What are we Doing? Why does it matter? The answers we need are greater than UUism -- but point to a larger social force without which the nation continues on its merry path to self-destruction. We don't know what that is. So we continue to play with words and concepts, trying to find that compelling language that describes us and inspires us.

My contribution to all that must be sifted through is the memory of Walt Whitman. It seems that when we are at our best, we channel his spirit: radical, passionate, queer, embodied, inclusive, sexy, sentimental, grandiose. A poet/nurse/clerk entirely alive to his time. His spiritual life was inseparable from his social practice.

If you offered me a chance to become Walt Whitman (not the real Walt Whitman, but the character "Walt Whitman" that speaks from the pages of Leaves of Grass), I would take it. If we were a community of people that empowered people to develop their inner Walt, we would be a wonderful thing.


  1. Yes, and without a strong spiritual connection, the marketplace steps right in to offer its consumerist version of salvation. "You will be perfect if only you are skinny and own these shoes and your children do these extracurriculars." Our churches tell people they are valued for who they are by something bigger than that, and invites them into spiritual relationship with that Something Bigger. Despotism has happened when, without a strong spiritual center that is separate from the state, the state becomes the dominant religion. In our world it is the market that is the dominant religion. It is its own kind of despotism.

  2. One of your best! And I liked the video on branding. I've always been contemptuous of "brands." Never bought the expensive stuff as a teen or an adult, unless it was clearly more durable or functional. That probably fits in with my UU predisposition. And yet brands are what so many pay attention to. It made me wonder what MY brand might be. I believe it can be summarized as "authentic."

  3. Anonymous7:25 AM

    Well put, Tom. I see this reflected in the popularity of Facebook quizzes that tell us what Disney character we are, what animal we were in a previous life or what color aura we have. Deep down, I think we are all trying to find out who we are. I think about the implications for Religious Education. How do we help our children be confident about who they are, what they do and why that matters so as not to get swept up in the current of popular media, consumerism, etc? How do we help our kids identify their brand?

  4. Steve Cook2:45 PM

    I confess I’m trying really hard to fight my own cynicism and tiredness with all of this. I’ve held off commenting, wanting to think it over, yet it’s still there, and now exacerbated by the slick, “Selling God” article recently published in Boston Magazine.

    Many of us will remember the “re-branding” effort of the Sinkford years. I’m not sure if we called it that, but I think that’s what it was. Consultants, focus groups, LOTS of money spent. For this, we got a new chalice (described by some now involved in the current effort as, “The Flaming Birdbath,”) a few ads in Time magazine and a snooty slogan, “The Uncommon Denomination.” Denominational decline continued. Now we have another new process, new consultants, focus groups, LOTS of money spent and an ad agency that has sold, among other things, toothpaste. For this, so far, we have gotten another new chalice in new colors (described by me and some others as “The Flaming Tulip”) introduced to less than universal acclaim, and an article entitled “Selling God” that says we have become “fiercely secular.” However, to be fair, it’s early days. Perhaps we’ll still find some traction here, though it seems to me very unclear as to where we are supposed to be going with that traction. We’re inviting people to come with us to become heroes, however, not of our adventure but their own? Truly, I am puzzled.

    To be sure, much has changed since the Sinkford years: The internet barely existed then and is now a pervasive force; social media are leveraging everything in ways not yet really predictable or controllable; clergy malfeasance and sex abuse scandals alienated millions; the shocking rise of the Nones and the SBNRs has gutted the church attendance and finances of every faith tradition; no one seems to know what the Millennials want, except that they want to do it in groups.

    Change within and throughout organized UUism is inevitable and is indeed happening. I give the Morales administration credit for attempting to address these issues, even if I do not agree with a good deal that has been done. Perhaps we are on the way to an “And Beyond” future for UUism: a large, online, mass group, run from Boston like the CLF, while congregations are left to stand or fall on their own as best they can, perhaps by becoming “throughput” for the UUA. If so, I’m not sure that is a UUA I’ll want to be a part of—but then, as a rapidly aging Boomer, I’m hardly part of the “target demographic.” However, as I’ve been in this for 30 years, I will continue to stay with it. I still believe we have for the world a saving evangel; I just wish it didn’t have to be sold like toothpaste.


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