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You Are Not A Brand: Humility and Recognition

Ryan McAnnally-Linz

How Christianity subverts the pursuit of recognition.

Associate Research Scholar, Yale Center for Faith and Culture
November 6, 2017

When I was a kid, it always puzzled me a bit when I walked down the soda aisle at the Ralph’s down the street from my house that a two-liter of Coke cost more than a two-liter of the store-brand stuff. I had tasted both of them, and while I would have insisted that they weren’t exactly the same, I knew that the difference in taste and the difference in price didn’t line up. And yet I always wanted to buy the Coke. (Who am I kidding? I still do.) That right there is what’s called brand value.

If Coca-Cola were to close up shop today, selling all its assets and paying off all its liabilities, there would be something like $26.8 billion left over to payout to shareholders. By contrast Forbes estimates the value of Coca-Cola’s brand—the name, the color scheme, the old-timey script, and everything that people around the world associate with them—at $56.4 billion. That’s twice as much as the company’s concrete stuff is worth, and almost $15 billion more than it generated in sales last year.

The Brand Economy

The predominance of Coke as a brand over Coke as a product isn’t unusual. Brands and their value have become steadily more important in the global economy over the last half century or so. There’s a whole body of scholarly literature out there analyzing this shift and a whole slew of marketing theory used to train the next generation of brand managers at business schools across the country. For instance, the media scholar Liz Moor traces a historical change in how brands function from designating ownership and origin, through marking the quality and distinctiveness of products, to organizing the whole productive enterprise of many modern corporations.

As brands have become more and more central to the consumer economy, the idea of the brand has extended its reach beyond products and corporations to people. Not just Coke and Apple, but also Oprah and LeBron James are brands. When President Trump filed his financial disclosure with the Federal Elections Commission as a candidate in 2015, he claimed (rather implausibly) that $3.32 billion of his net worth came from his brand. The idea is that people embody certain ideas and feelings, and these ideas and feelings are valuable. You feel like belong on a basketball court when you wear LeBron’s shoes. Or you feel brash and flashy when you stay at a Trump property. Who these people are and what they stand for can fetch a pretty penny on the open market.

Personal Branding

What does all this have to do with you and me—assuming you, like me, are not awash in endorsement deals and opportunities for personally branded product lines? Well, economic and cultural changes over the past few decades have made the brand idea seem more and more applicable to lots of everyday people. Job security has decreased. Consulting and freelance contracting have become more common. The “sharing” economy has turned your car, your house, and your free time into marketable commodities. And social media has promised a platform to anyone with an internet connection.

It’s not surprising, then, that various business gurus and self-help writers have urged everyday people to treat themselves like a brand. We all have a brand, they say, but not all of us take control of it: “Everyone has a personal brand, whether some skeptics want to admit it or not: there’s no such thing as opting out.” “Just like a corporation, if you don’t take ownership of your brand, you’ll be stuck forever with how the world initially judges you.” “Define your brand, or your brand will define you.”

Now, when I first came across personal branding, I was tempted to dismiss it as vapid and tawdry, just another attempt to cash in on a trend by selling tips ranging from the banal to the laughable. But I’ve become convinced that writing off personal branding would be a big mistake. The idea that you are a brand addresses a need that many people today feel intensely, and it connects to some of the deepest ideals of modern North Atlantic culture.

Recognition and Authenticity

The deep need personal branding responds to is the need for recognition, for being noticed and affirmed. Personal branding, its proponents say, is about helping you get “the recognition you deserve.”

But by and large we don’t want recognition for just anything. We want to be recognized for who we are, for things that line up with what matters to us and define us as individuals. Otherwise, recognition rings hollow and the personal branding that helps you get it looks fake, like selling out. The rise of the idea that each of us has a unique way of being human, the “ideal of authenticity,” is among the great cultural shifts of modernity. It has become deeply embedded in many contemporary cultures. Say what you want about “you do you,” but it’s inarguably a plausible ideal for a large number of people today.

Humility is a mode of acceptance of a divine commissioning in service of the divine mission.

So, the ideal of authenticity puts limits on the pursuit of recognition. But why not be authentic without recognition? Why not just “do you” and not worry what others think? Well, the importance of recognition follows from the ideal of authenticity given the added (true) premise that humans are social creatures. We might try to define our own identities in isolation, but the results will always be fragile and unstable. We will always seek some affirmative recognition from those around us.

Thus, authenticity and recognition go together, and they lie behind the plausibility of personal branding.

Broken Recognition, Illusory Authenticity

Now, there’s nothing wrong with holding to an ideal of authenticity and valuing interpersonal recognition per se. In fact, there might be good reason to think that they’re legitimate components of human flourishing if we are in fact each a uniquely created instance of humanity meant for community with others.

The problem—and it’s a tough one—is that the ways we give and receive recognition, and the ways we go about discerning our authentic identities are profoundly distorted by sin. For instance, in today’s market-dominated culture, there is a strong tendency to use market value as the basic measure of recognition. Something is only worth what you can sell it for. If you can’t monetize it, it doesn’t deserve recognition. Or in the church, perhaps we recognize those who exercise the most publicly visible gifts—preaching, maybe, if we’re Reformed, or prophecy and healing if we’re charismatic. Meanwhile, we leave unnoticed quiet forms of fidelity.

Given the endless inventiveness of Sin, there’s no way to catalogue all the ways that our ways of recognizing each other can and do go wrong. It’s enough to say that they do, often quite badly.

Christlike Humility

Faced with sinful economies of recognition and broken attempts at authenticity, what are we to do? Personal branding puts itself forward as one solution. The way of Jesus Christ proposes an alternative: humility.

The paradigm of humility is found in Philippians 2, where Paul urges the church at Philippi to exercise “humility of mind” and to have the “same mind” that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:3, 5–11)

This picture doesn’t have anything to do with popular caricatures of humility as thinking poorly of oneself, or scholarly reconstructions that paint humility as simply having an accurate assessment of your talents, accomplishments, and worth. Instead, we see humility as Christ’s willingness to forego his rightful status (“equality with God”) for the sake of God’s mission in the world. Christ accepts the shameful status of a crucified slave, rather than forego our salvation and enjoy his divine status. That’s humility.

We might define humility primarily as a mode of tenacious devotion to God’s kingdom, in particular as one submits the desire for honor, glory, privilege, and social standing to that devotion. Humility is a mode of acceptance of a divine commissioning in service of the divine mission. Humility contributes to the divine mission insofar as it overcomes fear of humiliation, resists the temptation to deviate from its service for the sake of acclaim or status, or makes one willing to forego the accessories of one’s rightful status.

Humility is thus largely a matter of attentiveness—or a certain sort of inattentiveness. A humble person does not count status or the threat of dishonor as a reason not to do what faithfulness to God’s mission in the world requires. No task is below her, beneath her stature, too insignificant or ignoble. Indeed, while she might on one level know what her status is, she doesn’t think of it at all when commitment to follow Christ makes a demand on her. She thinks simply of the task at hand.

Humility in Cultures of Recognition

What would Christ-like humility look like in the age of the brand? Instead of trying to give a systematic presentation, I’ll offer just two brief remarks.

For one thing, commitment to God’s will for and work in the world requires us to hold our own identities loosely. We cannot assume that faithfulness is compatible with staying in the roles we have, no matter how good they are, or even with who we “authentically” are at any given moment. And that’s a scary thing in a culture that tells you to hold fast to who you are and that rewards brand consistency.

Alarmingly, humility also entails giving up the effort to control the truthfulness of others’ interpretations of our deeds and ourselves. Humility is willing to be misunderstood and misconstrued. It neither dissembles nor gets sidetracked by self-explanation, but rather undertakes whatever it is that devotion to God’s will for and work in the world asks of it with steady attention. (The bright side is that we are in fact most authentically ourselves when we are not concerned with being ourselves and being recognized as ourselves, when instead our identities are lodged in Christ and we are seeking to respond faithfully to Christ’s call.)

Cultivating Humility

Supposing we’re convinced that humility would be a good thing, how might we go about cultivating it?

We could start by developing two types of practices. One type trains our attentiveness. These can be either ascetic or constructive. Ascetic practices of attentiveness seek to loosen the grip of considerations of status and recognition on our attention. An example would be turning off notifications of likes, comments, and retweets. Constructive practices of attentiveness, in turn, seek to develop habits of attending to God’s will for and work in the world. Most often, they intentionally heighten our focus on some place where we expect to see God at work in the world, such as among the poor and marginalized.

The promise of the gospel is that you truly flourish not by seeking recognition wherever you can find it, but by humbly seeking first the kingdom of God.

The second type, which I call devotional practices, seeks to cultivate passion for the kingdom of God. Practices include reading Scripture, diverse forms of prayer, hymns and songs of praise, immersive contemplation of visual art, and so on.  Indeed, in some respect the whole of Christian life is a training in devotion. The connection to humility, however, is simple enough: the more devoted you are to God’s reign, the more you will tend to disregard other considerations when they conflict with this devotion. Put in traditional terms, charity perfects the virtues.

Embedded in distorted, sinful economies of recognition and subject to the sin that dwells in us (Rom. 7:17–23), none of us could expect to cultivate perfect humility. Nor could any community.  Nevertheless, it is important to note that humility will be easier to cultivate in communities, rather than as single individuals. Humans generally pay attention to the same things those around them do. And devotion is deeply communal. The task of faithful discipleship in cultures marked by pursuit of recognition of authentic personal identities is thus not simply to form ourselves as humble people, but to imagine and shape humble communities, the first and foremost of which being a humble church.

Bearing the Brand of Christ

Humility isn’t all that’s needed to respond faithfully to our fallen cultures of recognition. We also need to develop habits of recognizing others rightly, of resisting our own tendencies to recognize in conformity to the “pattern of this world” (Rom. 12:2). But so long as there’s a divergence between what faithfulness to God’s work in the world requires and what gets recognized in our communities and societies—which is to say, until the eschaton—humility is essential.

You are not a brand. You are (called to be) a disciple of Christ, the humble one. The marks of Christ (Gal. 6:17) are the only brand that should define you. The promise of the gospel is that you truly flourish not by seeking recognition wherever you can find it, but by humbly seeking first the kingdom of God.

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