Style, or, The Purchasing Power of Virtue

Nike and Taylor Swift have something in common as of late: They are both selling the idea of "wokeness", revealing that the idea itself has become a marketing tactic.

Taylor Swift’s brand--her image and everything that goes along with it, from music to merchandise to social media--is exquisitely managed. A quick internet search will come up with several thinkpieces on the subject. She--along with her management company--have assertively managed transitions from “heartsick country teenager” to “NYC popstar with taste for the bad guys” to “the queen of pain and vengeance” or whatever Reputation represents. Her narrative has been encapsulated into itself--lyrics and videos seem to constantly reference past stages of Taylor’s journey. She even managed to include the line “the old Taylor can’t come to the phone right now...Why?...’Cause she’s dead” in Look What You Made Me Do. If the line itself is not enough, the inclusion of a phone-call mid-song is itself a reference to We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. Everything “Taylor Swift” refers in some way to Taylor Swift.

And I admit that I not only love her music, but I am fascinated with her image. Despite the fact that I find the heel turn of Reputation a bit blasé, I think she is expressing, alongside her music, a pseudo-alchemical personality transformation that could rival David Bowie in time. I therefore think it is of general psychological value to pay attention to what she does, and when, and to try an make sense of why.

One of the features of the constantly self-reflexive, nearly narcissistic focus of her brand is that she has, for the most part, remained famously silent on political topics. While Jay-Z and Beyoncé were taking the stage with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Taylor was avoiding the election altogether. People have both hated and loved her for this. Up until recently, apparently, she was considered by some white supremacist groups to secretly be “one of them”. As most psychologically literate people know, individuals will project all sorts of images onto an inscrutable face--perhaps especially when it belongs to a celebrity--and Taylor’s silence apparently spoke volumes.

Until recently. At the beginning of October 2018, she posted an endorsement of some Democratic candidates for the Tennessee midterms. It was a fairly long and articulate endorsement considering it was attached to an Instagram photo (of herself), and it garnered immediate media attention. She vaguely addressed her traditional silence in the face of everything political, and referenced some “events” which had caused her to rethink her stance. Given the precision with which I imagine her brand is micromanaged, both by her and a large team with a lot of money at stake, perhaps I can be forgiven for wondering: Is this a rare moment of authenticity from a global superstar, or is it a sort of large-scale focus group test to see how “Politically Woke Taylor” would play with the consumers?

If the latter, it seems to have justified further market research, since she called for her fans to vote at the American Music Awards, and has begun posting more frequently about the necessity to vote. This is a step back from the explicit endorsement of a few weeks ago, but still continues to elaborate her image as someone who is ready to be political.

The reader might have the impression that this is meant to be a piece analyzing the continuously transforming Swift brand. While that is a subject I’d love to spend time on, the larger phenomenon I would like to look at is what I see as the subtext of this turn: opinions have become marketing tactics. Not even specific opinions. Opinions in general. Having an opinion--at all. My idea is that if her posts are in fact about carving out a new and more devoted audience, the brand’s choice of tactic is less important than the apparent reality that it is a tactic at all.

The tactic is a form of virtue signalling writ large, and turned into a vehicle for cash. Virtue signalling, if you are unfamiliar with the term, is a reference to the signalling behaviour of animals like peacocks, who display the beauty of their tails to indicate their fitness for mating. To signal virtue, therefore, is to display or strongly imply one’s moral values, publicly. It usually is meant to look like the signal itself is virtuous; perhaps as though one is endangering their own position by denouncing some other person. But the more penetrating idea is that the signal is often a façade for the person actually enriching their reputation, since the moral values they are displaying are fashionable. Basically, a virtue signal is inauthentic.

I was tempted to describe Swift’s potential virtue signalling as not only turned toward cash, but “weaponized”--that, however, construes it as a violent--maybe destructive--development. And the problem with that is that it is important, from a psychological perspective, to try and imagine phenomena from a sympathetic place, if we are to gain any understanding whatsoever. So I will take the stance, for the moment, that virtue and moral value being drawn into the sphere of marketing is itself a morally neutral phenomenon. It is something that is happening/has happened, and the task is to discover what it says about the collective psyche.

Moving on: Swift is what triggered me to write this piece, but Colin Kaepernick is where it first become unavoidably obvious to me that something like this was going on.

When the Nike ad featuring Kaepernick’s face first came out, many were quick to point out that Nike was a corporation, and the apparent show of virtue represented by the ad was ultimately a way to make money. Nike had deduced, apparently correctly, that featuring the football player who made kneeling during the anthem famous would lead to sales. Yet, it seemed to me that there was something more to the actual content of the ad. The text read:

Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything.

I’ll make no bones about what I think of this ad: “Believe in something” may sound good, but ethically it is a terrible call to action. It is vaguely validating and feel-good while being completely meaningless; it rests, I think, on a bedrock of general nihilism. Believing in “something” is by no means an appropriate way to conduct oneself. In fact, believing in “something” is precisely how dogmatic and rigid world-views come to exist in the first place.

This is because of a semantic issue with the word “believe”. Though believe is a verb on the face of it, one cannot choose to believe something or not. Belief rests deeper than that. Belief structures the way one understands and perceive; it is the a priori to experience. One doesn’t pick what one believes, one just believes it. A belief is not a slogan or a cause. “I have a right to vote” is not a belief, but an opinion framed as an empirical claim. Beneath it might be something like, “I want to have a say in what my government does,” which is at least a personal fact; beneath that might rest something like, “I think a nation should take care of its less-fortunate citizens,” which perhaps points to something like, “Individual people have inherent value.” Now there is a belief.

Sometimes you might hear a person of faith say something like, “I don’t need proof of God, because I know.” That’s the depth of belief--not only does it not need a call to action (“believe in me”), but if you can choose to believe it, that’s a pretty strong indicator that you don’t. If you are in a situation of choosing, it is probably more likely to say that you are affirming something, or adhering to it, or regarding it as true.

And in the context of this ad, belief seems to have been collapsed into activism, or statement-making, or protest. All of those are valid and worthy phenomena in their own rights, and can emerge out of belief, but are not belief themselves.

There is a saying about this: The hand that points to the moon is not the moon itself. And the trouble with confusing the two is that the same hand could point somewhere else. So if I have already taken the hand pointing for the moon itself, I am in a real pickle when I see a hand pointing at a hole in the ground. I think the hole is the moon! The comparison I’m making is that in this situation, expressions of belief are being taken for belief itself. The problem with this is that a man who protests--possibly suggesting the presence of integrity or belief--does not necessarily believe anything that would help you in your own life. A person can, in fact, put on all the paraphernalia of belief without actually living what they are indicating.

Another saying: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Well, actually, not necessarily. You can create smoke in several ways that aren’t fire. And you can create the impression of holding noble beliefs without believing anything noble. This ennoblement of the paraphernalia of belief, however, leads one to take actions for the sake of their social value. One goes to a protest to take a selfie to get Instagram likes. Another denounces a media personality for saying something unfashionable, and thereby gains social clout. Perhaps a global pop star weighs in on a mid-term election to develop her brand.

How can “believe in something” be a marketing tactic at all? I might ask, are we so distanced from what we actually think, and feel, about our lives that the notion of holding any belief whatsoever is enough to move us? I think this points to a quite dismal (in my opinion) truth about our collective at the moment. The noise of the ten thousand media outlets, including our acquaintances on social media, is so great that our own position can get lost in the flurry. It seems to me that we have, to a great extent, lost touch with what we actually hold to be true, which is not necessarily what we say we hold to be true, but what we act like is true.

Making statements of virtue, online or in real life, without any connection to actual personal action, does not point to real virtue. It points to an overvaluation of likes, retweets, and other validation. Someone might object, “I am spreading awareness.” Spreading awareness, which for a time was called clicktivism, is simply offloading the burden of your own engagement onto someone else.

I am finding that it is difficult to maintain a psychological (non-pathologizing) position vis-a-vis this idea, since I actually consider it a serious crisis that awareness of belief--which is a direct function of one’s relationship with one’s own psyche--can be collapsed this way. I think the idea to explore, however, is that this is pointing to something important; something like a collective need to believe; to believe what we actually believe; to sort through all the opinions we are deluged with presently, to see what sticks, at the deeper levels; to differentiate what is personal from what is collective.

And perhaps it is worthwhile to say that, despite the messages on the Facebook feed, one doesn’t need to believe in everything; one doesn’t even need to care about everything. Your personal capacity to care is actually pretty limited. You can seriously care about a few things, really, and beyond that it starts getting fuzzy. It’s no crime not to care about every issue that comes across your feed. You care about what you care about, and just like belief, it’s not something you really have a choice in. Although you can recognize a problem with what you care about or believe--and work to change that--you certainly don’t get to just choose.

How would someone come to identify what they actually believe or care about? Well--for starters, you could pay attention to what you do. What do you act like you care about? What beliefs are implied by everything you do? This is a harder task than it seems, because it might demand seriously painful honesty with yourself about what you’re actually doing, and why you’re actually doing it. But if someone actually wants to heed the call of their individuality, and set about making their unique and crucial contribution to the world, well, that’s not a bad place to start.