On Hugo Schwyzer and “branding”


So, I guess you’ve all heard about Hugo Schwyzer’s big meltdown.

I’m not going to jump on any bandwagon here; I’m not interested in bashing him, and neither am I interested in defending him. He’s been bashed pretty damn thoroughly, and if he wants to defend himself, I’m sure we’ll be hearing from him again shortly. Or from any of a number of people who count themselves among his friends.

Me, I don’t know the man. But I’ve read his writings with varying degrees of interest over the last few years. Some of what he’s said has been fairly on point; some, way off base; and some, incredibly problematic. The most recent problematic utterance (or most problematic recent utterance, rather)? His referring to his latest lapses as “off-brand”.

Now, there’s a curious way of putting it. Most of us would say something like “that was out of character for me”, or “that was not really me, that was the drugs/mental illness/whatever talking”. Not Hugo. He doesn’t seem to see these things in terms of a character, or a self, but a brand. And therein lies the problem.

Hugo Schwyzer, like all the rest of us, is not a brand. He’s a person. I don’t know what his character or his self is like, but I’ve seen the “brand”, and I do not trust it.

And, more to the point, I have a hard time trusting any person who refers to themself, or their behavior, as something pertaining to a “brand”. Here’s why:

Branding started out as a way of identifying cattle on the prairies, and as a way of ascertaining which rancher they belonged to. The logo of this or that ranch was literally burned into their skins with a hot iron. It was pretty barbaric, but crudely effective. It was, essentially, a way of asserting property and guarding against its theft.

Later, with the rise of commercial industry, the term “branding” migrated to such things as logos, labels and trademarks — basically, anything which distinguished one product from another similar one on a store shelf. These labels were no longer burned into the skin of a cow, a calf, or a steer, but stamped or stuck on cans, boxes and wrappers.

And now, it’s come to refer to people.

Are we just cattle, then? Home on the Range? Are we interchangeable products on a grocery store shelf? Are we property, to be guarded against theft?

No. We are, all of us, people.

And that’s why I don’t trust Brand Hugo Schwyzer. A brand is nothing to do with a person, unless it’s that perverse, ultra-capitalist legal fiction, the corporate “person”. A brand is a label, a logo, a trademark. It is packaging for a product. It is a designator of property. And it has little or no relation to what lies behind it, or to the actual person(s) who created it.

And that’s why I find it strangely telling that Hugo Schwyzer referred to his own best behavior as a “brand”, and his lapsing from it as “off-brand”. Was his ostensibly conscientious, Christian, male-feminist professorship and writing an expression of his real self, or just a carefully fabricated mask to hide behind? Was it a bit of both? When was it the one, and when the other? There seems to be a great deal of confusion between Hugo Schwyzer, the person, and Brand Hugo Schwyzer, the mask. So much so that even Hugo Schwyzer, the person, has trouble telling which is which.

And yes, that’s very troubling. It has worrisome implications for us all. We, as a society, are fixated on the masks, the “brands”; as a result of that, of all this commercial and quasi-commercial packaging with which we surround ourselves, we lose sight of each other as persons. Little wonder, then, that it becomes too easy to leap on this bandwagon or that, attacking or defending. The Battle of the Brands has obfuscated our humanity; it has thereby hijacked the discourse.

I have a great deal of empathy for the Hugo Schwyzer, the person. He’s troubled, and he needs help. I sincerely hope he gets it. No one should have to struggle all his life to hide mental illness and addiction behind a mask. Because that mask can be torn off and destroyed at any time. And while he can always try to rebuild that mask — or “re-brand” himself, as he might put it — it will never be an adequate substitute for doing the real, hard, painstaking work of restoring himself.

You can reinvent your “brand” countless times, tidily and even seamlessly if you’re very adept at it. But to do so is to lie, repeatedly, to yourself as well as others. And, as long as you do that, you will have a hard time living as fully human. And your “off-brand” lapses will keep coming back, whether you like it or not, until you have scrapped the branding and come to grips with your own humanity — no excuses, no subterfuges. The only alternative is to die completely as a human being.

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