What is Cultivated Identity?

A primer on how consumption is marketed as “who we are”

Gamers. White Feminists. Anti-vaxxers. Militant vegans. “Carnetarians.Star Wars Fans. You might applaud or cringe at the mention of any of these entirely unrelated groups — a lot of that due to these groups’ propensity to be horrible to people online, often claiming it’s over “ideology.” The problem with that: it’s debatable most of them have an actual ideology. Some of them might make a case for being “open” or “inclusive,” though I’d argue that they’re only saying that to encourage growth. But what do they all have in common? Is there a shared trait between these seemingly unrelated groups?

What exactly are all of these things?

If you’re buying what capitalism is selling, they’re identities.

An increasing number of people are coming to the realization that “consumer identity” isn’t identity or that “consumer culture” isn’t culture. Consumption-derived cultures or identities are not organic ones, nor are they fully-formed ones. There is, however, one thing they most certainly are: deliberate. Consumer culture is a carefully curated set of social norms with an agenda: profit. It’s easier to profit (either monetarily or socially) when people identity with a (controlled, predictable) culture and slot themselves into it. Where consumer culture defines groups of people, consumer identity defines you — and encourages more intense purchasing habits. It doesn’t just come out of nowhere, though.

If you ask me, a better term for “consumer identity” is “cultivated identity.”

Cultivation of identity is the defining of people at their core and in a manner that suits an intended purpose, enacted by putting a “consumable” at/near the center of a person’s identity. By “consumable,” I mean a product, a TV show, a franchise, a point of view or whatever. It’s utterly impossible for that consumable to have a fully-formed set of ideals, but it does have tenants and requirements of its own. The associated marketing will continually push a person to concentrate more on the consumable and eventually put their identity in a fragile position.

The marketing associated with Cultivated Identity is also essentially demagoguery. A superhero franchise, titty anime, video games or a space opera absolutely cannot occupy a healthy person’s life entirely, so it must create threats. Everything that contradicts the consumable, even slightly, is labeled one of these threats — and it doesn’t really matter if the contradiction is only a perceived one (for instance, “western censorship” isn’t a real threat to titty anime). Threats are to be addressed by various means — and various statistics (sales figures) or acknowledgements (GOTY, Grammys, or even just good reviews) are seen as justification for whatever action is taken — “would it have gotten that attention if we hadn’t made a stink?” Often there is subtle implication that if that threat were not there, everything would be better — but typically a hyperconsumer just flat-out attacks it without the need for direct instruction.

Hyperconsumers can also easily turn on the companies that nurture them down this path (and inevitably will). If the thing they derive identity from suddenly contradicts that identity, everything goes haywire. This is what GamerGate was: a perceived “threat to gaming as-is” in the form of women participating and a wider variety of core mechanics — and the industry that labeled these things as threats seemingly embracing these changes. Star Wars fans did the same. Twice now: “a female lead!? A black stormtrooper!? SJW INVASION! DIE, LIBERALS!”

Pop Culture is an easy place to point out Cultivated Identity. In politics, it’s deeply rooted, as well. Before continuing, let’s clarify that identity politics is not directly related to what we’re calling cultivated identity in this essay.

Identity politics can be extremely important as representation of various organic cultures and identities. It’s tantamount to a legitimate representative democracy (the Civil Rights Movement was a direct result of black identity politics). An organic identity — one not cultivated for a specific purpose — has environmental and situational traits that create different perspective that is sorely needed in politics. Organic identity legitimately informs opinions and cultivated identity exists to influence opinions.

That now said, I want to point to Hillary Clinton’s “#ImWithHer” messaging as a blatant attempt at cultivating identity.

  • “I’m” Very direct targeting. It’s immediately asking you to declare this is about you and who you are.
  • “With” Functionally declaring what “I’m” is — who you are — but not by your life experience, rather by allegiance or association.
  • “Her” Not ideas, a platform, or ideals, you’re with a person. Whatever this person says or does, that is what “I’m with.”

This becomes fairly clear when you see how Hillary Clinton, like essentially every politician ever, is able to pivot her positions without getting a lot of flack. Politicians do a great job making things such as a “pivot” normal. Hillary Clinton’s following is utterly resistant to performing a fact-check of her statements — not that this is really that out there for a politician. The reason it works, though, is because they’re with her — a person, not a platform or ideals. This isn’t a mistake; no one would bother cultivating identity without agenda.

Hillary Clinton, again like essentially every politician ever, doesn’t want to be fact-checked — and her marketing reflects that.

In fact, most of the cultivation of identity in any arena (political or otherwise) is at least partially to avoid scrutiny. If one’s identity depends on something being as one perceives it to be, they’re not likely to critically analyze it. If one were to find inconsistencies in the place one derives identity from — knowing that an identity derived from a consumable is a fragile one — one’s identity then comes into question.

Is a hashtag single-handedly responsible for the total lack of fact-checking among her following? No, but it certainly serves to discourage checking the facts and is reflective of her entire marketing campaign, which primarily moves to define your identity through association rather than “Her” stances on the issues. Again, Hillary Clinton is not exceptional for a politician.

Donald Trump is, though. Yet, he engages in this very same insidious manipulation of his following — but with a much better handle on how to do it. Where “I’m With Her” is obvious cultivation of identity, Donald Trump is able to accomplish it by performance of things you would take for granted. Nothing new — in fact, stuff that worked on cultivating your identity when you were little. Stuff that seems normal, but ratcheted up to 11.

Why is it you think that Donald Trump makes people raise their right arm and pledge their vote to him, though? Do you think that he thinks it’s just a fun thing to do? Do you think he really wants people to think he’s Hitler? No, he wants people to think about when they pledged to the flag as a child. He wants to trigger the emotion of becoming a “true” American of your own volition. The kind that openly, proudly says “I pledge allegiance!” He wants to open up his huge yap and eat those feelings the same way I eat at a good all-you-can eat Chinese buffet.

Am I taking this a too seriously? You might think it, but I’d say not. Your subconscious takes it as seriously as I do. But more importantly, marketers take it even more seriously.

Even though he didn’t win in the 2016 primaries, I want to bring up Bernie Sanders. Contrast “I’m With Her” to “Birdie Sanders,” stickers, shirts and buttons depicting a bird landing on a politician, “Feel The Bern,” which is a joke variant on random phrase from 1980s and 1990s workout videos, or any of Bernie Sanders’ other messaging. Notice none of it is about who I am, what I’m “with,” or anything regarding or defining “me.” In fact, the campaign’s hashtag “#NotMeUs” is, in many ways, a direct rebuke of that kind of marketing — it’s stating, in no uncertain terms, that Bernie Sanders does not see his Presidential campaign is about him, but everyone. He backed that up, too; staying in the race in a manner that damaged his reputation in order to attempt to get policies into the official platform of the largest politicial party that might help everyone. His marketing made no pledge of fealty in your name and does not associate anything with you — other than everyone and sometimes we really need to be reminded of that.

Is Bernie Sanders without flaw? No. I will say, though, that not once did I see him use or acknowledge the word “Berniecrats,” — in fact, I find politicians attempting to piggyback onto the Bernie Sanders phenomenon by cultivating identity to be insidious, considering that Sanders’ marketing flat-out rebuffs cultivation of identity (at least in my assessment of it) and this shows what I would assert is a total lack of understanding on the part of said “Berniecrats.”

This is actually one of the original analyses I did when I chose to support Bernie Sanders. His marketing has never set off my “you’re trying to define me” alarm — and that’s exceedingly important to me.

It also apparently wasn’t enough when people are (rightly) terrified of Trump.

Cultivating Identity is perhaps one of the scariest things out there — because it works. One of the things people seem to get apprehensive (or even angry) about when talking about this is that they seem to think they’re being told that they’ve been tricked. Thing is, they haven’t been; it’s not a trick. It’s a long, spread-out series of small pushes in a direction you already want to go, but doesn’t stop when you’ve gotten as far as you want to go. The eventual goal is to nurture dependence — to push everyone to consume more — as well as create a subset of hyperconsumers that will reliably purchase and/or advocate the consumable from an uncritical viewpoint. How much aggression this includes is not a concern of the people doing the cultivating, as they almost never have to deal with it in a manner that doesn’t somehow benefit them.

The idea of cultivating people’s identity is very capitalistic, but you’ll find that “anti-capitalist” is very much a cultivated identity. Ever seen a mass-produced shirt that says “FUCK THE SYSTEM” (or something along those lines)? Cultivated Identity sold that t-shirt. There are people that use an anti-capitalist cultivated identity to further their own means, like the person or company who made and sold that shirt.

There’s consumptive behavior in almost all modern identities — whether organic or cultivated. The issue is not consumption (at least singularly). The issue is using an identity that is created by marketing and outside sources specifically to lead to consumption, because this can lead only to hyperconsumption — which is really frightening, aggressive behavior. To be clear: my opinion is that cultivated identity is a primary cause in hyperconsumption, which is also a primary cause in most abuse on the internet.

We were all born and raised in this environment, and our only means of staying healthy on this front is education. We are in desperate need of media and marketing literacy programs in our schools (because Patreon-supported essays like this really aren’t enough), as we are teaching people skills that were mandated as important in the 1970s — but the world didn’t just stop there. Everything changes all the time, and through the rise of Fox News and the “legitimization” (read: monetization) of fandom, the languages of politics and entertainment have changed. In truth, these are the lenses through with America sees most issues — even the most serious.

Cultivated Identity creates hostile environments. There’s a need for rules and enforcement in social spaces, as well as more empathetic application of algorithms and a need to stop abusive or aggressive people from using their behavior build their presence and make money. I’m far from the only one who has identified and talked about these problems, and there are direct ways to at least make it harder to abuse people online simply by not tolerating it.

That doesn’t address a fragile identity that constantly feels under attack because it’s tied to competing corporate and social interests. Abuse, both on and off the internet, can be curbed by lowering the stakes.

I’d also like to propose to you that toxic masculinity is a cultivated identity. I feel it is perhaps one of the best examples of it, too, as the “consumable” in this case is “literally everything, except with stainless steel and black rubber.” So much of what is out there for people to consume is branded and imaged in a way that men will find it palatable — and unobjectionable to like in the presence of other men. This is the ultimate form of avoiding critique, in my opinion, and look at the abuse toxic masculinity has brought the world.

We need to start spending time educating people about how not to allow media and marketing’s language of persuasion to go unnoticed. To a person who understands how and why, attempting to cultivate identity comes off as sleazy and cowardly. Why would you want to avoid scrutiny? Why would you not want your consumable examined closer? Why do you need people to feel as though criticism of your consumable is a threat to who they are as a person? Why do you need those people to defend you or your consumable as though their own sense of existence is at stake?

Well, it’s just easier to make money when people aren’t critical.