Lessons From The 9/11 Gift Shop

The 9/11 Cheese Plate: Yes, this was a thing.

The 9/11 Cheese Plate: Yes, this was a thing.

There is a tendency to point to this or that stadium or edifice in modern cities around the world and hold it up as a sort of secular church or a temple to some kind of civic religion. There is probably no greater example of this kind of building in North America though than the newly opened 9/11 museum in Lower Manhattan. This is no small part of the reason why there has been such a negative reaction to the 9/11 Museum Gift Shop. This is a place where one can purchase 9/11 mugs, t-shirts, keychains, and, until it was pulled from the shelves, the 9/11 cheese plate pictured above.

Once the tales of the 9/11 cheese plate when viral, all manner of people expressed the level of outrage one might expect for a 9/11 cheese plate. Out of everything written about this, the most cogent observations was this one from psychologist Philip Tetlock:

“[Tetlock] distinguishes between three kinds of exchanges. First are routine trade-offs, in which one swaps one “secular” value or entity for another — by, say, paying money (the most secular good we have) for an iPad or some other commodity. Second are tragic trade-offs, in which “sacred” or irreplaceable entities are weighed against each other — national security or citizen privacy? Sophie’s older child or her younger one? Then you have taboo trade-offs, in which a secular value is paired with a sacred one. People tend to throw prostitution into this category, which is why it incites such fierce debate.”

The 9/11 gift shop, in the eyes of many, is trafficking in taboo trade-offs. It doesn’t matter if the money that the gift shop raises helps to fund the museum (which means that this isn’t technically a taboo trade-off – as the article linked above makes clear), the perception is that this is profiteering from tragedy. The 9/11 museum is an easy target for this outrage as the nature of its mission is one that approaches the sacred. You should probably get the sense that there is a message here that relates to churches, you’re right, elsewhere in the same article:

Organizations that are expected to honor the sacred can get into trouble when they rely on commercial practices. In a recent study, Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Janet Schwartz of Tulane University, and Tetlock found that people were less likely to attend a church that used marketing tactics such as advertising and hiring a celebrity endorser than one that marketed by offering workshops or creating an online forum.”

These are, of course, really obvious examples of commercialization, but I wonder if the same phenomenon might explain why so many people are wary of, say, churches that look like shopping malls or warehouses, or perhaps church music that’s a little too contemporary (says the guy who plays electric bass in worship services), or pastors in Hawaiian shirts. If taboo trade-offs make many of us uncomfortable even to the point of not liking the mere appearance of them, maybe we need to rethink contemporary services in contemporary buildings with casual-Fridays-looking pastors?