I have been thinking about symbols lately. What they mean, what they show, what they say. We are seeing a lot of raised fists: black lives matter, once black power. Did you know that in the eighties, the white supremacy movement adopted/adapted it for themselves, with white fists? Did you know that if you raise your arm and don’t make a fist, and if it stretches straight out instead of straight up, you are hailing Hitler? And that the raised Heil Hitler sign had its roots in the Roman Salute, which went back centuries, and was adopted by Mussolini before Hitler took it up? The hamsa is a raised hand symbol which means a blessing. A Jewish star is a symbol of my religion; once it was also an identifier of whom to kill: the Yellow star. When I was growing up, I believed that a boy with a pierced earring in his right ear symbolized his gayness (or was that left ear, or was left ear straightness? Or was it urban legend and really no ear?). Doves symbolize peace and eagles symbolize patriotism and power.
Symbols have their uses, for good and for bad. They can help people come together. “Under the same banner” is a phrase that explains how it works. People hold it aloft and walk in step for a cause. Everyone chanting the same mantra reinforces the message and knits together groups of demonstrators, at least temporarily, into a cohesive group of protestors. A well-placed action, like an athlete taking a knee in resistance to the symbolic salute of the flag (another symbol) can launch a whole movement, and was deemed powerful enough for it to end an athletic career. But symbols are never static. They can take on lives of their own, overshadowing the human element, and eclipsing their original usefulness. This happens, in my mind, when what we think about the symbols people hold, wear, wave, turns into action. When we hate or hurt a person for expressing a belief symbolically, we’ve gone too far.
Don’t we see that symbols without people mean nothing? They are like flashlights without batteries. Their power to illuminate is only there when someone salutes it, or kneels to it, or puts it on a banner, or nails it on someone’s front door or work locker. If you walk past it, it means nothing. If I taunt you with it, it takes on meaning.
You like some symbols and hate others; I like some symbols and hate others. And really, that’s fine, isn’t it? As long as we stick to disliking the symbols and not letting it slide into hating each other, we can talk about how we resolve our disagreements. As long as we understand that symbols are inert without being activated by people. As long as we understand that symbols don’t bleed or cry.
Am I being a little bit preachy? Don’t we already know all this? We do, we do; and yet we — me included — get all lathered up over irrelevancies that would remain lifeless if we didn’t animate them with our attention; and at the same time we take our eyes off the real stuff that’s going around, which is a pandemic disease, racial inequality coming home to roost, and the violence, fright and paranoia that follows those things. Those are problems to be solved in our society. Our symbols of governance are not even on that list.