Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Symbols of Division

“For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.”
When I first heard Michelle Obama say these words in February 2008, I was taken aback.  If I’m being completely honest, I was a little angry about it.  I didn’t realize at the time that my privilege was being confronted.  I knew that this nation was far from perfect, but the idea that someone could find nothing to be proud about was something I was not equipped to hear at the time.  I’m a work in progress.

Nine years later, I’ve learned a lot about the different lenses through which we all view the American experience.  I’ve learned that, for many, those lenses genuinely make it hard to be proud of the state of our Union.  And, because of that, the same symbols a hetero white male like myself see as unifying (or at least innocuous) take on a much darker meaning to those for whom our imperfect nation has been neither kind nor just.

From confederate monuments to sports mascots to the national anthem, symbols have been much on our mind of late.  And I think its worth a moment for us all to consider just what symbolism is.  In my very best 3rd grade English, it’s “using a thing to represent an idea”.  But who owns the idea and who infuses it into the thing?  And how does that change over time?

Take the swastika, the most recognizable and notorious symbol of the 20th century.  Do you think the Nazis invented it?  Ancient civilizations from India to Greece used the swastika as a symbol of strength and divinity.  Today, we view it in the context of the Third Reich and the Holocaust.  Many pagan symbols were co-opted by the early Christian church as a way to absorb those cultures under an expanding Roman empire.  The bottom line is, things change.  No symbolic meaning is immutable.  The good can be corrupted and the corrupt can be redeemed by events large and small.  

The passage of time isn’t the only reason for differing perspectives on the meaning of a symbol.  Life experience in the shadow of a symbol can impart wholly different meanings on the same icon.  Imagine every morning a big red truck drove down your street.  If you lived on the right side of the street, people came out of the truck and hosed you down and beat you.  If you lived on the left side, different people came out and handed you food.  I imagine the symbolism of a red truck would inspire both hope and fear, depending on what side you were on.  

We can have opposite and equally valid reactions to a symbol.  And allowing you your reaction does not detract from mine (because the thing is not the idea).  A reaction that you didn’t expect or consider is an opportunity to learn and see things from a different lens and become an ally.  To grow.

So if you can accept the idea that symbolism changes over time and can be drastically different, based on your own experience, then there is no sacrilege in asking “what is it you are trying to promote here?” and “would another symbol promote the same thing without the mixed messages?”  Our values, our truth, come from inside.  We can love our nation and still face its faults.  We can hold something dear and still respect someone else who sees it differently.  We can be proud and still understand why someone else finds it extremely hard to be.  Ideas matter more than things and people matter more than ideas.  Choose people.  We have to get past the flash point of our personal outrage and get to the conversation that matters.  

No comments:

Post a Comment