Power of Symbols
The day after Superbowl XLII, a game lost by the New England Patriots in the last 90 seconds after an 18-0 season, I wore a winter jacket emblazoned with the “Flying Elvis” logo of the team. I would have worn it if they won, and I hated the thought of being a hypocrite – for me supporting my team isn’t about associating myself with winning. For the love of God, I’m a middle-aged Red Sox fan – I know for a fact it’s a lot more fun to associate yourself with winning than with losing, but for the majority of my life associating myself with the Red Sox was more about humilation. In fact, Massachusetts released Red Sox license plates in 2003. I got mine just before the whole Grady Little/Pedro Martinez blunder in Game 7 of the ALCS. There I was driving around wearing shame on my car for an entire year.
There was a point at which I was heavy into flags. I acquired all kinds of flags to display outside – countries I’d visited, sports championships, historical flags. One of my favorite ones was the yellowGadsden flag. I had begun displaying it in support of the US armed forces and as a message of defiance to those who would do harm to this country.
Funny thing about symbols and flags, though. A symbol replaces words. It holds meaning to those who display it and who observe it, but those meanings may not be the same and what we take from those can be very different. For me, when I fly an American flag, I’m proud of my country and for what it stands. I am proud of our system of law, I am proud a country of this size and power can transition political power will a ballot cast by the people and not at the mouth of a rifle. In many countries, vacuums of power typically follow transitions of leadership wherein despots and others will take the opportunity to seize it. This is a message I am proud to make.
However, for people in other parts of the world, it can be a symbol of oppression and of violence – whether that is right or wrong. When you choose to accept a symbol, you choose all connotations of that symbol. I fly the American flag because I accept all connotations, can and will argue with those who express a negative association with it.
Sadly, there are those who choose to appropriate symbols to increase the credibility of their own cause and to create the perception of a cohesive message in lieu of actually having a cohesive message.
I no longer fly that Gadsden flag. It is a message several centuries old and for me the meaning of which is rooted in the earliest history of the United States. However, the political opportunists associated with the Tea Party have appropriated the meaning of the flag – at least for now, after all the flag itself is a couple hundred years old. The Tea Party is a movement with no true cohesion, no formal set of guiding principals, and no structure of which to speak. The Gadsden flag gives meaning to a structure without meaning on its own. Since I don’t know what meanings and associations I’m taking on when I associate myself with it, I choose not to make any statement with the flag.
You cannot pick and choose what meaning you’re advocating when displaying a symbol – you accept them all, which is what makes a symbol so powerful, but interestingly not displaying a symbol can be just as powerful.
Earlier this month, we were asked to wear the color purple to memorialize and support several students who had committed suicide after prolonged bullying. Imagine feeling so hopeless and so helpless that you feel the only way to escape the daily torment is to kill yourself. I was never the popular kid, but I never – not once – felt so out of control that I felt I had to take drastic measure to escape. There are few things I support in life more than the equality of all people and their right to be themselves – indeed, see my thoughts above regarding my flag. No child should be emotionally tortured because their sexual orientation may not be “traditional.”
However, I chose not to participate. By choosing not to participate, I was not rejecting the premise and not rejecting the support of those who may need it. I was rejecting the notion that this was the only way in which we acknowledge our caring. The color purple means nothing to me – I have no basis on which to draw an association between purple and anti-bullying. If I do not understand the associations behind the symbol, I’m not sure I’m willing to display the symbol. It doesn’t I don’t support those being bullied. It means that I’m not bought into the symbol and it’s meaning. Much like those who associate meaning for the Tea Party with the Gadsden Flag – they don’t know what they’re buying when they display the flag in general or with the Tea Party in specific, they just know they’re pissed off.
I’m pissed off that a child feels the only way out of a bad situation is to kill him or herself. I’m pissed off that the adults in these kids’ lives are either so oblivious or don’t care enough to find out what is going on in their lives, that those adults haven’t created a situation where that child feels safe telling them about their trouble. I’m pissed that the adults in these kids lives have allowed these children’s peers to gain social power in a culture of violence. I’m pissed that bullies have been empowered to do their deed unchecked.
I feel sad for these kids. I don’t know that I need to display purple to express this. I’m not even sure you could get a consistent definition of “bullying” from those who did participate. We do more to support the victims of bullying by not tolerating bad behavior, by confronting bullying behavior when we see it, and by building a trusting relationship through our own behavior and by taking responsibility to exercise control in a situation. Wearing the purple symbol is fine, but it means nothing if you don’t modify your own behavior.
Symbols are powerful in their capacity to express a meaning. When displaying a symbol one must be sure of the meaning being expressed. Be conscious of the symbols you choose to display, but when you do choose to display them, display them proudly and live to the meaning – even if it’s just supporting your football team.