Probably like a good many of you, I’m fascinated by symbols. The fact that we can communicate dozens – or more – ideas with just a few simple lines and colors is utterly astounding to me, particularly when I consider the way that these meanings can shift wildly in different contexts and over time – even from person to person. Symbols work because they’re heuristic – cognitive shortcuts on the neurological highway. We can drive our synaptic vehicle to its mental destination nanoseconds faster once we’re cued to them.
That’s just one take on symbols, though.
Some thinkers consider them to have intrinsic, or even transcendent, meaning. In both cases, the idea is that the symbol has an Ur-meaning that is independent of context; that it is universally recognizable due to an inherent quality that has its basis in the “collective unconscious” (and thus the operating system, if you will, of the Homo sapien brain) or some spiritual realm beyond. I like both of these ideas, but I suspect that they’re ex post facto convenient explanations for the seeming similarity of cross-cultural symbols rather than theories possibly supported by facts.
One of the most problematic symbols of the last 100 years has been the swastika, an ancient glyph (earliest documented use dates to 10,000 BC) once associated with (depending on who you ask) the sun, good fortune or man. While it remains so in many parts of the world, in the West almost all traces of its original meaning has been subverted and replaced with the evil of National Socialism. Doubt it? Paint a large swastika on a t-shirt and go for a stroll. Let me know how that goes…if they have internet service in the emergency room.
The International Raelian Movement (a religion described by some as a “UFO cult” that holds among its tenets that humanity was created by aliens) hold a Swastika Rehabilitation Day every year, ostensibly in the hope of returning some of the benign ancient meaning to the controversial symbol. (I say ostensibly due to my observation that the Raelians are very keen on publicity stunts. They were the group that announced that they had cloned a human being years ago, and they also hold well-attended demonstrations to advocate that women go topless – not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with that.)
They recently went to bat for for a New Jersey elementary school student “of Hindu heritage” who received mandatory racial bias counseling after he drew a swastika as part of a third-grade holiday assignment (a Hindu child required to participate in a winter “holiday” assignment is problematic all on its own), winning an acknowledgment of error and apology from school officials as the result of a letter to the school from Raelian guide Thomas Kaenzig:
“The swastika is an ancient symbol of good will for nearly a billion Hindus worldwide, and Middlesex County, where this incident took place, is home to a large Hindu minority,” said Kaenzig, who wrote letters of protest to the Middlesex County and Old Bridge superintendents of school on behalf of the group.
“It’s not the child who needs counseling but the teacher’s aide who complained about the child’s drawing, the counselor and the principal who approved the counseling,” Kaenzig wrote. “They need to know the beautiful, original meaning of this symbol, which can be found throughout the world. For thousands of years before the Nazis hijacked and distorted it, it signified peace, harmony and good luck. And for billions of people, it means those same things today.”
Is it wise to interfere when a symbol changes? Should the Raelians should work toward the conscious effort of rehabilitating a symbol, or should they account for the fluidity of meaning and accept the new definition. In some ways, I suppose that this is a function of consensus opinion: The symbol means what the majority of people agree that it does, and without a sizable shift in public opinion the discussion is moot.
That seems simple enough, but it suggests another question: Should the symbolic lexicon held by a minority – in this case the Hindu child – bend to that of the majority? Again, where is the tipping point at which the individual must sacrifice his or her personal symbolic language to avoid the potential of offense? Is that ever an acceptable concession? If so, we’re faced once again with the primary question? How can offensive (to some) symbols change?