Symbols, Fair Use, and Sensitivities

August 29, 2011 | By | 2 Replies More

When you have a dream about an argument, maybe it has some weight and should be written about.  Recently, I posted a photograph on my Google + page.  This one, in fact (click on the photo for high-res version):

My caption for it was “What more is there to say?”  Partly this was just to have a caption, but also to prompt potential discussion.  As symbol, the photograph serves a number of functions, from melancholy to condemnation.

It did prompt a discussion, between two friends of mine who do not know each other, the core of which centers on the divergent meanings of such symbols for them and a question of sensitivity.  I won’t reproduce the exchange here, because as far as I’m concerned the question that it prompted for me was one of the idea of “sacredness” and the appropriate use of symbols.

Which immediately sent me down a rabbit hole about the private versus public use of symbols.

Essentially, we all have proprietary relationships with certain symbols.  Since I already posted the image, the sign of the cross is one, and not just for Christians.  As a symbol it has achieved that universality advertisers dream of.  It is instantly recognizable as the sign for a faith movement just about everywhere.  It’s possible some aboriginal tribes in the beclouded valleys of New Zealand don’t know what it is, but on the level of international discourse it carries across all lines.

The public meaning is also fairly clear—it represents an idea and an institution.  The entire apparatus of the Christian faith is symbolized by it, the buildings, the books, the robes, the songs, the defining mythologies, and the philosophical ideas.  Publicly it is by and large regarded as a force for good.  Publicly, the ideas embodied suggest if not entirely represent a fundamental tendency toward morality and a stated ambition to achieve peace, love, and the concomitant positives associated with a redemptive philosophy.

But the private meanings are wildly divergent and stem from  both personal experience and long intellectual examination.  In some instances it is difficult to see how certain conclusions can possibly be based on the same thing.

So the question in my mind is, which is more valid?  Which should be protected?  The public meaning or the private?  And should they be kept separate?

In other words, in relation to the photograph above, does the “sacredness” of the symbol allow for not only a condemnation of the obvious vandalism that broke the stone cross in the first place but also a refusal to countenance sympathetic commentary for the breakage?  For those who find the symbol personally important, such assaults are seen as insensitive.  A violation.  Such sympathetic comments also yield a judgment of the person making the comments.  Obviously, this an antagonistic situation.  But what concerns me here is not so much the antagonism but the mutual rights of the antagonists to use that symbol each in their own way.

Let’s take something more secular.  Flag burning.  Obviously the symbol of the flag is a potent one, and with powerful public meaning.  Just as clearly, there is powerful private meaning and again this personal meaning can be wildly divergent.  And again, the question is, which meaning takes precedence?

More to the point, which meaning should take precedence?

If as some believe the image of the flag should be protected, rendering its use subject to specific prohibitions and allowable uses, does it still have utility as a symbol or have we reduced its capacity to represent ideas?  Or have we simply declared certain ideas related to it illegitimate?

Which goes directly to the question, can an idea ever be “illegitimate” as an idea?

Historically it’s clear that when a state attempts to bar the public dissemination of an idea, depending on the idea in question, an underground almost automatically springs up and suddenly the state has a problem it may not have had before—namely, a resistance movement.  One of the things that made early Christianity so powerful was its official banning by Rome.  The state drove it underground where it could not be observed or tracked and it grew on its own until the movement was so powerful that one day it emerged and became the state.

Like all such movements, it was then faced with exactly the same problem its predecessor faced—ideas it could not tolerate that needed banning.  And like most such movements, it fell right into the trap of political expedience and suppressed the free exchange of ideas.

It didn’t even keep the same symbol.  Originally the fish, the Ichthys, was the primary symbol, and we’ve seen it resurgence today as an alternative to the cross.  (The other prominent symbol came under Constantine, the Chi Rho, which includes a cross as an X overlain on a P, and enjoyed almost continual use as a subordinate Christian symbol up the present.)  But by the early 3rd Century, the cross had become so identified with Christianity that Clement of Alexandria could call it the Lord’s Sign.

As such, it was the banner for the emergent and often militant quasi-secular institution that was the Roman Church.  The fact that it was a Roman form of execution is possibly relevant for this aspect as early on it would have had dual meanings—for many as a sign of punishment more than of sacrifice.  (Interestingly, there is a historical quibble with the cross as symbol based on Jesus’ execution as the Greek word in scripture is stauros, meaning an upright stake, without the cross-beam.  This is a quibble, since it was the Romans who crucified Jesus and the term was crucifixion.  But even in this we see the process of abstracting out meanings for different uses, since the emphasis is placed by Christians on sacrifice and, later, resurrection through the same symbol.)

The symbol has been retasked over the centuries.  As such it demonstrates the natural process by which the free use of symbols serves preferred purposes.  Once the meaning becomes fixed and institutional protections are put in place to guarantee one and only one meaning (publicly) you begin to see a gradual loss of vitality once you step outside the precincts of an agreed-upon iconographic definition.  It is then that institutional problems creep in and a breakdown of original meaning can occur.  If one is using the symbol to define something into existence without regard for what it may mean to others, then you produce a situation in which only two responses to the symbol are possible.  Complete acceptance or complete rejection.

To make arguments of fine distinction becomes a sisyphean task.  To say, for instance, that practices defended by the symbol are not really consistent with that symbol, to those on the outside take on the appearance of special pleading and even self-selected blindness.

Easier to dismiss the symbols and talk about the thing itself.  It is possible for a symbol to obstruct this kind of discourse by insisting on its own unity and, if you will, sacredness.  To criticize the point of contention is then to criticize the entire edifice, good and bad, and this is counterproductive.  For example, return to the whole flag burning question.  When the United States is engaging is actions that citizens regard as antithetical to their idea of “America”, wrapping these actions in the cloak of the flag binds them in with everything that is acceptable, even admirable, about America and makes it difficult to argue that the actions in question are not American—or, as happened during Vietnam, that the people leveling criticism are themselves patriots when they are seen to be criticizing the entirety of America rather than just one set of bad choices, since the choices have been “blessed” by the symbol of the country.  At some point it became necessary to shove aside the symbol since its use in teh debate had become obfuscatory and divisive.  The dialogue that needed to happen was hamstrung because instead of being about an immoral war it became about the morality of the whole country, as symbolized by the flag.  Because the flag was held by many to be “inviolate” it became almost impossible for the opposition to use it to effect.  It had been taken out of its own utility because the public meaning had become fixed and ran counter to the private meaning of many of the citizens.

If this sounds like a great deal of abstract nonsense, take another example of the misuse of a protected symbol.

The Swastika, as symbol of the Nazis, was given legal protection by the Nazi regime.  It became illegal to desecrate it in any fashion.  It was applied to all official documents.  It was applied to published speeches, laws, passports, even scientific papers.  it became the absolute public identity of the German people and any dissent or attempts to set aside Naziism and its symbols in a debate over private meaning and public policy was prosecutable.  True, once an outlaw, the law didn’t apply to you, but in order to argue with the symbol and what it stood for, you had to become an outlaw.  It fixed the meaning of Naziism and rendered all dissent illegal.  Documents lacking the symbol were designated illicit.

There is, you see, great danger in “sacrilizing” symbols.

So what has this to do with an argument over sensitivities and judgments?  Since private meaning is exactly that, private, it would seem incumbent upon us to respect that each of us may have experiences and come to conclusions that out entirely at odds with public meanings.  If an expression of that dissension can be labeled insensitive, it can only be valid in the matter of other private meanings.  To claim the public symbol as one and the same with your private meaning as a way of preventing or invalidating critical remarks of the public symbol and its public meaning—by leveling the charge that the critic is being insensitive—can be seen as an attempt to remove the public symbol from the free exchange of ideas, to “fix” its meaning as inviolate even for those who see it as wholly otherwise.  This is hardly fair use since so often a return conclusion is offered about the nature of the critic—a conclusion which may be accurate or may be completely beside the point.  In either case, it is not an invitation to dialogue but a wall built to protect against the possible erosion of private meaning by means of critical examination of public symbols—and their public meanings.

My apologies if this has become a bit abstruse, but it’s a difficult topic to deal with in less than precise language.  The ideal is to always keep in mind the distinction between an idea and the holder of the idea.  Since many people, on both sides of any issue, insist on identifying themselves personally with an idea, this can be a problematic stance.  As many Christians say, “hate the sin, love the sinner,” depending on how closely the sinner identifies with the sin in question this may simply not be possible.  But it’s a start at acknowledging that experience is important and may not be invalidated by simple recourse to symbols—especially symbols that enjoy special protection from criticism.

Anyway, this is offered as a basis for discussion.  It would be interesting to see what comes of it.


Category: American Culture, Censorship, Civil Rights, Community, Culture, Good and Evil, History, Meaning of Life, Patriotism/Nationalism, Privacy, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (2)

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  1. Mike M. says:

    As a first shot at this, reading this article made me remember a quote from Robert Anton Wilson that went something like this: ‘Symbols? I’ll leave symbols to the symbol-minded.’

  2. Mike M. says:

    The problem with symbols is that they are too many steps removed from the ideas they represent. Symbols are hazy and pale mirages, far distant from the truth found in the felt presence of direct experience. Symbols are fingers pointing at the moon, as the Zen parable goes, not the moon itself. Many people become entranced and bound up by the symbol, and forget the core meaning behind the symbol. The symbol’s meaning is stored within your brain and within your heart, and does not exist “inside” the form of the symbol itself. You can tear up the menu, but the meal will still exist on your plate or in your memory. So burn the flag, break the cross, topple the statue. These are good cultural deconditioning and ideology dissolution exercises leading to mental liberation.

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