Symbolism: The Tie that Binds or Breaks

When my son was a baby, he slept with a stuffed animal. It was a bright yellow duck with orange feet and an orange beak. It was a little bigger than a beanie baby but much smaller than a standard teddy bear. He would clutch it in his hands while he slept and hold it next to his cheek. When he was teething, he chewed on the beak. When he started to talk, he named it “Duckie,” and it went with us everywhere. In the spirit of The Velveteen Rabbit, Duckie became frayed and worn. The beak never recovered. Eventually, he stopped asking for Duckie. For a while, it continued to sit on his bed, piled in with the pillows. I don’t recall when, but I took Duckie and placed her safely in a drawer in my room.

My son is seventeen, and he will leave for college next year, but Duckie stays in my drawer. My son has scruff on his cheeks, muscles in his arms, and plays in a thrash metal band. When I pick up Duckie, I remember how small he was in my arms, how soft his cheeks were, and the little round belly that rose and fell as he slept. Even at this moment, I feel a lump in my throat at the thought of my son’s childhood coming to a close. He is the age when my father-in-law signed up for the navy and served on a submarine. He is no longer a baby, not even a boy. Duckie and my memories are all that is left of that.

Symbols and Civilzation

I recently read that a human’s ability to create symbols, to attach meaning to something that would otherwise be unrelated, is the only thing that truly separates us as a species. We attach deeper or hidden importance to things, to words, to pictures, and actions. As a result, we can share large amounts of information in a single moment. A wink implies a joke, a flirtation, intimacy, or, if it’s unwelcome, irritation, or even a threat. A smiley emoji shares friendliness, agreement, or harmony, maybe an acknowledgment that something was funny. In the United States, a red light tells us to stop, warns of us an emergency, or may remind us of Christmas or Valentine’s Day.

These are symbols we all use without much thought and usually assume that other people know what we mean when we use them. When they do not, we often find ourselves upset and confused by how we could have been misunderstood. A co-worker of mine who previously worked as a swim coach described how he was working with a swimmer from Brazil several years ago, and throughout the practice, he was giving him an okay sign, his thumb and index finger forming a circle, and a smile to let him know he was doing a great job. He later learned that in Brazil an okay sign was the equivalent of the middle finger.

The roots of this misunderstanding are pretty obvious. These two men come from different cultural backgrounds, and the cultural symbols differ. Cultural symbolism is not only what differentiates one society from another; it is the genesis of society itself. The shared meaning, understanding, and recognition of symbols is how we order our daily lives and the absence of those things not only confuses us; it makes us less efficient.

Evolutionarily, humans used symbols to tell other humans where to find food and water. From our very beginnings, attaching meaning to unrelated objects or actions became lifesaving, some scientists would argue, species-saving. We have soft bodies; we aren’t very fast, we have no camouflage, and tend to make a lot of noise. We are easy targets for stronger, faster predators with a much better sense of smell. In modern life, those lifesaving symbols have morphed into familiar logos of grocery store chains or metal signs often headlined with the word “Warning.”

Symbolism a warning sign
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

In many ways, our symbols have become explicit and precise, just look at the warning descriptions affixed to household objects. In other cases, objects, actions and experiences hold more complexity than what is spelled out for us. For example, when I go to the store and purchase anything, I am given a receipt. This receipt would tell the store security I am not a thief. If I had to return it, the receipt is my right to have my money returned. If I were to be audited by the IRS, the receipts might be the difference between a penalty or relief. All of this is contained in our understanding of a thin strip of paper.

I often hear complaints about, “Why can’t people just use common sense?” In moments of impatience or frustration, I share those complaints. However, common sense depends upon a universal understanding of behaviors, words, and things. The question we are actually asking in our desire for common sense is, “Why don’t people respond to this the way that I do?”

Many among us would be eager to point to their open-mindedness, interest, and curiosity about people who see things differently. Many share the value of inclusion and believe that new experiences are what make life rich and full. Those same open-minded individuals might be quick to scoff or belittle those who have less stomach for the unknown or unfamiliar. Yet, if we return to the point that shared cultural symbols ensured human survival and created civilization, we may be able to acknowledge that deconstruction, interrogation, even poking fun at these symbols will have actual, lived consequences for a given society. We can always develop new ones, but there will be a hole in the fabric of what ties us together, at least temporarily. Whether we view these consequences as a mechanism of progress or destruction likely rests on how comfortable we are within the current environment.

Symbolism and the American Flag

This past Saturday night, President-elect Biden held a victory party in Delaware. American flags festooned this event, small flags were handed out to children, and many adults wore necklaces, glasses, or t-shirts decorated in red, white, and blue. Annie Linskey from The Washington Post wrote an article about this display and interviewed attendees about what it meant to see the flag positioned with such prominence. Some attendees responded that Donald Trump’s behavior had made them reluctant to show national pride for the past few years. One woman commented that the Biden victory event made her feel like the flag would once more stand for unity.

Linskey noted that under the Trump administration, the American Flag seemed to become a proprietary symbol of Trump supporters. Trump threatened jail time and loss of citizenship to those who did not respect the flag appropriately. He condemned football player Colin Kaepernick for kneeling in protest during the National Anthem at NFL games and made a display of hugging and kissing the flag at a CPAC event. His rallies were frequently attended by supporters in flag-themed clothing, hats, and accessories. Attendees expressed or seemed to feel that this was an appropriate and normative display of true patriotism. Somewhat ironically, the Department of Defense issues a set of rules around the American flag’s proper display including that it should not be used as apparel.

Symbolism in art, culture and American society

In 1989, the visual artist Dread Scott titled an installation piece, “What is the Proper Way to Display a U.S. Flag?” In this piece, a photograph of South Korean students burning an American flag is situated above a photo of flag-draped coffins on a troop transport. Below the photograph is a notebook where the public is invited to share their response to these pictures. Beneath this notebook, placed on the floor is an American flag. Those participating are permitted to stand on the flag as they write. This installation provoked a national response, including presidential condemnation and a series of actions that ultimately resulted in a landmark Supreme Court decision of the first amendment that did not permit patriotism to be mandatory. In his TED talk, Scott opens the segment by stating, “I don’t accept the economic foundation, social relations, or governing ideas of The United States.” He is honest about wanting social change and happy that his work catalyzed a response that prevents the government from requiring citizens to respond to their country in a prescribed way.

Just a few weeks ago, Paige Williams of The New Yorker also wrote a piece about the meaning of the American flag under the Trump presidency as well as its historical meaning throughout different eras. Her story centered on a man named Jim Carr, who spent his days decorating an overpass in Agate, Colorado, with American flags alongside banners that supported law enforcement and prisoners of war. Carr expressed in the story that he saw this display as a “Salute to America.” He was perplexed by drivers who flipped him off while he sat near his truck waving as they went by along I-70. He commented at one point about how “mad” America seemed to him.

Carr shared his backstory candidly, admitting he was “mean” and that joining the army straightened him out and saved his life. Carr is not the first veteran I have heard describe the military in this way. Countless individuals describe how the military gave them structure and purpose, taught them independence, and for many, gave them a sense of family or friendship that had otherwise been missing in their lives. As I read these words, I thought about what seeing the American flag must mean to Carr. How that piece of cloth richly captures, not the same, but an equally profound feeling as a small, stuffed duck in my drawer. I thought about what it would be like to sit in that chair and watch people dismiss and denigrate him for sharing what he loved.

Carr’s context is what is familiar and fairly constant in America. So many of us have friends and family who served, and the image of the flag is a sign of their service and sacrifice. It is a way many honor the people they love. What other meaning is equal to that sentiment?

When the stories of family separation broke, the horror of that practice by the United States government was placed under a national microscope. We learned about young teenagers trying to care for small babies. We learned that the rooms where children were kept were cold and there were no beds. Children slept under aluminum blankets. Baths and showers were infrequent. They were surrounded by metal fencing, caged in with little to no time in the outdoors. Beyond all of that nightmarish neglect of basic needs, small children were left to wonder where their parents were and if they were coming back.

Of the many things we learned, patriotic symbolism was used to decorate the walls of detention centers. During what is likely to be the most traumatizing days and months of their lives, American flags and red, white, and blue imagery was unavoidably threaded into the consciousness of these children. Those feelings of helplessness, terror, grief, and loneliness will lie alongside memories of America’s most familiar cultural symbols. As those children grow to adulthood and if they are able to come to terms with that trauma, is it not understandable how standing on a flag or burning one might be tempting? We burn love letters from those who broke our hearts. We throw the keepsakes in the trash. At the very least, we place them where we will not be constantly reminded of the pain.

Healing and Empathy

These examples are only two of an endless array of possible meanings and feelings about the American flag alone. As Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take the reigns of a divided nation, healing that division will be a daunting task. Empathy has been an identified “buzzword” of the post-Trump era. Already, labeling it a ‘buzzword” makes us take it less seriously. It is at our peril, that we do so.

Empathy does not demand we agree or tolerate abusive or violent behavior. Empathy means that we have space in our hearts to allow people to express a different response born from a different experience. My hope is that each of us can create that emotional space. We can start small, maybe the size of a little, yellow duck.

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