Gary Larson is the man, and The Far Side rocks my socks. The thing you dismiss can end up crushing you, whether a symbol you eschewed or the threat of a symbol which you ignored. It all cuts both ways here.
The above is meant to set the tone: this is a silly-yet-serious issue. I was talking with my roommate about marking some of my shirts with a scarlet letter, because I'm becoming increasingly fond of the idea. You see, in Nathaniel "I waste no periods" Hawthorne's novel, Hester Prynne was forced to affix a red letter A to all of her clothing so that everyone would know she was an adultress. Over the course of the novel, Hester flouts the conventional morality of the time by integrating the badge of shame into her identity, making it a part of who she is and generally being OK with that. This drives certain persons up a goddamned wall, and for that, Nathaniel "Three sentences a page - I counted" Hawthorne gets points in my book.
As anyone likely to read this is probably already aware, the scarlet A has been hijacked - and I mean that in the best possible way - by Richard Dawkins for his Out campaign. I, for my part, am a collector of symbols: I grew up moving around and came to define myself by the stuff I have, and in order to avoid feelings of loss at losing parts of myself whenever I lost stuff, I would simply try to pick the most symbolically important things and I keep them all in one place. So, naturally, this is the kind of thing I would absolutely go ga-ga over: it's a subtle yet distinct thing I can do to publicly symbolize an important part of who I am. The A fits for atheism, adultery (the kind of Christianity I dropped regards premarital sex as adultery against one's future spouse), and apostasy; all things regarded as evil by the church, but which I see as badges of honor, not shame. (I just today added the scarlet A to my sidebar, too.)
Well, my roommate counseled me against such action, as it could be confused with this:
I call shenanigans! I mean, really? Really?! You're going to take the scarlet A in the same goddamned font and try to steal it from the atheists for your own bullshit apologies? Come on! That's just stupid. But whatever, it doesn't really matter, because symbols are ambiguous and may mean many things. It's really OK for the Big Red A (or BRA, for short) to mean "adultery," and "atheism," and "apologia," and apostasy, and ataraxia, and asceticism, and fucking anything else! In fact, the more BRAs there are, the more options people have, and the more people know about BRAs, the more they'll talk about them. This gets people rubbing elbows and communicating with the opposition, and communication smothers hate. So you can have your BRA, and I can have my BRA, and everyone can wear a BRA and things will be just great! And if some people want to burn their BRAs, they can go ahead; if others want to show off their BRAs, that's also just fine; and maybe even some will want to keep their BRAs out of sight, and this too is acceptable.
Enough of that. My roommate also pointed me to this post over on Friendly Atheist, and the closing gave me pause for thought:
I think we should avoid symbols and special objects that evoke our affection as much as we possibly can. Although we may like to think that we’re above all that, we can end up magicalizing them and forming irrational attachments to them.Hmm. OK, first of all, I agree entirely with Wade that people "can become emotionally attached to the object itself as well as the concept it symbolizes." That's just plain correct, and he's also correct that we should watch out, for a whole host of reasons. This tendency can distract us from that which the symbol represents, it can be used to manipulate our emotions, and it can be confused with other symbols or have its meaning changed over time. Symbols are complicated stuff!
But should we avoid them? I respond with an emphatic Hell fuck no!
See, we're humans, and symbols are important to us. They just are. It's a fact of our psychology that we have to live with. Furthermore, language is symbols, and there's no getting away from that, The End. We do not comprehend things in their entirety, i.e. there is always a gap between "the idea of X in my head" and "X itself out in the world," and so we use symbols as a shortcut. Symbols serve as mental abbreviations, as cultural shorthand, as useful signifiers of complex concepts to which we may wish to refer with frequency but not at length. So in the first place, symbols are unavoidable.
But wait! Wade only said that we should avoid the ones that evoke our affections, lest we magicalize them. I still disagree wholeheartedly: while we should still be wary of symbols being weaponized against us, we should deliberately seek and create stirring symbols to instill with our own sense of meaning. As humans, we require positive reinforcement, and emotionally-charged symbols of the things we believe in can help with that. They also serve as banners for like-minded individuals to rally under in service to causes: associating a sense of community and working together with a simple symbol works both ways, as seeing the symbol later can bring up all of those positive connections. (EDIT: In light of conversation with Silver Garou in the comments and face-to-face, I wish to clarify that I think it's OK for small groups to do such rallying, but I do not think that there needs to be a symbol for all atheists to "get behind" - in other words, it's OK for as many people to "play football" as wish to do so; but that's different than saying "everyone should play football," which proposition I do not endorse.) And as the most distrusted and despised minority in America, I think that we atheists have considerable need of this sort of reinforcement.
We must still be wary of the magicalization, and be prepared to take a step back whenever our symbols cause us any sort of grief. That is the time to say, "Well, it's just a symbol," and review our priorities, and work on what really matters. In a way, this actually gives us an even greater advantage over other demographics: if we can cherish our symbols for their benefits, and inoculate ourselves against their abuses, then those who would seek to use our symbols as a weapon against us will simply be wasting their time. And the more time they waste on pointless bullshit, the less time they spend actually getting in our way. Furthermore, the less our symbols may be used against us, the more frustrated the opposition becomes - and so, without lifting a finger, we shall be allowing the opposition to demoralize itself. What more could we ask for?
So by all means, symbolize, symbolize, symbolize! We need our symbols just as much as any other homo sapiens, and when treated with the proper respect and precautions, we have much to gain and nothing to lose from them. Symbols only have the power we give them, after all, and selectively conferring this power upon them makes them all the more advantageous to us.
Oh, and by the way, I found a wonderful solution to my dilemma: many of my t-shirts have exactly one letter A on them. My new plan is to color them red. Simple, subtle, symbolic. The perfect win, in my book. Nathaniel "'Run-On Sentence' is my middle name" Hawthorne would have been proud - and I'd take his opinion rather seriously on this subject.
This post was featured in the 43rd Humanist Symposium.