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Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Symbolism Shmymbolism

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.


Mr G Montag said...

As a proud red A wearer I wholeheartedly agree. An example that I'm always reminded of is the Atheist Bus Campaign which I have to say made me just so darn cheery. You had all these people going on and on about how it was just a bus advert and it wasn't going to convince anyone and all sorts of silliness like that, while no one seemed prepared to acknowledge what it had shown which is that we Atheists are a very real political force and that quit frankly is a really big thing. `

Zach L said...

good idea! I didn't even realize this was a thing, or an option, and I pretty much wholeheartedly agree with you on the positives of symbolism -- I fancy myself something of a writer, after all, and although realism and cinema verite have their places, nothing beats the exuberance of unraveling the meaning behind subtle things, or seeing how some small gesture can affect things on a grander scale.

Fun fact: my word verification word is "boast".

D said...

Good thoughts, both of you! And thanks for contributing!

Another thing that many don't seem to get, Montag, is that being able to write one's thoughts upon a billboard is an end in itself. Even if it doesn't "accomplish anything," being able to participate like everyone else is a good thing.

Zach, there's always more than one way to skin a cat. Everything is kamae, after all, right?

Silver Garou said...

"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."

Really? REALLY? We should just accept potentially dangerous parts of our psychology why now? I can think of at least one such aspect of our psychology that you are pretty adamant that we do over come.

I think you are failing to understand what the Wade over at the friendly atheist is saying, or perhaps I am, whatever. Whichever is the case, the way I took it still seems valid to me.

It came across as a simple warning that people can get too tied up in symbols and perceive attacks on the symbols they identify with as attacks on their person. People can get so wrapped up in their symbols that they will kill for slights against them. He warns that we, as humans, unconsciously form attachments to these symbols and those attachments to symbols can override our otherwise rational minds.

I understand that you want a banner of atheism that we can all gather under, but what I don’t understand is why that banner can’t be purely metaphorical.

D said...

Touchy, my friend; touchy.

(For any who don't know, Garou is my roommate. We just had a nigh-hour-long discussion on this, during which we forged inside jokes from pure argumentium ore. For the sake of anyone who doesn't live with us, I'll confine the rest of my response to what he actually wrote.)

Really, yes, we should accept brute facts about us for what they are. We should take them into account, and attempt to shore up the weaknesses these bring, while playing to the strengths they confer upon us. We should fight against our tendencies at irrationality, at Othering, at craving authority; our predilection for symbols, however, is a horse of a different color.

I took Wade as saying that we should avoid investing ourselves in our symbols because this can backfire upon us (please remember that I agree how things can go wrong; I'm disagreeing with his behavioral prescription). This strikes me as overly cautious, and harmfully so; rather like saying that we should not eat any more than strictly necessary, because we might be poisoned. By all means, let us eat, but let us eat intelligently and responsibly. Let us also beware of poison, of course, but let us not fear food simply because poison exists (and don't forget that too much of anything is bad for you).

I don't even want a banner for all atheists; I embrace the "herding kittens" metaphor, under which we probably won't ever "unite" like the Fanatical Wrong does. I'm OK with this. Again, I'm advocating for individuals to cherish their symbols, but to keep their proper place in mind.

(For other readers, the outcome of our discussion was that Garou and I disagree on what is likely to result in the best outcomes, and we hashed it out specifically to the emprical matters which would settle our debate one way or the other. Short version: we need to wait and see, so that reality can be the arbiter of our dispute.)

Silver Garou said...

How is this prescription harmfully cautious?

D said...

Fair enough; I should have said "potentially harmful." And, to stick with the nutrition metaphor, because it could leave one malnourished. Short version: Wade's advice doesn't solve the problems I think he thinks it does, and opens the door to other problems bigger than seeing one's symbol be disrespected.

Long version: Imagine, for a moment, someone who actually took Wade's advice and scrupulously avoided all emotionally-charged symbols. In the first place, this does not guarantee that the person will not be rational about this or that other thing, nor does it guarantee that this person will be immune to emotional manipulation (it just can't be done with symbols now - the underlying causes of being irrational or manipulable are completely unaddressed). But even more importantly, I would argue that ceteris paribus, this person will experience less happiness than someone who can symbolize responsibly (quick note - I also should have been more specific about the scope of the criticism!) for the simple reason that our hypothetical person cannot surround herself with symbols of her past successes (memorabilia), of her goals in progress (motivators), or of her hopes for future improvements (...double motivators?). This person has eliminated a potential source of happiness from her life without even getting started on what could make her unhappy with symbols in the first place. I argue for addressing those root causes, and then one's symbols will more or less be "tamed."

Again, though we interpret Wade's general tone differently, his stated conclusion is, "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." (Emphasis added; also, I just noticed that he actually closes with the even stronger, but perhaps more benign, "Do not cling to junk!" I think he and I would define "junk" rather differently, too.) I interpret this as the command, "If this symbol evokes your special affection, then you should avoid it if at all possible." This strikes me as reducing happiness without treating the underlying cause for the abuses Wade wishes to avoid (they'll just happen elsewhere), and this constitutes genuine moral harm (ooh, I also smuggled in consequentialism, though I think you'll allow it).

Is that clearer?

D said...

Argh, need edit button! Should have written, "...this does not guarantee that the person will be rational about this or that..."

Grumble, grumble... morning grumble...

Typhinius said...

Heh...my problem with the BRA is even more basic than even Wade's. Basically, I don't like putting myself into the category of "Atheist". Sure, I am an atheist, in that I don't believe in a God or the supernatural. But I really don't like that "Athiests" as a group are defined by the fact that they don't believe in a flying spaghetti monster. I guess what I'm saying is that the grouping of atheists together is superficial at best, as it doesn't prescribe a system of values like a religion does. This is why I don't care about the BRA as a symbol, I don't care for what it symbolizes. I feel nearly no connection with other atheists based on their atheism. I would be much more comfortable with a Big Red R (BRR), as I do relate to people who are Rational. It's the reason behind a person's atheism that I typically can relate to.


Less Fun fact: my word verification word is "facknon".

D said...

Well, I guess it's a matter of social aggression, at that point. There are, apparently, a great many people who think it's weird to not believe in invisible sky wizards, and that characteristic will make them hate you even though it tells them nothing about you as a person.

We're the ones being labelled here, and if you don't like it, I completely understand. I don't like that it's a "bad" label to their mind, either, and I wish this wasn't even an issue. But it is. For my part, I think that this label should not be a badge of shame, so I choose to defiantly wear it as a badge of honor.

Typhinius said...

Yeah, I guess I just don't like the fact that "Atheist" is used as anything more than as a descriptor for "doesn't believe in god(s)", because I don't think it is.

It's sort of like grouping all people who aren't fat together. Really, the only way you can group them as one group is by saying that they aren't fat. Sure, there will be similarities within the subgroups of the "Afat", but grouping by those subcategories would be much more useful in my mind.

I know analogies are terrible from a pure logic standpoint, but I pretty much think in them, so it's hard for me to avoid them.

Anyway, it seems like you get my point, and I somewhat agree that if you are going to wear a label, wear it proudly, but I don't know, accepting that label as a defining characteristic rather than simply a result of characteristics that are defining (ie rational), seems to be fighting the war on their terms instead of ours.

D said...

Analogies are symbols. Use them wisely!

You wrote, "...fighting the war on their terms instead of ours." This, too, is a symbol, and I think it's causing you grief. It's not about whose terms it's on, it's about where the action is. Yeah, it's kind of icky that they won't just call us "Secular Humanists," and it's kind of a shame that the Brights movement didn't take off (mainly because enough potential Brights decided to see it as futile, and that fueled a self-fulfilling prophecy). I think we should use a more positive label, too (see "Evangelical Humanism," above; as opposed to "Loud Atheism"); but this is what we've got to work with right now.

As a word, atheism does have one important advantage, and that's the fact that it's so demonized in the holy texts by that term. By insisting on atheism, we can directly combat the source of the issue, and not just its multifarious manifestations. Switching gears will paint us like the "Creationism-cum-Intelligent-Design" folks, though, so we gotta watch out for that. But this particular label, the worst one to the opposition, is the best possible one for fighting the best fight we can. To my mind, anyway.

Or, to put it in your terms, we need to fight them on their terms eventually. We should use the fact that they left the door open to our advantage.