Ben Hsu

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

Symbols Symbolizing Symbolism

This symbolizes why I can’t work from home.

Let’s talk symbols! They’re great aren’t they? It’s a fast, easy way to convey a lot of information in a tiny bit of space. For example if show the you the ‘$’ symbol you immediately know I’m talking about money. But more specifically you can also infer American money (dollars as opposed to other currencies which have their own symbols) and you can even extrapolate things like, business, trading, commerce, value, goods and services. There’s a lot bundled into the tiny symbol of ‘$.’ Even our basic language is comprised, at its core, of symbols. The word ‘dog’ is not an actual dog. It’s a symbol for the concept of a dog, so when I say ‘dog’ everybody knows I’m referring to our fluffy eared, slobber happy, friendly friends.

Or do they? When I say, ‘dog’ I’m usually thinking of my best friend’s Golden Retriever when I was growing up. A chill fellow who was into pets and just hanging around the humans. Another person might imagine a poofy Pomeranian that they keep in their purse. My brother, who suffers from a phobia of dogs, probably conjures an image closer to something from Stephen King’s Cujo. All of these are valid interpretations of the word ‘dog,’ and without further clarification (even something as simple as ‘my friend’s dog’ is super helpful) things can get really confusing, really fast. When ‘higher level’ symbols become involved (that is to say symbols that represent more than just a basic concept) everyone can get into some really baffling, even violent situations.

To illustrate ‘higher level’ symbols let’s take the totally not random example of the American Flag. You can of course use any national or religious symbols you’d like, but living in America I’m most familiar with this symbol. What does this symbol mean? What is it made to represent? Well, America obviously. Right? In the same way the word ‘dog’ represents the concept of a dog.

Growing up in America I had to recite the Pledge of Allegiance every day. (And yes, the idea of forcing a nation’s youth population to dogmatically pledge their allegiance to something they don’t fully understand is EXTREMELY cult like, but that’s a different essay.) From that daily recitation I managed to conclude that America meant freedom, justice, truth, the pursuit of happiness, and equality for all, and since the flag represented America, that’s what the flag meant. Of course it takes all of fifteen minutes (at most) of being an Asian child that’s confused about their identity and gender in a wealthy public school to come across the fact that the “for all” in the Pledge of Allegiance means, “for all-of us. Not you, you don’t get to be part of us.” I had it lucky, my parents were relatively wealthy and could afford to live and raise me in a nice suburb. As an Asian I enjoy the fact that many racist white people count us as the ‘model minority,’ the one group of color that they can point to and say, “Look, I’m not racist, I totally have non white friends!” to justify whatever racist thing they’re about to do or say. I didn’t, and don’t have to live in a world where I’m afraid that I’ll be killed in my sleep and my murderers will suffer no repercussions. Or that I’ll be killed by an officer of the law because even my right to life isn’t considered part of the “for all.”

Already most of you should start seeing the problem. In the same way the word ‘dog’ can mean both a fluffy buddy I’m petting with my foot while I watch Monty Python with some friends AND a vicious beast that’s trying to bodily harm you, depending on who you ask; there are two Americas. In one, you can do whatever you want, whenever you want with minimal punishment and repercussions. In the other you fear for your life from the law because you were born with the wrong skin color, or fell in love with the wrong person. Basically, a floofy woofer versus Cujo situation when trying to define ‘dog.’

In a normal situation the answer to this conundrum is to use the broadest possible definition of your symbol when you refer to your symbol and then use language to narrow down what you’re actually talking about. A ‘dog’ in this case refers to any number of the numerous domesticated species of canine that we keep as pets. If you want to get more specific you say things like, “my friend’s dog,” “that purse puppy,” or “the dog that bit me.” Sadly, the poor American flag doesn’t get that luxury. A large portion of our culture has decided to exploit national pride and turn it into a cultish ferver. Instead of being proud to be an American because America does good things and holds itself to a high standard of moral and ethical values, people are now proud to be an American because they happened to be born in America. At that point it’s very easy to convince people that America is perfect and any idea of change and progress is a threat to the already ‘perfect’ nation. Since the American flag represents America, any attempt to further define what the flag is meant to symbolize is usually met with…let’s just say ‘conflict’ to keep things easy to understand.

Ironically, this has lead to a situation where the symbol of the American Flag no longer has any meaning. In the America where you can get murdered for holding a sandwich being told that the flag and country represent “liberty and justice for all” gives the impression that the flag is a symbol of a lie, because there is no liberty and justice for all as long as these types of events continue to happen. 

On the other hand, there’s a large group of people that have been programmed to worship the American flag unquestioningly and unequivocally. This leads to a cyclical logic where, for them, the symbol represents the symbol that it represents. To illustrate what I mean by cyclical logic I’m going to write out how a typical conversation with one of these ‘hyper-patriots’ goes. Bear in mind, these people usually jump me while I’m talking to a friend at a Plaid Pantry or waiting in line at a McDonalds.

Them: Fuck you! You can’t live in America and disrespect it!

Me: I’m trying to improve America.

Them: America is perfect!

Me: How’s it perfect?

Them: It’s the land of the free and the home of the brave!

Me: What kind of freedoms?

Them: Freedoms, being free! You just don’t get it! We’re free! We have freedom!

I’ll admit I’ve cleaned up the interaction. Usually there’s a lot more swearing on both sides, a lot more racial slurs and incoherent mumbling of patriotic slogans on their part, and I’m usually babbling a bit more as I ask my questions whilst trying not to piss myself in fear. But, the important part is that they’ve universally been incapable of providing a proper definition for anything they claim to have so much respect for. Freedom means you’re free. Being free means you have freedom. America means freedom, anyone who says otherwise hates freedom. Never mind what the actual definition of freedom is, it’s whatever you want it to be.

Or more accurately, it’s whatever the charismatic person claiming to be an authority wants it to be. Without a clear idea of what you actually believe in, you’re quickly lead astray by whoever wants to take advantage of you. We’ve seen the result of this type of thinking on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. It could have been much worse, and hopefully this will be a call to dismantle the social and political structures that allowed the event to happen.

But my warning is that it can happen again, to anyone. As the American political landscape becomes more and more divided it becomes easier and easier to pick out allies. But, it also means that we depend more and more on the inherent, assumed meanings of the symbols we use, and it’s just as easy for some selfish, greedy person to hide behind the Gay Pride flag as it has been for the ultra-conservative leadership to hide behind the American flag. Be wary, be watchful, question people’s motives, and above all hold people accountable for their actions. 

Blog · Essay · Nonfiction

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