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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Symbolic Literacy: Essential for Our Democracy

Make America Great Again Hat

Make America Great Again Hat

Confederate statues. “MAGA” hats. Blackface.

Ann Mongoven

(AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Ann Mongoven is the associate director of health care ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.

Some of the most polarized fault lines in contemporary American life are defined by diverse emotional reactions to symbols—not by civic discourse about policy or values. In fact, the symbol-battles rage in the absence of articulated public argumentation.

So diverse Americans who yearn for more constructive public life need to think about symbols. What is a symbol? Why do symbols have so much psychological power? Can symbols have more than one meaning? What should we do when we discover someone else is hurt by a symbol we have embraced? If symbols can cause division and civic discord, can symbolic attentiveness and creativity also heal? 

Paul Tillich most succinctly defined a symbol: “a sign that points to, while participating in, something beyond itself.” To consider the difference between an ordinary sign and a full symbol, compare a stop-sign to the American flag. The stop-sign’s signifying “stop!” crucially organizes traffic. But it’s hard to imagine heated public debate centered around a stop-sign. In contrast, the American flag is more than a sign—it is a symbol that points to, while participating in something beyond itself, the American nation. That is why what is done to the flag, whether it is placed on the moon or burned, can cause such intense emotional reactions.

To claim that symbols participate in something beyond themselves is a strong but true claim: symbols partially create the world. Moreover, the participatory aspect of symbols makes them identity-forming. Many Americans felt fierce pride when the flag was placed on the moon. But many others around the world reacted negatively to the lunar flag, interpreting it as staking a new realm for American colonialism. Despite the inverse emotions, both reactions recognized the world-forming participation of symbols: responders felt the American nation, not just a piece of cloth, was on the moon.

Symbols are always multi-valent. What they participate in beyond themselves is so complex, and so shaped by many cultural and historic forces, that they embody layers of meaning and embrace internal symbolic tensions. When individuals interact with symbols, their own social placement and history influences their negotiation of those layers and tensions. Does a monument to confederate soldiers romanticize slavery and insult African-Americans, memorialize grief for wartime losses, pay tribute to regional loyalty, or stand as an historical marker? Or more than one of these?

Symbols also have histories. When, where, and how symbols originate, or how their use changes over time, matters. Blackface’s popularity ignited in the wake of the freeing of slaves after the Civil War—a critical moment in the political realignment of racial power—as white minstrels adopted caricatured racial stereotypes for public amusement. Some monuments to the (truly) “boys” in grey were built as the South buried its dead, while other confederate monuments were built half a century later as Jim Crow laws were codified. The “Make America Great Again” slogan was first deployed in a partisan political campaign against the backdrop of rustbelt industrial settings or struggling rural economies—very different political stages than a pro-life march. 

Acknowledging the world-and-identity forming, multi-valent, historical nature of symbols is a first step toward productive public symbol-discourse. It is easier to be deliberately responsive, rather than explosively reactive, to electric emotions sparked by symbols when one understands the conceptual basis of their psychological power. This is so even when the morally appropriate response is to decry unequivocally the extreme violence initiated by a flauntingly intentional symbolic assault—for example, a swastika-ed door of a Jewish homeowner or a burning cross on an African-American’s lawn. It is all the more so in situations when it may not be clear what is intended or what is going on.

Understanding the multi-valent historical evolution of symbols can allow us to extend a rebuttable benefit of the doubt to people who react so differently than oneself to a symbol that they initially seem either obtusely or intentionally morally offensive. We must be willing to ask each other why we embrace the symbols we do. We need to listen to each other when someone says, “that symbol hurts me,” even when that symbol is near and dear to oneself. Clearly, more open ears among White southerners to such complaints about the hurt caused by confederate symbols brought confederate flags down from statehouses and initiated previously taboo debates about the place of confederate monuments.

True listening can also check symbolic “crossfire,” a tit-for-tat symbolic retaliation that ignores the multivalence of symbols and hurts others in the name of moral purity. True listening would enable hearing, for example, both the support voiced by a descendant of a confederate casualty for removing the town statue honoring confederate troops which he concluded offensive to many, and his account of personal trauma when the statue was attacked and smashed by vigilantes before its scheduled removal.

Appreciating the participatory power of symbols requires that we not only apologize, but apologize in ways that fully acknowledge our participation in negative world-creation, when we realize we have committed symbolic insult. The two Virginia elected officials discovered in blackface in youthful photos responded with markedly different public apologies (or lack thereof)—one articulating such full acknowledgment explicitly; the other minimizing his participation in anything other than a party. Treating symbols dismissively itself has world-forming implications.

Just as we need language, math, and science literacy for the civic public, so too we need symbolic literacy. Symbols are so closely tied to identity that others’ symbols may seem inherently threatening while our own may seem akin to the air we breathe. They may seem a natural part of the world instead of a world-creating development of peoples and cultures. The virtues of stepping back to analyze symbols critically, and of listening to discourse about symbols, are cultivated habits. The unlucky boys in the post-anti-abortion-march incident at the Lincoln Monument likely would not have garnered social media attention had they not been wearing “MAGA” (make-America-great-again) hats. They were unlucky in that thousands of self-appointed commenters privy to no context nonetheless reacted to that symbol by assuming morally vicious reasons for their wearing. But the boys were also unlucky in having no adult chaperone-educator helping them to understand public symbolism. Whatever they may embrace about “MAGA” hats, the hats clearly were inappropriate at a pro-life march. A well-known valence of the hats is association with one political party. But the moral claims of the pro-life movement appeal to what are perceived as rational ethical universals (a point that can be appreciated by those who agree and disagree with the pro-life stance). The March for Life organization accordingly seeks to attract pro-lifers of any party affiliation. So the boys’ gear undermined the expressed goal of the march. The march, itself a ritual orchestration of symbols, is a different setting than a campaign rally—another ritual orchestration of symbols. These high school students understandably needed adult help to understand the symbolic landscape, but did not receive it.

One thing is clear in the contemporary political moment:  symbols are not “just a symbol.” They are world-forming. Civic participants must learn to analyze and respond to symbols just as they must learn to make and respond to oral and written arguments. America needs symbolic literacy.

Mar 4, 2019

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