Symbols in Action

Posted: June 3, 2008 in Culture, Idealism, Nomenclature, Writing

Ezra Klein has a thoughtful blog post (already aged by blog standards) called The Symbol Wars, which is not about the usual political ephemera. Rather, it’s a critique of some bit of light punditry with a surprisingly dark undertone:

We are no longer the only country with an internet, or a Sears Tower, if we ever truly were. And as more Americans come to realize that, it could have fairly profound psychological effects. After all, these symbols are how many folks have always understood our affluence … But now other countries are developing their own entries into that genre, and they’re no longer pale imitations of ours. As the world develops, America is going to start to look less exceptional — as that’s the inevitable result of being less exceptional … whether we see that shift as an opportunity or a threat is probably the most important foreign policy question of the 21st century.

I like Klein’s comment, but he stays safely at the surface of the issue. Klein correctly observes the significance of our symbols, but the obvious implication is that the U.S. should maintain its preeminence in the world, which means the continued deployment of military power, not just a few building projects. If there is currently a proposition with greater symbolic power, I can’t imagine it.

History tells repeatedly how dominant powers fade in importance. The most recent episode is Western Europe losing its luster to the restless energy and glittering accomplishments of the U.S. However, despite repeatedly tearing themselves apart with wars, most European societies have settled into a far superior though perhaps less glamorous social structure based less on radical self-reliance than communal responsibility and interconnectedness. Indeed, it’s probably true that Europeans learned some lessons from their warrior follies and relinquished some of their symbols of power and triumph. When a people no longer adheres so strongly to those ultimately empty symbols, they are content with less. But when a people is jealous of others’ ostentation and attempts to mimic and outdo it, well, there’s a problem, just as when we Americans expect that we can or should or will always prevail.

I pause to point out that humans are deeply symbolic creatures. The entire structure of rational cognition is based on the ability to absorb and manipulate symbols in the form of language. Although I’m no fan of postmodernism, deconstructionism, or identity politics, they often provide fascinating glimpses at the assumptions and thinking underlying our use of language. For instance, Wo! Magazine has an interesting article about the use of passive voice in journalism, from which I quote:

The use of passive voice in articles … subconsciously shapes the way people view violence against women. It is an insidious and unquestioned practice. In the passive voice version … men apparently don’t harass and intimidate women, women just run around getting themselves harassed. If active voice had been used, would the same conclusions be drawn? Would it have the same headline?

Examples of misshapen language abound, though it gets harder all the time to recognize when poor practice becomes the standardized. We need to be able to rely on professionals to avoid common traps in the use of language. Of course, it’s inevitable that any bit of communication becomes propaganda for a particular point of view or argument. That, too, is part of the structure of language.

To take another example where the target is much easier, the blogger (Twisty Faster) of I Blame the Patriarchy takes to task the writer (Chrissy Callanhan) of an article in The Brandeis Hoot (a student newspaper) for adopting the assumptions of the dominant (male) culture even in the midst of a minor feminist moment. The writing at I Blame the Patriarchy is brilliant, and the propaganda is right up front. Considering my utter lack of feminist credentials (and since I’m not a female), I wouldn’t dare to instruct anyone in feminist ideology or language. I even avoided using the loaded term triumphalism above for fear that some commentator more educated and adept at cultural analysis than I am, like Twisty Faster clearly is with feminism, would rip me a new one. Still, it’s worth noting how language is so heavily laden with symbolism that both informs and obscures motivations and attitudes.

  1. kaiseekstheson says:

    this is the first i’ve read on this deeper, psychological issue addressed so directly! it makes me think: this human, iconographic devotion not only involves language but branding, advertising, fashion, even “political correctness”… wow!

    an easy and informative read on america’s leadership and recent competition: “the united states of europe” by t r reid.

    thx for the thought-provoking! :)

  2. In modern times, I don’t understand why military dominance serves as a significant symbol of cultural superiority.
    Don’t most people believe achieving peace shows greater power?
    Are we still so far from honoring and respecting different beliefs, languages, religions, histories, art, music, and poetry than our own worn out (and sometimes sorry) “Americana?”
    The world is a beautiful place and US citizens need to embrace it via education and communication if they can not afford to travel the globe and see its glory face to face.

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