Symbols are Subjective

Symbols are subjective. Whatever a symbol’s original intent, its meaning is interpreted in different ways by different people depending upon how it’s been used in their cultural context. And such a stigma can be powerful.

We should be sensitive to that fact.

This one, for instance, has been used in various world cultures since the Stone Age and is sacred in Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism:

Family home in Kathmandu, Nepal (2014)

To people from Eastern cultures, it still symbolizes prosperity (I took this photo of a family home in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2014). To people from Western cultures, it still symbolizes white supremacy and anti-Semitism due to its use by the Nazis.

Even though the swastika is thousands of years old and has only had that racist stigma since the 1930s, it’s still inadvisable to display in our context, isn’t it? That’s because it’s chiefly used by hate groups and it invokes memories of pain and suffering for people groups who have been hurt by its bearers. Yet in parts of Asia, it’s used everywhere — residences, businesses, temples, shrines, mosaics, jewelry, body art, etc. — to invoke blessings.

Sometimes, it can even mean nothing at all. I hope this is such an instance, as I took this photo in Germany:

Probably still inadvisable

Where am I going with this? You’ve probably guessed.

Dixie flag

Flags are symbols. The same principle applies to them. Even in one diverse nation like ours, one flag can have diversified meanings. There’s a lot of current debate, of course, about the public use of the Confederate battle flag (or Rebel Flag/Dixie Flag/Southern Cross/Confederate Navy Jack/battle flag of the armies of Northern Virginia and Tennessee, etc.) and I think it’s foolish to dismiss opposing opinions without considering how certain groups have been either hurt or heartened by the symbol.

American flag

The same is even true of the American Flag and its variations throughout history. To most Americans, it stands for unity, freedom, justice, and divine providence. To many abroad, it symbolizes liberation, economic hope, and security. But to plenty others globally who have been hurt under the Star-Spangled Banner, it emblematizes imperialism, exploitation, immorality, oppression, slavery, greed, and even nuclear warfare. It reminds some of mass murder, annexation, government corruption, the Trail of Tears, internment camps, unethical human experimentation, and even conspiracies and coverups.

Symbols cannot be blamed for the stigma they carry. Considering the longevity and power of symbols and their meanings, it’s ludicrous to think arguing about them will change anybody’s mind. One cannot prove the “true meaning” of any symbol or flag because that is entirely subjective. Consider this: some states display the Confederate flag over their capitals and some people display the swastika on their houses, neither with racist intent. But you probably wouldn’t display them together because context matters.

The truth is: symbols have only the power we give them.

So this post is my humble suggestion that we instead seek mutual understanding and peace. In some instances, common respect and propriety may dictate eschewing the display of controversial symbols. In others, unity demands the uncensored acknowledgement of shared history. But in any case, the motivation should be redemptive. Symbols help tell the story of our past; it’s up to us to write the story of our future. What we do today will influence what our symbols mean tomorrow.


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