Saturday, July 11, 2015

How We Love Our Symbols!

The American national flag
This week, the South Carolina legislature finally passed legislation to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the State Capitol in Columbia, SC.  This flag is a potent symbol.  It was originally the flag of the Confederacy during Secession and the American Civil War.  After that period, rather than relegating the flag to a museum, it continued to be flown by Southerners in both personal and official venues.  It is a symbol of the Confederacy, of course, but in recent times it's also become a symbol for White Supremacy in this country.  The recent movement to stop its display, especially in the southern states, seems to have rubbed a wound for some people.  One hundred and fifty years after Appomattox, the South must finally face the fact that they did not win the Civil War and it's time to put the war behind them, put the flag in a museum, and move on.  And in my opinion, no one won that Civil War.

Not everyone in the South thinks this way, of course.  This controversy got me thinking about symbols and their use in our lives.  Flags are the most well known of national symbols.  In America, each state also has its own flag, state bird, state flower, state slogan and so on.  Professional sports teams have their logos based on their names, as well as amateur sports teams (usually college teams).  There continues to be a controversy about the Washington Redskins NFL football team and their name insulting Native Americans.  Professional associations have logos -- their symbols for their organizations -- as well as businesses in various industries.  While logos in business work as a branding tool, we should not forget that they are also symbols of the businesses and what they stand for.

Example of business logo/symbol

We are used to seeing symbols used in business, politics, travel, marketing, and so on.  But what about personal symbols?  Do you have an object that you are especially known for?  A fashion style or designer?  Avatars online become symbols for people.  Mine is the complete opposite from what my personality actually is.  Computer games offer an opportunity to create a character that represents a person and it can be whatever that person wants it to be.  If you are self-employed or in the arts, then you also know about marketing platforms and personal branding in order to sell what you produce.  You might translate your branding into a logo that also represents your platform.  Or maybe your symbol is a deeply personal one, a symbol that only your closest loved ones would know.

Tartan Plaids

Not everyone would want or even need a symbol rather for personal business or just as a representation.  I recently, however, was reminded about the human past and how humans organized themselves into clans or tribes when I was looking at a tartan plaid registry for Scottish clans and families.  My grandmother once showed me the tartan plaid of her Scottish ancestors.  I was so young at the time that I don't recall now what it was, but our Scottish ancestors also had a family crest as well as the tartan plaid.  And then there are the military uniforms designed to represent not only the branch of the military for which they're worn but also the country. They are also symbols.

Symbols are everywhere in human life.  Not long ago, I heard the story of how a diamond became the gemstone of love and engagement for marriage.  This symbol evolved out of a marketing campaign that the diamond company De Beers developed in order to increase its sales and market share.  "A diamond is forever."  Now it has become an accepted symbol of committed love and relationship.

Let's return to the Confederate Battle Flag. I think it's important to respect the role it's played in American history, and for that reason, I think it's important to keep it in an appropriate history museum.  I think it's also important to acknowledge how its symbolism changed over the years, going from the national flag of the Confederacy to a symbol for racism.  We need to be honest and open about its symbolism and how it has been used in order to diminish its power.  We need to return it to an object status, strip it of its status as a symbol.  It reminds us, however, that the symbols we create are fluid and can change in meaning with time and circumstance.....  

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