Symbols inspire some to do good, but lead others astray

October 04, 2008|By ALLAN POWELL

In a 1940 Supreme Court decision, Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote a majority opinion that upheld the right of a junior high school in Pennsylvania to expel a student who happened to be a Jehovah's Witness.

She had refused to salute the American flag in unison with her classmates because of church doctrine. In his opinion, Justice Frankfurter used a phrase packed with insight: "We live by symbols."

This dictum played a critical role for Frankfurter's decision because he feared that the girl's refusal to salute "might cast doubts in the minds" of her fellow students. The national fabric would be weakened if loyalty to the flag as a national symbol was diminished significantly.

Three years later, this opinion was reversed. The majority opinion in this reversal was written by Justice Robert Jackson. He was fully aware of the power of symbols to impact on personal and group behavior.


He noted that, "Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas." He then attached a crucial appendage to the "We live by symbols" aphorism. Each viewer of a symbol, " gets from a symbol the meaning he puts into it, and what is one man's comfort and inspiration is another's jest and scorn."

One interested scholar eventually discovered the origin of the phrase "We live by symbols." It was the creation of the great American jurist, Oliver Wendell Holmes, who crafted it for a speech delivered in 1901. The complete sentence reads as follows: "We live by symbols, and what shall be symbolized by any image of the sight depends on the mind of him who sees it."

This is tantamount to saying that the message intended to be expressed in a symbol is not necessarily the message perceived on the receiving end. Interpretation is a subjective event.

We have but to reflect on the various meanings resulting from a viewing of a swastika as the horrors of WWII are called to mind.

Followers of Nazism were mesmerized into nationalistic ecstasy by a certified madman who used the swastika to rally the nation to war. Victory over this scourge was assured, however, by the combined symbols in the form of flags displayed by the allied forces. They, too, could incite passions for the defense of their cherished values.

All would be well served to meditate with regard to Justice Jackson's partial definition of "symbol." Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas", writes Jackson. "Primitive" suggests that a symbol is an incomplete, shorthand way to deliver a core meaning.

A symbol makes an immediate impression on the mind with a great economy of words. A cult, sect, junta, army, nation or charismatic leader may unify their followers effectively behind an accepted symbol to accomplish seemingly insurmountable tasks.

The downside of symbol usage is that an icon that was once a piece of cloth, a chip of wood or a scrap of metal gradually becomes transformed into an ultimate, absolute and exclusive sacred object to which is attributed eternal verity.

The "true believer" who commits to a symbol that has reached such a level of certitude will engage in the most dastardly behavior in the name of their cherished symbol.

Holy places of other faiths will be ravaged with no sense of guilt.

Children will be used as carriers of explosives to mangle the bodies of other innocent children. Rewards in heaven will be promised to those who mutilate themselves in order to destroy their "godless" opponents.

Fanaticism will be converted to saintliness and reason banished as a tool of Satan.

When will homo sapiens learn that while it is true that we "live by symbols" it is also true that we may "die by symbols." Symbols are but objects of our creation. It takes wisdom and understanding to place rational checks and balances on the symbols we use.

Allan Powell is a Hagerstown-area resident who writes for The Herald-Mail.

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