Symbols and Censorship.
I gotta great dirty trick you can play on a three year old kid. See kids learn how to talk from listening to their parents see? See so what you do…whenever you’re around ‘em… talk wrong. So now it’s like his first day of school and the kid raises his hand, “may I mambo dogface to the banana patch?” “give that kid a special test…”
(some disturbing images are displayed at the end of this post)
Language is a pretty fascinating subject when you stop to think about it. There is so much diversity across the planet in how people communicate. So much of a person’s culture is wrapped up in their language…and not just in their language but how they use their language. Their accent, their slang, every way in which a person speaks reflects something significant about who they are and where they came from.
I also find the “organic” nature of language to be interesting. How it changes over time. How grammar, and usage changes in order to suit the needs of the people who speak it.
Another aspect of language and communication I find interesting is the nature of slang and curse words. The relationship between taboo language and principles of free speech is a strange one. It can seem kind of silly for people to get so worked up over one word while find another one with a similar definition to be reasonably acceptable. Your favorite prime-time television character probably won’t be telling anyone to “fuck off” anytime soon. If they get angry with someone they might just shout, “get outta here!” or “leave me alone!”. Typically no one calls Simon Cowell a “cocksucker” or an “asshole” but he might get called a “jerk”. Polite conversation doesn’t include “shit” or “cunt”, but you might get away with the more scientific “feces” or “vagina”.
Some people would say that these curse words are just that – words. That we shouldn’t get so upset over their usage. That sticks and stones are the only thing that does real damage and that words do nothing.
On the other side of the fence from “sticks and stones” is the “pen is mightier”. Frankly I’m inclined to agree with the pen people. Words can hurt, and they SHOULD hurt. When someone tries to communicate hatred, animosity, or ridicule we should be able to understand them.
I like my curse words and I like them best as taboo. They are so much more powerful that way, and as a result much more useful.
Another vital tool for communication is symbols. The words you are reading now are symbols. You can understand my intentions without me having to verbalize it. Stop signs and traffic lights easily communicate the rules of the road and keep us all (relatively) safe. Symbols are a powerful means of communication because their meaning is easy to understand the instant that you see it. It’s a useful and necessary shorthand for getting through our complicated lives.
Symbols are powerful because they can communicate complicated ideas almost instantly.
One such symbol is the Swastika.
Like the Christian cross, it’s hard to find a more recognizable symbol, and one so charged with emotion and so heavy with cultural baggage. Like the cross, the swastika has meant different things to different people throughout the course of history.
For most of us here in the western world, the swastika has come to symbolize the worst in us -- Bigotry, hatred, murder, and evil. When the Nazi party adopted the swastika as their own, they made an indelible impression in how we see it.
Recently I’ve read a number of opinions on-line about the swastika and how we shouldn’t be afraid of it. People list a number of reasons for doing so. I don’t doubt that most of the people involved in these arguments are good people, free from the sort of darkness that enveloped Europe in the 1940’s.
I’m sure that their hearts are in the right place but I feel that their efforts are misguided.“The swastika isn’t exclusively tied to Nazis”
This is a very common argument for casually displaying the swastika. It’s true that cultures all over the world have, for centuries, used the swastika as a positive symbol. Depending on where and when you are it could mean, luck, harmony, or balance. It could symbolize whirling winds, or healing powers.
I think that the history of the swastika is important. I don’t want people to forget what it used to mean, but in the western world, the swastika no longer stands for harmony…quite the opposite in fact. You may wish it meant something different. But it doesn’t.
It’s not the first time a symbol or a word has changed definition in a dramatic way. If I told you that you were a “nice person” in the 13th century you’d be insulted.
If you are determined to use “nice” in this antiquated way you’d not only be out of date, but you wouldn’t be communicating effectively with your modern counterparts. You would be “talking wrong”. In short…you’d look “foolish, stupid, and senseless”.
“The swastika is historical. We shouldn’t white wash history”
This is a fair point. I’m not in agreement with policies like those in Germany which make the displaying of swastikas a crime. Communication in most cases shouldn’t be a criminal offense, but just because something is historical doesn’t always mean is should be displayed casually. We shouldn’t try and forget about the swastika…that to me is dangerous. In fact what I argue is closer to the opposite. By keeping the swastika taboo, you re-enforce its meaning. It continues to be a powerful symbol, and an effective warning against fascism, racism, and the sort of mob mentality that can lead to terrible suffering.
I don’t want to ban people from displaying the swastika if they feel they need to, but it should not be displayed lightly or without sensitivity. It should remain taboo….terrible to look at. A reminder of what can happen when we let fear guide us down dark paths, when we late hatred rule our hearts. It should conjure up terrifying images like this
Keeping the stigma attached to the swastika is NOT the same thing as trying to sweep it under the rug. It’s not the same thing as saying, “let’s not ever display this thing again and forget it ever existed”, and that’s not what I’m advocating. Taboos are taught, and then enforced. If curse words really were exclusively detrimental and served no real purpose we wouldn’t use them. The fact is that curse words are incredibly useful but only as long as they are “forbidden”.
The swastika is a powerful tool, and keeping it taboo is what gives it that power. Let it do its job and serve as a useful reminder. Let it remain a short-hand for genocide, and a cultural “warning sign” for oppression and bigotry. Keep it in the culture, and if it must be displayed do so with sensitivity and good sense.