3 min read

Symbolism and dissonance

When we use symbols to describe abstract ideas it becomes harder and harder for us to agree on what they mean.
Symbolism and dissonance

Symbols are useful. Letters help us encode our thoughts so they can be recorded and shared. Numbers help us quickly count and calculate value.

And symbols help us create a cultural shorthand for a load of ideas. When we use symbols to describe abstract ideas, it becomes harder and harder for us to agree on what they mean.

"Hollywood" is a word we use to describe the American film industry. It's not that simple, is it? To some of us, Hollywood is glitz and glamor; it's a celebration of celebrity. On the other hand, some people use "Hollywood" as a pejorative to describe a morally corrupt industry ruining the United States of America with liberal ideas.

If someone asked you to choose between these definitions, you'd probably have an easy time choosing one or the other, but in practical everyday life, you probably have your own way to describe what this term means. It could be the literal Hollywood sign, or something more abstract.

Symbolism is one of the hottest topics of the last week. Everywhere you turn the last several days, people have weighed in on anthem protests in the NFL.

Colin Kaepernick has always made it clear that by kneeling during the anthem he wants to bring attention to police brutality and other issues he sees as vitally important. He has been peaceful and explained this at length throughout the last NFL season.

There has been disagreement about the symbolism of Kaepernick's kneeling from the very moment it started. What started out as a small discussion about the symbolism of this moment has been fanned into a wildfire of debate and certainty over what the players protesting mean.

I understand why so many people are both sides are outraged about this issue. For years, most people have been taught a routine to follow when the anthem is being played. You could see these folks bristle on Friday night when someone would keep talking during the anthem, or kids would keep running around and playing underneath the bleachers.

It's a moment to reflect on our values and sacrifices we've made collectively.

And yet, can we say that we're living up to our values today? Instead of listening to the folks on the other side and seeing how we can better live our values, we're flaming each other on Facebook.

America is a country, but that's never what made us strong. No, we've always been at our best when we reached for the ideal of what we could be. Reaching back to the past won't help us become great again. Instead, we need to push forward to America we can be.

Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again (excerpt)

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!