The Growing Importance of Symbols
Today I wore my hound’s-tooth hat to the office. I did not get past the reception room before someone said, “Roll Tide.”
Why did that happen? It’s because just about everyone in the South knows that the hound’s-tooth hat is the headgear often worn by legendary University of Alabama football coach Bear Bryant. Although he retired in 1982, it is not uncommon to see dozens of fans at Alabama football games wearing a hound’s-tooth hat. The reason is that the hat is a symbol of his reign as one of the great coaches and a period of Alabama football success. One wonders what Coach Nick Saban’s reign will be symbolized by. But that’s another story.
According to most dictionaries, a symbol is a thing that represents or stands for something else. It seems that there is a symbol for just about everything. Everyday, drivers respond to traffic symbols, consumers respond to buying symbols, couples respond to symbols of touching and military personnel respond to salutes.
In the Roman Catholic church, saints are symbols of a virtue, a profession or even a condition. For example, St. Christopher is the patron saint of travelers, St. Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of animals, merchants and ecology and St. Frances de Sales is the patron saint of writers and journalists. St. Erasmus is invoked to relieve stomach cramps and colic.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie, “The Da Vinci Code,” is the one in which the character Robert Langdon, a college professor symbologist, shows his class a series of symbols and asks what comes to mind when seeing the symbol. The first one he shows is a picture of a group of persons wearing white-hooded robes. The class members respond with “hatred,” “racism” and “Ku Klux Klan.” Langdon then points out that there might be some disagreement in Spain because there these are depictions of priests. He goes on to show several pictures of symbols and then points out that what a symbol might mean today is not what it meant before or to someone else. His question then is: “How do we separate truth from belief?”
There quite a few examples of symbols that have lost their original meaning. For example, most people probably think of pirates or the Jolly Roger flag when seeing an image of the skull and crossbones. Perhaps they think of poison. However, a trip to Spain reveals that it is not uncommon to find the skull and crossbones depicted in places hundreds of years old. Those places are graveyards, because that is how cemeteries were once labeled. The swastika is another symbol that has a common meaning to most people today. It is associated with Nazis. However, in Hinduism it is one of the symbols of the god Vishnu, and has been around for centuries. In Sanskrit, it’s meaning is “all is well.”
The official state flag of Mississippi is the subject of much discussion because it is a symbol of something else. To some it represents a proud heritage; to others it symbolizes racial hatred.
There is another symbol that has received a lot attention recently. Allow me to describe it to you and ask you to think about what it represents. It is in the shape of a shield, not unlike what you would think of what a Roman soldier would hold in front of him. Across the top of the shield is the word “Veritas,” which stands for truth or truthfulness in Roman mythology. Depicted in the center of the shield is an image of three sheaves of wheat.
What does that symbolize to you, dear reader? Probably not much unless you are a graduate of, or have some interest in, Harvard Law School. However, to those affiliated with Harvard Law School it symbolized quite a bit because the seal was an homage to the family of Isaac Royall Jr. , a plantation owner who bequeathed land to Harvard that funded a professorship and led to the school’s founding in 1817. In 1936, at the tri-centennial celebration of the university’s founding, the seal was adopted as that of the law school. However, in November of 2015 a group of students called for the seal’s removal. A committee was formed, a report released and last week, the Harvard Corporation gave the law school permission to discard the seal. So what was behind this symbol change? You guessed it. The donor was a slave owner.
I’m not questioning Harvard’s right to change the seal. I merely present this example to show that symbols are important, in some cases important enough to change if the current symbol does not represent the values of the current time. Critics of Harvard’s move are asking how far must society go to change symbols, especially those dealing with racism and slave ownership.
The subject of removing symbols seems to be gaining traction in today’s cultural environment. This past December the New Orleans City Council voted 6-1 to remove four Confederate statues from Lee Circle. Some have asked if the statue of Andrew Jackson is next in line for removal because he owned slaves. Finally, what are the symbols that you celebrate or are disgusted by? Does your business have a symbol that might be offensive to someone? The greater question might be about whether we are even prepared to have a rational and reasonable discussion about symbols when it seems that we are segregating ourselves by idealogy.