Saturday, December 08, 2007

Teddy Bears and Symbolism

All right, I have resisted discussing the Teddy Bear controversy. After all the whole thing strikes me as a silly distraction from more pressing issues, but I found Leonard Pitts' comments: to be a shallow analysis of the Teddy Bear incident.

Pitts writes:

"And then there is Darfur, the western region where four years of government-backed genocide has left an estimated 200,000 people dead. Some might say they are the lucky ones. Luckier than the man whose eyes were gouged out with a bayonet. Luckier than the people burned alive inside their huts. Luckier than the women raped so brutally they can no longer walk, so brutally that urine trickles constantly down their legs.

What a pious, holy nation. Their God is offended by a teddy bear.

If anything, God is offended by them."

I agree with the sentiments but what Pitts is discounting is the power of symbols to take hold of peoples emotions. Maybe he ought to take a closer look at the equally silly things that we get incensed about in our culture. For instance, try burning an American flag and see the way many of us react. In the history of Christianity there have been huge fights over symbolism including how God is to be represented. The English word Iconoclast comes out of just such a fight. FYI I think these sorts of fights are odd too. But I am not immune to reacting to symbolism either. Books for me are highly symbolic and book burning or banning is way up there on the list of symbolic offenses one can make.

The point being that in our culture we generally chalk these sorts of offenses as the price we pay for the right to free expression and some one has to get really extreme before we consider banning them. I don't like fundamentalism any more than Pitts does, but what's going on in Sudan gets at a much deeper aspect of symbols namely their power to hook onto our emotions and I don't think those of us who are not fundamentalists are immune to the power of symbols.

What symbols and related cultural faux pas press other people's buttons?

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