Tuesday, November 18, 2008

False idols

The painting below is Golden Calf 2, 1985, by Irving Norman.

A recent post on Massimo Pigliucci's blog Rationally Speaking proposed a "classification of types of commitment, from the most ludicrous to the most defensible". Pigliucci started with "commitment to a symbol", and he didn't pull any punches:
This is the stupidest form of commitment ever invented by human beings. I’m referring to people who “pledge allegiance” to flags, or who worship religious symbols of torture, such as crosses. It seems to me that nationalism and religion in particular are among the worst causes of human misery, and that more generally it is profoundly irrational and highly immoral to “commit” to a symbol for the symbol’s sake. Flag burning, or making sculptures of crucified frogs, while not acts I have ever actually engaged in, ought to be protected and even encouraged forms of free speech.
He followed this with some interesting thoughts on "commitment to an institution" and "commitment to people" before arriving at "commitment to ideas":
Within limits, I think this is actually the most important and rational type of commitment one can make. Ideas like democracy, education, fairness, justice, and so on are actually much more durable than either institutions or individuals. If an idea is good, it remains good under a wide range of circumstances, and it accordingly deserves our steady commitment. Even here, however, commitment should not be absolute and unconditional
But there's a problem here, as commenter J pointed out:
I'm having a somewhat hard time seeing the real difference between the first level (commitment to symbols) and the last (commitment to ideas)!

I noticed you qualified it there, "it is profoundly irrational and highly immoral to “commit” to a symbol for the symbol’s sake". But is there such a thing as committing to a symbol solely for its sake? Isn't a symbol always the embodiment of an idea? There is no symbol without an idea behind it, is there?
I then chimed in:
I agree with J: commitment to a symbol usually means commitment to an underlying idea or set of ideas. For example, to Christians, the cross symbolizes love, redemption, justice, etc. Sacred symbols like the cross are typically the focus of ritual and worship. Note that the English word worship relates to ideas of worthiness and respect, which is, I think, a big part of what religious expression is about.

J goes on to point out that some ideas have associated symbols, "but we never see anyone worshiping those symbols, curiously enough". Perhaps, but consider the idea of materialism, which is widely admired. Its symbols could be said to be the logos of consumer brands, like Mercedes-Benz, Starbucks, Chanel, ... the list is endless.

When people walk around bedecked in corporate logos, perhaps they are expressing a form of worship of materialism.
Pigliucci responded:
I still think there is an important distinction to be made here. Christians, or patriots, get really worked up about their symbols, threatening violence or passing legislation in their defense. The symbol seems to transcend the idea.
And I replied:
Interestingly, this issue comes up in religion itself. The idea of idolatry is at least partly about confusion between symbols (images, objects) and ideas (about the divine). Differing ideas about the proper treatment of symbols have contributed to the divisions between branches of Christianity.

And consider that although we today use the term iconoclast to mean someone who attacks conventional ideas, originally it meant someone who destroyed religious symbols (art in particular).
The crash of symbols

It seems to me that when people treat a symbol as sacred (whether explicitly or implicitly), they are not only expressing a commitment to the ideas represented by the symbol, they are also identifying with it at a deep emotional level. They view an attack on the symbol as a desecration, and more: an assault on their identity.

The symbol par excellence

What is the most ubiquitous and perhaps most potent symbol of all? Language. Consider, for example, the Biblical injunction against taking the Lord's name in vain. Doing so is desecration of a holy symbol.

It seems to me that perhaps the greatest lie ever perpetrated is this one:
Sticks and stones
May break my bones
But words can never hurt me

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Blogger lucy said...

Love this post :)

2:49 PM, November 27, 2008  

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