• Posted: Jul 15, 2015 10:28:23
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Have you ever heard the term “symbolic loading”? It’s a technical term used in some branches of anthropology. It refers to the associations of meaning and emotion attached to something physical, like a place, or to an object or symbol, like a flag, or to a behavior, like a ritual practice.
For instance, you might enter someone’s home and discover they have two, maybe three different sets of dinner plates. Should you ask, they may explain that one set is for everyday use while the other is for “special occasions”. And, the third set on display in a special glass case? “Oh,” they may say, “those are heirlooms. They belonged to my great-grandmother.”
The point is, each of the three sets of dinner plates have different symbolic loadings, different meanings, for both the owners of the plates and for any guests that may be invited to view or eat off them. From a guest’s point of view, accidentally breaking an everyday dish may bring on some embarrassment, but the host or hostess will likely not be distressed. But break one of the “special occasion” plates and the host or hostess will likely display some distress, though they may well try to reassure that you should not be distressed, as “accidents will happen”. Not the case, though, should you, without permission, open the glass display case and handle the heirloom china, breaking a piece in the process. You may then find yourself summarily ushered from the house, never to be invited back, and sued for damages.
Just this past week, a controversy has erupted in the US over the display of Confederate battle flags. The South Carolina legislature voted to remove just such a flag from the State Capitol grounds that had been flying there for more than 50 years. The gesture was in atonement and sympathy for 9 people killed in an historic black church in Charleston by someone who had previously pictured himself beside that same Confederate flag as emblematic of his hatred for blacks. Several other Southern states are now considering following suit, as are numerous businesses. But some Southerners object, seeing Confederate flags as symbolic of their state and family heritage. And, perhaps more importantly, as symbolic of something they hold dear today, the notion of State’s rights in opposition to Federal court rulings and legislative pressures. Needless to say, many people, blacks in particular, continue to see Confederate flags as symbols of hate, oppression, and racism in its most ugly and offensive form. Same object, different symbolic and emotional loading.
It’s interesting to note that symbolic loadings play a crucial role in many of our current controversies. Take gay marriage. For some, it’s a non-issue, everyday dishes. But for others, it’s as if someone lay down unclean “special occasion” dishes for them to eat off of, a gesture both insulting and entirely repulsive.
The issues of immigration and income inequality also involve symbolic loadings. Specifically, the “haves” vigorously seek to keep the “have-nots” at bay. And each tool wielded, be it fences, walls, guns, voter registration laws, gerrymandered voting districts, court cases, private police forces, red lining, or corrupting payoffs, they all take on differential symbolic loadings depending upon which side of the fence one is on.
Take a look at the image above. When I saw it again this week, I couldn’t help thinking of the Comic-Con convention held this past weekend in San Diego. Part of the festivities there involved costumes, people dressing as their favorite comic book super-hero or character. And if you had looked at the costumes, you’d have seen they were all rich in symbolic loadings, from shouts for attention to attempts to mystify or intimidate or magnify strength and/or attractiveness or ward off and misdirect threat. I see the same array of symbolic loadings in the costumes of the two ladies pictured.
On the day after a national holiday, the Fourth of July, Independence Day, the two are, I believe, dressed to attend a wedding reception. Unusual for a bright warm summer’s day, the two are in muted dark colors, flowing silk, glittering jewelry, and garish red lips. The symbolic loadings include: status, taste, a degree of wealth, and mystifying sensuality. The item being carried is some type of pedestal, not a magic wand, scepter, or ray-gun. But it does add to their mystery.
And what is the object of all the symbolic loadings being displayed? Quite simply, the object is to establish membership and to draw “the right kind” of attention, especially from someone of equal or greater status and wealth, whereby even greater wealth and status might be acquired. Sort of reminds one of the game Dungeons and Dragons, doesn’t it? But this is out in the real world, being done for real. And sadly, life is being led with similar selfish intent, like in a game of Dungeons and Dragons, or Monopoly, or Poker, or some video game, every single day by almost everyone in the middle and upper classes of the industrialized world. Very very few of us, it seems, consider or care what the overall consequences will be for the planet as a whole, or for the rest of us who aren’t part of the club.
Perhaps that’s not the symbolic loading people expect to be propagating. But if one really looks, it’s hard to miss.
Saturday, July 5th, 2014
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