The Ideology of Symbolism, the Symbols of Idolatry

“All men are created equal,” “by the grace of God,” “I think therefore I am.”

These are just a few famous locutions so common, they are often taken for granted. They conjure certain emotions and bolster ideologies. Phrases such as these, or words such as “freedom,” are loaded with hidden meanings and become casually associated in our minds with other words and ideas.

“All Men are created equal” conjures up feelings of patriotic zeal, a sense of commonality within the citizenry of the country, and a belief that ours was a country founded on principles of equality, even despite its inherent contradiction with what we know really existed at the time of its writing, i.e. slavery.

“By the grace of God” is emblematic of many powerful religious statements that color our view of the world, injecting God into our everyday perceptions of how and why things happen. While it helps stifle a feeling of hopelessness, it often engenders a loss of responsibility. If that’s what He wants, not only can we not stop it, we shouldn’t try.

“I think therefore I am,” credited to Descartes, has come to be imbued with a sort of reverence for reason, a celebration of our own cognitive conquering of the world.

These phrases and words are powerful in that they’re symbolic: they represent and bolster ideas that are hidden behind the words. They also concentrate these various ideas and ideologies (think Republicanism, Christianity and Rationalism for the above phrases) into short, memorable aphorisms, making those ideas more entrenched.

The Statue of Liberty is symbolic of the inclusiveness of our society as well as of the nation holding up the lantern, serving as a “beacon to the world.” The problem with these associations is, of course, that they depend on your perspective, and thus the factual veneer is a façade masking the reality of rampant deportations, mass incarceration, and human rights abuses (penal colonies, torture, rendition, etc.).

Wall Street is a symbol of financial dominance and is symbolic as a concentrated center in an overly-concentrated global economy. For some, whether someone who works on Wall Street or has invested in the Stock Market, the meanings hidden behind the buildings are associated with and tied to their own sense of success. For most, these symbols have negative connotations, but not liking a symbol does nothing to diminish its power.

Unpacking this symbolism is important because it allows us to see the power they attain over us, and the wider culture, with the hope of at least contesting that power if not subverting it to give power to ideas not currently in vogue: ideas such as real equality (not just token equality), compassion (often scorned in our society), and fairness (progress on this is being made thanks in part to OWS activists.)

An equally important reason to do so is simply to make ourselves aware of how easily we can be manipulated with the aim of becoming more resilient in the future; to become better attuned to the propaganda hidden in plain sight. After all, most of these symbols are introduced and taught in school, when we are in the most intellectually receptive state (or mentally weak, depending on your perspective).

Recognizing a symbol for what it represents, and then countering the narrative that it endorses, is the first step to opening the space, broadening the dialogue, and widening our horizons. The alternative is what amounts to secular worship of the idols of our own undoing.