The Meanings of Words & Symbols

I took a trip with my brothers this weekend to Houston and the Lone Star motorcycle rally in Galveston. During my travels, I thought I figured something out. And then I heard a podcast about DFW and his post post-modernist understanding of language (52 minutes in…), which reinforced some of the same thoughts. Then I was repeatedly told about some wisdom Mr Coates imparted to us all about the word nigger, and I felt compelled to write up my ideas.

Words & symbols gain their value by our collective agreement about what they mean. These words & symbols do not mean anything until we decide they do, and whatever meaning I assign to them is at best useless unless others agree. But our understandings of many of these words & symbols also differs based on experience, and then the context of their use also matters a lot. So there can be a lot of misunderstandings but also sometimes people are intentionally tricky, using words & symbols to make others think something while claiming that wasn’t their intention at all.

What I am trying to get at is that something like the Confederate flag can have different meanings to different people. Some see it as a horrible symbol of racism anytime it shows up, while others don’t connect it to slavery at all. They call it the Rebel flag and it adorned the General Lee car in the Dukes of Hazard for years without most people making the connection. For others, it all comes down to context, who is displaying it and how and perhaps why if that can be truly determined. But the key is to recognize we don’t get to control how others interpret words & symbols. While anybody can take offense to anything, being nice means trying to accommodate popular opinion.

But this can suck. It can be difficult or annoying to have to stop using a word or symbol because now other people have decided it is offensive, when you never intended it as such. And people can develop incorrect and damaging views of others because of this kind of misunderstanding. Or sometimes the change is hard to understand or does not feel justified, or unfair when the context of who is using the word or symbol is a huge factor in how offensive it is to others.

Personally, I think it would be most useful if we could all really just try to calm down. Disputes over what to do now about the same words & images that have been around for a long time clearly can’t be symbolic of a rise in hateful feelings, but can only be a recognition of what was always just a more quiet offensiveness to some. Some of this unrest must also be coming from our increased cultural division, a failure to understand the perspectives of others and a loss of faith in the goodness of others. And a media that sows discord in their endless search for more attention and engagement.