The uproar a few years ago over the mosque and community center that a Muslim congregation in New York planned to build near Ground Zero is insult without injury. But the debate raises a larger issue.
It is another illustration of the power of emotions over reason — expressed in emotionally charged words and associated images that have a huge impact on feelings, motives and resulting conduct, but nothing to do with any material harm or benefit to anyone. Words and symbols have irresistible power, but that includes the power to mislead and do harm. Here are some of the most powerful emotional symbolic words — and when you hear or see any of these words, look out! — someone is trying to hook you, trying to distract you from the facts and influence you with words that have no physical or material content, such as (in no particular order):
pride, prestige, honor/dishonor, credibility, national honor, national (American) values, historical values , patriotism, dignity/indignity, disgrace, standing, legitimacy, glory, humiliation, embarrassment, shame, insult/insulting, offence/offensive, provocative, insensitive, respect/disrespect, self-respect, resentment, disdain, reputation, decency, desecration, sacrilege, sanctity, sacred, sacred ground, sacred duty, revered, noble cause, “losing face” …
― fighting words (some with religious connotations), all of them, evoking emotional images of symbolic harm and inducing irrational ideas and acts that keep getting us in trouble, yet having no substantive or material affect. They are the linguistic arsenal of tyrants, dictators, despots and demigogues. They are constantly resorted to by those in control of governments because they evoke, they motivate powerful emotional reactions. For example, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto thundered in a speech, “We will not accept anything that goes against our dignity as a nation.” The line brought a standing ovation.
A prime example of emotionaly laiden, but materially empty political symbolism was when Iran’s supreme leader struck a defiant tone in a rare public sermon calling the United States an “arrogant power” and telling tens of thousands of chanting worshippers that God’s backing had allowed his country to “slap the face” of the United States.
The power, the influencer of such words is both sinister and perplexing:
Perplexing because these words only express emotional mindset conditions. They are purely triggers and have nothing to do with any tangible benefit or anything important to our material well-being — such as putting food on the table, housing, jobs, health, education, environment ― anything meeting any of our basic needs or enhancing our material well-being. No insulting or provocative words obstruct us from having the things that provide a satisfying life or from accomplishment in our work or occupation — for example from enjoying a concert, a ball game, a picnic in the park, shopping at the mall, working in the garden or a quiet family evening at home reading, watching TV or helping kids with their homework. When you think of moments like these how can you be concerned or get upset over the indignity of something like where they’re building a mosque?
Sinister because provocative, emotionally charged words and their associated images — such revered words as “patriotism,” victory,” “honor,” “pride” and “duty,” motivate people to over-react, do irrational, vengeful, violent and even stupid things. They inspire emotional responses and motivate pointless conflict, hostility and terrorism. They are used to justify or continue avoidable conflict. They interfere with understanding, reason, accommodation and forgiveness. As a syndicated columnist David Brooks has said: “… in pride there is self-destruction.” The worst and most persistent harmful consequence is revenge. Emotionally charged words and symbols induce vengeance and manufacture hatred of those we really have no reason to hate. They cause irrational reactions and obstruct sensible remedies or compromise that are seen as appeasement. Insulting words or symbols spark everything from bar room brawls, playground scuffles, drive-by shootings, road rage and alley fights to war, insurrections and terrorism — even where there is no real threat to life, liberty, property, no territory is to be gained or lost and there is no threat to one’s material material way of life. We often tell children “words can never hurt you” but we don’t really believe it or we don’t practice it. People act irrationally on emotionally charged wrords and symbolism alone. Symbols are used as instruments in recruiting fighters to futile causes and they make mortal enemies of people who have no real grievances with each other.
The harm that the ideology of national dignity and respect causes is illustrated in the current face-off between the U.S. and North Korea over its nuclear and ballistic weapons programs. Each side seems bound to a belligerent, tough posture and neither side is willing to be seen as weak by considering a negotiated settlement. The realities are that neither side has intent or anything to gain from attacking the other. The two have no real economic differences or policies that harmfully affect the other EXCEPT for the hostile, threatening posture of each. They have no substantive reason to be enemies. Neither one is a threat to the economy of the other. Yet, each side is handcuffed by a need to project images of strength, of national pride, honor and prestige. North Korea especially is unwilling to negotiate because of its obsession for national dignity, standing and respect. The U.S. is similarly afflicted. We are now hearing criticism that efforts to reach a negotiated settlement with North Korea through the offices of China would weaken America’s global influence, damage ouri international credibility, our prestige and make us a paper tiger. There we go again with a bunch of emotional baloney! This brings to mind the brutally realistic evaluation of Joseph Stalin when asked about the influence of the Catholic pope. He responded “How many divisions does he have?” We need not worry about empty symbolism and perceptions of influence, insults to dignity and loss of respect when military and economic realities on the ground overcome symbolism and boastful rhetoric every time. Worries about our global prestige prevent us from negotiating reasonable and practical accommodations with other nations.
Tragic and highly pertinent examples are the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq ― needless wars that we were unable to extricate ourselves from, long after we should have recognized their futility and even though no material benefit in launching or continuing the war existed. Why? Because we were told these were evil menaces and once engaged we could not be humiliated or seen as losing face or suffering a “defeat.” Giving up, withdrawing forces — even where the costs of continuing far outweigh the benefits — can’t be tolerated. Losing means a loss of face, of prestige and that is seen as worse then any material harm or benefit that may result from our actual conduct. The United States, for sure, has no need to worry about loss of prestige when it has by far the largest military and most potent military in the world and a large, very efficient and productive and prosperous population. We may want to look at the wisdom of Pres. Teddy Roosevelt when he said we should speak softly and carry a big stick.
Wherever conflict arises from challenges to national pride or dignity the question that arises is: Is it really the pride of the the nation or that of the nation’s leaders that is actually at stake? We must be left to wonder whether it is the ego, the hubris, the feelings, the need of national leaders to be honored, obeyed and respected as strong that is really at stake. That is at the root of the problem. Wars are started and unnecessarily prolonged when leaders start believing their own rhetorical images, for example “the mother of all wars,” or “fire and fury!.” These self-styled strong leaders want us to think it is more important to talk tough and look tough than to act rationally to existing conditions; that compromise is weakness and accommodation is weakness. It is often attacked with the emotionally charged pejorative “appeasement.” This is idiotic false reality. Why would anyone or any country worry about looking weak if it is clear that they are truly strong? For national leaders of adversary nations to hurl threats and insults at each other is silly, juvenile, unproductive and potentially dangerous.
Emotionally charged words and sometimes metaphors or symbolic acts are put forth, it is said, “to send a message” to others. But why do messages need to be “sent/” that is. embedded in vague or threatening metaphors, feinted provocations and other mostly symbolic acts? If there’s a message to be said why isn’t it just said in so many explicit words? Perhaps it’s because symbols are intended to be vague and ambiguous and are used to convey a non-binding commitment.
Flags are symbols with powerful emotional ties. All flags stand for something. Throughout history they have stood for nations and nationalities and sometimes tribes, political revolts and movements. They connect, unify and rally the people they represent, concentrating their national or group identity and its pride with a colored pattern on a piece of cloth. Flags stand for the goals and values of the people who carry them into battle. The Confederate flag, for example, undeniably conveys the message of the struggle of the south to preserve its independence and way of life, including slavery and white supremacy. Flags are used to celebrate or gloat over victory and to humiliate the loser, dramatizing domination of the opponent in war or on the playing field. So when you win you tear down the opponent’s flag and put up your flag and when you discover a new territory you claim ownership of it by planting your flag there. Flags induce effort, dedication, loyalty, determination, sacrifice and acts of heroism in the pursuit of the nation’s policies, wars and other ventures. They inspire belief in the justice of its programs, principles and policies. But, standing back from all of that, realistically, a flag is not the people and a flag’s exaggerated emotional connection to unconditional patriotism distorts and distracts from rational, unbiased consideration of principles of justice and fairness. Reverence for a flag glosses over shortcomings and obscures whatever tangible benefits would actually accrue to the people the flag represents from the nations’ policies and endeavors.
The most revered symbols of Americans are the flag and the national anthem. Outward display of respect — even a nearly religious reverence — for the flag is socially obligatory in most public settings, because it is widely seen as symbolic of respect for the country, obedience to its laws and loyalty to its policy decisions, including foreign policy and wars (out wars are always just! Right?) But such displays of patriotism may be seen by some as a pledge of blind obedience and uncritical support of all of the policies of the government, right or wrong. It is somewhat in the nature of a cultural public loyalty oath. The flag stands for different things for different people. It is a sacred symbol to many. But the symbolism that many others wish to express is defiance to the government, objection to social or political conditions or movements. They do this by refusing to stand for the national anthem. As Bellevue Navy veteran Greg James puts it, “Our flag and national anthem represent freedom, and that freedom includes the right to protest.” Some protesters have even indulged in flag burning. The US Supreme Court has ruled that flag-burning cannot be criminalized because it is a form of political speech, guaranteed by the First Amendment. So, while the show of respect for the flag is a symbolic expression of devotion to country, at the same time, for many others, it is a show of resistance to what the government is doing or not doing, calling attention to injustice or unfairness, symbolized by refusing to stand for the national anthem. Many NFL football players have decided to join in this show of protest. This symbolic speech is still unpopular and often criticized or condemned as disrespect for the flag, an insult to the dignity of the nation (as if the nation’s dignity needed defending).
Yet, is their symbolic defiance any less legitimate or even less patriotic than standing and saluting? And, does it really matter? Why is it important? What tangible good does it do to make a public showing of loyalty or respect? Why is it necessary? It is purely an emotionally-charged symbolic act. But it does not produce any goods or services or products. It doesn’t help to build roads or produce homes, cars or airplanes or put food on the table. It has nothing to do with enjoying a nice day at the park, at the ballgame, at a concert or shopping at the mall. Perhaps it stimulates a sense of American unity. But is that a false or superficial unity and one that tends to obscure underlying issues that need to be met and addressed? Conduct and accomplishment matter; not public affirmations of respect. Get over it, patriots; it’s all just for show. What really matters is the work we do for ourselves, our families and others; public citizenship and political participation, activism, not public displays of patriotism. That is the real way to show and carry out our duty of respect, patriotism and loyalty to country.
Moreover, symbolic protest is more patriotic than routine public display of respect for the flag or country because protest is usually specifically targeted and positive. It aims at recognizing, calling attention to, particular grievances and improving what we do; and, while standing for the anthem, hand over heart, for most Americans is an affirmation of the highest and exceptional benefits and principles of American democracy, yet outward displays of patriotism also symbolize a vague and unspecific satisfaction and acceptance that everything is okay in our country. Some say this is not an appropriate way to express political dissent. But, really, this manner of expressing dissent only gets the widespread attention that it does for the very reason it seems offensive and disrespectful. Respect in this case belongs to those who have the courage to symbolize their dissent in such an unpopular manner.
The symbolism behind statues of Confederate War heroes in parks and other public places is inescapable. They are meant to perpetuate the ideals of white supremacy and subjugation of African Americans, goals the Confederacy fought to preserve and that motivate racists and bigots today. Similarly the symbolism of torch light parades of grimacing marchers carrying Nazi flags and wearing military garb with swastika armbands and carrying assault weapons conveys an unmistakable chilling and provocative message. Yet countermarches against white nationalist and neo Nazi groups are counterproductive. They attract Antifi troublemakers, anarchists and hotheads looking for a fight. Self-defeating violence is inevitable. Noam Chomsky, renown academic and leftist political critic is quoted in The Independent of London that Antifi violent countermarches are a gift to the right. Countermarches give a degree of undeserved attention, a platform, nationwide visibility and appearance of importance to these otherwise marginalized groups by filling the front pages and the evening news with their racist flags, banners and slogans. It helps them energize and recruit followers, makes them look significant and menacing — when in fact they are not. They are tiny in number, they have no members of Congress or even any candidates for political office. They have no real, tangible existence outside of a vague, tribalistic doctrine of hate and white supremacy — all just empty symbolism. They have no defined political or economic policy agenda on major national economic policies or programs nor do they have a consensus on a political platform. They should be ignored to die a natural, inevitable death for the vapid and lunatic doctrine they espouse. Leave them alone to be seen as the laughable image they really portray: Grown men acting like little boys out in the woods playing soldier with toy guns (or in this case, real guns).
The best way to combat these symbols of oppression and hatred is through calm, deliberate and persistent political action, using elections and the democratic processes. Hateful and racist speech is best countered with thoughtful, compassionate, constructive, reasoned, respectful and evidence based speech Marches and demonstrations do not educate people or influence voters or change public policy. Angry shouting, fist pumping, placard waving opposition is unconvincing. It does not educate or influence anyone. It gains no votes and does not move legislation. Without votes or winning elections these groups are helpless, non-existent. The only people energized or influenced are the marchers themselves. Most demonstrations annoy and inconvenience the the general public — regular working folks — but especially when those events degenerate into violence and vandalism. These tactics do not change minds (favorably); they turn people off. The far better and more effective tactic is to study the issues and vote, door-bell for candidates or ballot measures, circulate petitions, participate in voter registration drives, in public forums, clubs, political organizations and discussion groups. Though not exciting, this is the real, on-the-ground, substantive way to defeat these tarnished symbols. This may also mean putting your money where your mouth is.
Propaganda is all about harnessing the power of emotions and associated images and symbols to whip up and instill the sense that a loss in the war of words, in the battle of pride and self-image will diminish our prestige and “embolden the enemy,” or to instill anger, revenge and fear of an evil, foreign menace even though nothing material or real has occurred — that the words and symbols have not changed the actual military strength, the number or quality of guns, tanks or planes that would be available to defend an existential threat.
Belligerent rhetoric does, of course, inspire and motivate suicide bombers and other fanatics who are seduced by the belief that they have a patriotic or divine duty to avenge humiliation and insults to the honor of their country, tribe, gang, race or religion. Belligerent, insulting or threatening words also bring about belligerent respones, mostly unnecessary, overreaction. They often affect the attitudes, public support and votes of people in the country targeted by those words. That’s not a desired result. Why should any of us adopt such distorted, vengeful and senseless strategies? Conciliatory words, on the other hand, have the opposite effect.
None of this is to say that emotions do not have real consequences on a personal level, that they don’t influence or motivate conduct — because they do — or that they need not be avoided. Nor does it mean that respect for other people should be ignored or that insults in personal relationships should be tolerated. But dignity and respect among nations is not the same. A nation is not a person. Does a nation deserve unqualified respect? Is it really, materially harmed when it is not respected? Nations are always a diverse mixture of different people with differing views, motives and values, not all of them good. The principles that guide nations are mostly a mixed bag, not consistently just or fair nor is their conduct. So a blanket affirmation of respect may not be deserved. Now, undeniably people are motivated by emotions and symbolism. That’s unavoidable. But, while people on the individual level may be hurt by insults and emotions may lead to hatred, anger, vengeance and other irrational conduct among individuals there is no reason why nations cannot and should not be immune from that and governed by strict reality and rationality — by their collective wisdom, free of emotional influences. Among individuals pride, dignity and insults matter; collectively, among Nations, they do not.
It may be said, however, that emotional reactions to emotionally charged words or symbols are natural; a primitive, evolutionarily inherited human trait — part of our territorial nature to defend our home ground, and to guard against insult to sacred ground. But if we have inherited this characteristic that doesn’t mean it is right or or productive or that our better nature should not resist or cannot overcome these tendencies. There is no Hallowed Ground anywhere in the world; just ground.
So the reaction of many who are offended, hurt and driven by the insult and symbolic loss of locating a mosque near “hallowed ground” has sparked anger and resentment among many — most of whom don’t even know a 9/11 victim — and seemed headed for revenge and violence, though no one will suffer any material harm from it. And even though the mosque would have provided material benefit to the local community.
The mosque debate swirled around the legal and constitutional rights argued for by mosque defenders, on the one hand, and insensitivity arguments of the opponents who question the insensitivity of the location, on the other hand.
I take a different tack. I challenge the underlying premise of the mosque opponents. The sensitivity objection is itself unwise, unreasonable and provocative. Disregarding for a moment that opponents may also be motivated by bigotry toward loyal, innocent Muslims who had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack and who oppose any kind of violence, it is a fact that their sensitivity objections are unimportant in the larger context of what would have been best for New York and us as a people. Fundamentally the motivations of the opponents are petty, irrational and childish, if not irrelevant. They are motivations that consistently divide us and mislead us into conflict, and ultimately to destructive behavior. If we succumb to this we are like the terrorists and we will indeed embolden them.
Eventually the plans for the new 13-story mosque and community center were scrapped in favor of renovating the existing building. A mosque was in fact housed there for a time with no known adverse consequences and the project has now developed into a large 70 story luxury condominium, which is probably much more profitable to the owners. A practical free market solution to an emotional problem.
All of what has been examined and discussed here comes down to this question: Do symbols, emotionally charged words and imagery actually change policy? Or should they? The laws and policies that are actually adopted and enforced are the substance and reality of what actually affects our daily lives. If laws and policies can be adopted without the influence of symbols, emotionally charged insults and imagery then such symbolism doesn’t matter and they truly are insults without injury.