Symbolism and Justification

Symbolism and Justification

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Brett Stevens

We write here a lot about how symbolism and justification manifest in the reversed thinking of modern people, but without concrete examples, this is hard to visualize. For that reason, it might make sense to pull a couple from current news to amplify so that these archetypes can become well-known.

Our first example concerns symbolism and comes from an article entitled MAGA and Christian nationalism: Bigger threat to America than Hamas could ever be:

They want an isolationist country surrounded by walls and dedicated to the proposition that the First Amendment guarantees them the right to worship any way they want — while forcing the rest of us to worship the way they choose.

While the Age of Enlightenment led men — after hundreds of years of bloody crusades — to give up on state religions and was a direct inspiration for our Bill of Rights, modern Republicans seem hellbent on returning to the Middle Ages, driven there by the first Christian nationalist House speaker.

None of that matters to the Republicans. They revel in their own chicanery. They despise free thought and independence, and are happy to play games with a government shutdown — the modern equivalent of fiddling while it all burns.

Symbolism means using a single token to stand for a group, process, or idea. Because the symbol represents something desired, it naturally has an anti-symbol, or whatever reverses it, and implicitly this becomes the scapegoat for those who believe in the symbol.

Refining the unruly complex data of the real world down to a symbol requires reducing complexity and therefore, cherry-picking for examples that fit the needs of the symbol. It also requires separating those things from cause-effect relationships so their existence alone assesses their value or threat.

In this case, the symbolism used is that of the “Middle Ages” and theocracy, with implications of a state religion, even though no attempts to establish these have been made. In this symbolic view, demanding free speech that allows religion, because it resembles a government with religion, is argued to be the same thing.

The actuality of the situation, which is that these Republicans are arguing for “Christian nationalism” as a type of culturally-Christian values system consistent with the founding of the country, does not factor in. If the audience gets scared by The Handmaid’s Tale, the symbolist portrays that as best as he is able.

We get an even better example of justification with another one of the everyday manipulations that drive both government and the news cycle:

The bill would send $14.3 billion to Israel without addressing funding requests for the war in Ukraine. Johnson’s new bill would pay for the spending with $14.5 billion in cuts to the long-understaffed Internal Revenue Service.

The Biden administration seeks to link the fights against Hamas and Russia, with the president saying in a rare Oval Office address last week that “they both want to completely annihilate a neighboring democracy.” Biden warned of more “chaos, death and destruction” — and ultimately higher costs for the U.S. — if they don’t pay the price for their actions.

In this case, multiple justifications are afoot. The crises in Ukraine and Israel represent pivot points that can be used as leverage to rationalize just about anything as long as it partially benefits the crisis in question. If your new weapons system might help Ukraine, you have a justification for it.

The more crafty use of justification here involves the tax collection agency IRS. No one likes it, so if you need funds, take them from it, and people will see that as justified by the desire to cut down the tax agency. This makes it difficult to oppose the plan you are proposing.

For our final example, we can see symbolism being used as a justification. It turns out that corporates go woke in order to countersignal the perception that they might be friendly to the Right and therefore by extension less friendly to the diversity:

Substantiating this theory in the context of employee recruitment following the 2017 Unite the Right White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, I show that Charlottesville’s employers combated presumptions that they shared demonstrators’ anti-diversity positions by making countervailing pro-diversity claims in their online job postings.

In this case, their preemptive signaling exists so that if accused of being “racist,” they have a counter-symbol reflecting their goodness. This then justifies whatever other business practices they have because they have effectively given a tithe of affirmative action jobs in order to demonstrate their obedience to the status quo.

Democracy runs almost entirely on symbolism because the group of voters that understands complex issues is vanishingly small. Big issues like the country being invaded or aliens attacking tend to provoke more coherence from the voters because the responses are both simple and inevitable. Anything else gets bungled.

As a result, humanity careens down the path of life, constantly manipulating each other with symbols and justifications in order to convince other people to do what is perceived as necessary even though they do not understand it. Our cleverness as always is our downfall, because cleverness obscures reality.

Original Article


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