The shallowness of symbols

Kaepernick kneel

The culture war has gotten plenty of new kindling to burn in the form of a protest by a black man. In a totally non-violent, passive way, Kaepernick kneeled during the playing of the National Anthem. It went unnoticed for a while, but eventually got picked up and became a huge controversy. Things got even more heated this weekend after President Trump tweeted things about the kneeling (note, well after Kaepernick stopped playing), and players and owners responded. Even those who supported Trump in the past were bothered by his tweets, and stood with kneeling players to show their support for their players. Of all the things that are fascinating (and deeply troubling) about the whole thing, what I find most telling might be the deep importance of a symbol from the self-declared patriots. It’s a flag, it’s a song. And it’s not like he’s burning the flag (which itself shouldn’t be all that upsetting; the consequences for burning a flag aren’t like burning a building, right?). It’s not like he’s pissing on it, or spitting on it. He’s simply kneeling, quietly. But some are outraged (not hyperbole) by this disrespect for a symbol of America. This got me thinking if there was some symbol that I felt so strongly about, seemingly more so than the thing the symbol represents.

To give away the end, the answer is no, but it made me think quite a bit about what I see as an exaggerated importance of a symbol, which comes at the expense of what it symbolizes. I wonder if part of this isn’t the all-or-nothing thinking that I’ve been so bothered by before (and wrote about here), but what I see is an exaggerated importance of a symbol as a compensation for the hard stuff. Disrespect to the flag is somehow worse than disrespect to the justice for all that’s enshrined in our ideals. Maybe because the justice for all is the hard part, and respect for the flag is the easy part, and (this is where the all-or-none thinking comes in) any flaw whatsoever in the hard part makes us an utter failure.

In thinking about other examples of this, religious symbolism comes to mind. It reminds me of some of the work social psychologists have done on moral licensing. We saw this at work in a study (with headlines that clearly went beyond the findings) a few years ago. Basically, the researchers used pretty standard measures of religiousness and also had them play a “dictator game.” This game, first described in 2007, goes like this (copied and pasted from the original article describing the game that was used later in the religion study):

The child and the interviewer sat across from each other at a child-sized table. To begin, the interviewer introduced herself, asked the child’s name, and informed the child that she had some stickers for the child. The interviewer then emptied one bag of 30 highly attractive stickers in front of the child so that all stickers were displayed face up in front of the child. The interviewer next asked the child to select the 10 stickers that the child liked most. As demonstrated in pilot testing, children of all ages treasured the stickers and selected their stickers with great care. Following their selection, the interviewer asked the child “Do you like your stickers?” All children affirmed forcefully that they liked their stickers.

Once a child had chosen the stickers, the child then was told that the stickers now belonged to him/her but that the child might like to give some stickers to a girl/boy in the class because the interviewer would not have time to give stickers to all children in the class. The interviewer emphasized that the child did not have to give away any stickers and could keep all of them. The child further was informed that neither the child nor the interviewer would know who received the child’s stickers. Instead, another interviewer would distribute the stickers to those children who were not interviewed.

The interviewer then went to great lengths to ensure that the child understood that the child’s decision was completely anonymous. The child was informed that if the child wanted to donate some stickers to another girl/boy in the class, then the child should place the stickers in a white envelope and place the white envelope in a large pile of identical white envelopes. The child should place the stickers that the child wanted to keep for the self in the brown envelope marked with the child’s name. The interviewer further explained to the child that she would close her eyes and cover them with her hands so she would never know what the child decided to do. The interviewer also emphasized that she would never know what the child decided because she could not look inside the envelopes. Finally, the interviewer asked the child if the child understood the instructions. If the child did not, the interviewer repeated them until the child indicated comprehension.

Standardized instructions were as follows: “Here are a bunch of stickers. Choose 10 that you like a lot. OK, now I only have time to give stickers to some of the girls/boys in your class, but not to all the girls/boys. If you want to, you can give some of your stickers to a girl/boy in this class whom I do not give stickers to. You do not have to give any of your stickers away, but if you want to, you could give some to a girl/boy. I do not know which girl/boy will get them, and you will not know. Another lady will decide who gets them later.”

She continued “It is important that you understand that you do not have to give any of your stickers away, that you will not know who gets them, and that I will not know if you decide to give any of your stickers away. If you want to give any of these stickers away to another girl/boy in this class, then put the stickers you want to give away in this white envelope. I will close my eyes and cover them beforehand, and you put the stickers you want to keep in this brown envelope with your name on it, and the stickers you want to give away in the white envelope. Then put the white envelope in with all these other white envelopes. OK, are you ready?”

Once the child understood the instructions, the interviewer reminded the child which stickers went in the white and brown envelopes, closed her eyes, covered them, and turned away from the table. After approximately 2 min, she asked the child if the child had finished. Once the child responded affirmatively, the interviewer then thanked the child for helping her and told the child to take the brown envelope and return to the classroom. For ethical reasons, so that children who did not have the opportunity to participate in the study would not feel neglected, after the entire study had been completed, the interviewers returned to each school and distributed nine stickers to each child who did not participate in those classes where the study was conducted. Although this involved a small amount of deception towards participating children, the cost of the deception appeared small relative to the benefits of ensuring that all children obtained stickers.

In the newer study that used this game, they correlated religiousness with the willingness to give away stickers and found that kids who were not religious gave away more stickers than kids who were. In other words, religious kids were less likely to share than were non-religious kids. This was reported widely, and the explanation was that identifying with the “good guys” allows some bad behavior. Moral licensing. I’m a good Christian inside, so I don’t have to act good. I think this bleeds into my thinking of the elevation of symbols. To stay with the Christian theme, I’m wearing a cross and I go to church, so it doesn’t matter that I don’t help the needy or that I want to take away help for the poor. So the cross becomes more important than the moral code that it’s intended to represent.

So I tried to think of ways that I do this. I already gave away my failure, but I’m not done trying. The one that I thought was going somewhere was my wedding ring. My marriage to my wife is very important to me and my wedding ring is a symbol of that marriage. I think I’d be pretty upset if somebody took it and smashed it with a hammer in front of me. But my response to this would be pain because somebody was trying to hurt me by doing that, even though it didn’t hurt me at all. I’m not sure I’d find it disrespectful to my marriage, not like I’d find infidelity or something that was a real threat to my marriage. My wife’s ring has been bothering the skin on her finger lately, so she takes it off from time to time. I do get a tinge of sadness when I see it next to the sink, and not on her finger, but I take mine off from time to time also (when I run, swim, etc).

So I’m left with no sacred symbols in my life, which makes it hard to understand why kneeling during the anthem, or burning a flag, is so troubling to people. I think we’d be better off if disrespect of a symbol mattered less to people than disrespect for the core values that America is all about:

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

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