The Politics of Symbolism

“I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal
Won’t you sign up your name, we’d like to feel you’re acceptable
Respectable, oh presentable, a vegetabl
e.” — Roger Hodgson

Yesterday’s piece generated a lot of interest on another site that I write for. I usually take the piece here and post it over there if the topic is interesting enough. They typically don’t want me responding to critics with an entire post over there, but since I pay the freight here I can write about whatever I really want to.

To illustrate the overall point I will offer a story. See, I’m really a frustrated history teacher at heart. We love to tell stories. Earlier in my career I served as an elementary school counselor for a few years. I was a round peg in a square hole, so that didn’t last, but I picked up a few tricks I was able to use later as a facilitator and a parent.

The big deal back in those days was bullying. There were always books on how to overcome bullying, how to spot bullying, and what to do with bullying. Ironically, there was very little help for the bully themselves. So, students would frequently come to my office and tell me they were being bullied. It got to the point where these declarations had very little meaning. So, I quickly learned to cut to the chase and get the student to tell me exactly what happened.

I ended up doing the same thing with my daughter. She would make those same declarations. Nine times out of ten the issue didn’t come anywhere near bullying. It was simply a buzzword that had been used so often that it really didn’t have meaning anymore.

By now, you’ve hopefully caught on to the gist of our conversation. People in politics call others names that have meaning to them and have meaning to their followers, but have little basis in reality. One of those labels I have to own up to. Yesterday, I used the term “School board Karen”. The term Karen is one of those terms. Everyone has a vision of “Karen” in their head and everyone’s vision is slightly different. That’s the power of the symbol.

I don’t have to define my symbol and it’s actually better if I don’t. Therefore, I can call someone a socialist. I can disparage Antifa. I can disparage Black Lives Matter. I can use buzzwords like cancel culture, critical race theory, defund the police, and virtue signaling. When you attempt to define these terms you are essentially giving into the premise.

So, the woman in question yesterday tipped her hand when she tried to come up with concrete examples of the curriculum she was objecting to. She tied critical race theory to the concept of hating the police and even shooting the police. There isn’t a single teacher teaching anything remotely close to that. If I seriously suggested students shoot the police I would be out of a job by the next day.

The commenter certainly didn’t go there, but they suggested that critical race theory somehow made their children feel responsible for racism. The term used was that racism was our (white people) original sin. A good history teacher teaches students as much accurate history as possible. A great history teacher puts that history in context.

I honestly couldn’t tell you whether I was a good history teacher or a great history teacher. That’s not for me to say. What I will say is that the complaints about critical race theory are largely a complaint about context. Context is important. However, you cannot get to a good context by limiting what topics in history are taught. We cannot reach an understanding by avoiding topics that might make people feel bad. Certainly, you can improve how you put that in context.

The use of labels actively restricts understanding. Whether we are mischaracterizing what we are teaching in the classroom or what someone believes in, the goal is the same. We want people to be afraid of it or scorn it without understanding it. I’m not a socialist. I’m not a liberal. I’m a person that has views on any number of topics. The labels don’t help with debate. It shuts it down.

Author: sbarzilla

I have written three books about baseball including The Hall of Fame Index. I also write for You can follow me on twitter @sbarzilla.

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