Iconography – When is a Flag a Rug or a Bible A Door Stop?

Skepchick.org had a very interesting article about iconography. Iconography, in this case being the perceived attributes we associate with a item. For example, most people in the U.S. see the American flag and associate it with freedom, democracy and patriotism. So the flag can be said to be an icon of freedom. At least to Americans. Some others, mainly in other parts of the world, see it as an icon of colonialism, or arrogance or even evil.

The writer of the article mentions how she used the Gideon’s bible as a doorstop for the room where they had their party at The Amazing Meeting recently in Las Vegas. The point I really want to discuss is found in this quote from the article:

“I want people to question their cultural feelings of connection to the bible. I want them to see it in a context utterly removed from worship and sanctity. I want to make it known that it is possible to see it differently.”

I think that this ability to look at something cherished in an unemotional, unbiased light is a very important one. It is important to be able to look at ourselves and our beliefs critically and ask ourselves why we feel the way we do about something such as the Bible or the American (substitute a flag of you choice) flag. As she mentions, we should really understand why a collection of printed papers bound inside cardboard should excite us so.

The same is true of the flag. There have been plenty of times in recent history in the U.S. where laws were enacted to stop the desecration, especially by burning, of the flag. Most, if not all, of these laws have been struck down as an infringement on freedom of speech. Understand the iconography behind the flag is the key to understanding why these laws have been struck down.

Because the flag is an icon of the U.S. and what it stands for, when people purposefully desecrate a flag, they are making a statement about what that flag stands for. And the right to criticize the government is a fundamental right in the U.S.

When you realize that the flag is just a collection of red, white and blue threads that only mean something when we attach that meaning to them, then you begin to wonder why people are willing to defend that piece of cloth with their lives.

It’s not the flag its self that is important, it is the emotions and and ideas that we attach to it that are. And all ideas must be held up to criticism in order that we can find the true meaning (or lack thereof) that they have and should have for us.

Untold numbers of people down through the centuries have fought and died for ideas that later on, as seen through the lens of history, turned out to be founded on incorrect premisses. The more we have learned about the world we live in, the more we have had to modify or even throw out cherished beliefs.

There was a time when people were imprisoned for expressing a belief that the earth went around the sun, rather than the other way round. This earth centered view was a cherished belief held by most people 500 years ago. To express the contrary was to be looked upon as not quite right in the head and a violation of Church teaching. So not only was someone with this radical belief considered deluded, but a blasphemer as well.

But with the invention of the telescope, we began to see indisputable evidence that the earth does indeed go around the sun. A cherished belief was slowly changed, but some people, for a while at least, paid a price for speaking against it. If people then had used the ability to look at this cherished idea critically, to remove it from it’s religious and dogmatic trappings, perhaps those who opposed it wouldn’t have been punished.

There are far more deadly examples of failure to examen cherished beliefs. Think communism and fascism, think Christian and Muslim. Rather than looking critically at their beliefs and openly discussing these criticism, people kill and die for them instead.

Allowing yourself to critically examen your beliefs doesn’t mean you will change them, but at the least you will have a much better idea of why they are important to you. Or you may change your belief after all. But you will never know if you don’t try.


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